El Salvador had a history of authoritarian governments. Socio-economic injustice, repression of human rights workers, labor leaders, teachers, catechists and others was persistent. The very few who had power did whatever they could to keep it.
Installed as Archbishop of the capital of San Salvador in 1977, he was considered the safe choice. He was bookish and not thought to make waves. For the status quo, it was expected he would not preach for any change to how the country ran. For some of the clergy who worked with the poor, his election was not seen as a good sign.
When his friend, a Jesuit priest named Rutillo Grande, was murdered for his work empowering the poor in the countryside, Romero was shaken. Out of this moment, he became a voice crying out for justice. (For more information about Romero please see here, here, here and here).
Like Jesus, he clearly was on the side of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the powerless. His calls for humans rights was not well received by those in power (who themselves were Catholic).
In our church, we have what is called “the preferential option for the poor.” It means that the poor have a greater need for our love and compassion, not at the expense of those who are non-poor, but understanding they have a special need.
Romero showed ultimate solidarity with the people of El Salvador. Pope John Paul II calls solidarity a Christian virtue and in his encyclical The Social Concerns of the Church says, “This then is not a vague feeling of compassion … On the contrary, it is a firm and preserving determination to commit oneself to the common good … because we are really responsible for all.” In other words, we can’t just sit and think and hope and pray things will get better. We have to work. And we have to believe that the good of others, even those we do not know or may never meet, are just as important and necessary as those we love the most.
The prophetic voice in which Romero spoke called people to go beyond charity. Most people stop at charity: giving away a few extra bucks, serving at a soup kitchen. These are noble and honorable and good. As people of faith, “it is not enough for us to be FOR the poor; one must discover what it means to be with the poor (Dorr *).” That is, we must be people for justice. “Justice, used in contemporary church teaching focuses primarily on the economic, social, and political structures (Kammer 164).” It is about understanding how the world works and dismantling those systems of oppression so as to liberate all peoples.
In his last homily, Romero said, “The great task of Christians must be to absorb the spirit of God's kingdom and, with souls filled with the kingdom of God, to work on the projects of history.” We must always look at the situation of the world through the lens of God’s Kingdom and act accordingly, wherever it may take us. For Romero, that path led to death.
Let’s be clear. Romero wasn’t killed because he was charitable. As Jesuit Jon Sobrino notes, “No one is thrown into prison or persecuted simply for having practiced works of mercy.” He was gunned down while saying mass in El Salvador on March 24th, 1980 because he dared to preach the Kingdom of God.
^clip from the movie “Romero” dramatizing his last homily and assassination
What does Romero have to say to us?
The difficulty with saintly people is that we can find it hard to identify with them. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, once said “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily." With saints like Romero, even more so, because of their ultimate sacrifice.
But Romero did not start with martyrdom. He started as we all do: in baptism. We are called to be co-creators with God to bring about the Kingdom. In this, our call is no different. Being faithful to the call sometimes means figuring out our gifts and using them to act accordingly. For some this might mean martyrdom. For you and me, it maybe something else. If we live our lives as authentically as we can, God will bring us to where we need to be (not without trial and struggle sometimes). We only need to trust God that we won’t be unequipped. Who knows what greatness God has in store for you? Who knows what gifts God will give, in spite of whatever suffering may come of it?
I’ll close with a prayer inspired by Archbishop Romero. I hope that you take this prayer to heart. I hope that you allow God’s spirit to animate you. I hope you have the courage to walk where God calls you.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts. It is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith
No confession brings perfection, or pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.
That is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted, knowing they hold future promises.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We can’t do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the ends results,
But that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Dorr, Donal. Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan ;, 1983. Print.
*I had this quote in notes, but I couldn’t find the page in the book where I got it. If you want, you can read the book and tell me where I missed it!
Kammer, Fred. Doing Faithjustice: An Introduction to Catholic Social Thought. New York: Paulist, 1991. 164. Print.