35th Anniversary of Oscar Romero’s Assassination: A Lenten Reflection

Nun and Oscar Romero

A reflection given by Celina Foran during Mass on March 22, 2015 with the Ithaca College Catholic Community in Ithaca, NY. 

Good afternoon, everyone. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Celina, I am a senior part of the Catholic Community here. At IC I am a history and sociology double major, and I also work with an organization called CUSLAR- the Committee on US-Latin American Relations. CUSLAR is a Cornell-based organization that seeks to promote justice and mutual understanding among the people of the Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States; and which supports the rights of the people of Latin America and the Caribbean to self-determination and control over decisions that affect their lives and communities.

My involvement with CUSLAR as well as my longer-standing academic and personal interests have recently brought me to devote a significant part of my life to studying and reflecting on the life of Oscar Romero and the history of El Salvador within the greater context of US involvement in Latin America.

In particular, I am here today to remember Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered while celebrating Mass on March 24th, 1980. As we approach the 35th anniversary of his assassination this Tuesday, I hope to encourage us as a community to consider the ways we can become Romeros in our world today.

Last month, progress was made towards Romero’s canonization when Pope Francis ruled that Romero was a martyr, opening the door for Romero’s beatification, which has been set for May 23. But who was Oscar Romero? What transformed him from a bookish, status-quo priest into the fearless prophet who denounced the behavior of national and international elites and demanded a preferential option for the poor?

Romero’s life and prophetic voice were shaped through direct contact with his suffering people. In El Salvador in the late 1970s, 60 percent of the land in a largely agricultural country belonged to 2 percent of the population, and the country was second-to-last in per-capita income in Latin America. A national oligarchy, backed by U.S. government aid, utilized death squads to gain a brutal advantage in an explosion of conflict between agricultural workers and landowners.

It was within this context that Romero studied Scripture, preached, and rose in importance in the Salvadoran church. For most of his adult life, despite the rise of liberation theology, he was not moved to align himself with the poor. From 1942 when he was ordained until just a few years before his assassination in 1980, he largely ignored the cries and demands of the majorities. It was not, then, only his biblical exegesis or scholarship that led him to a personal revolution of values: this came about through face-to-face encounters with injustice and increased contact with the emerging movements of the poor in El Salvador.

It was a surprise to many that soon after his appointment to Archbishop in 1977, Romero became outspoken against the injustice, poverty, corruption, and violence confronting his people during the outset of a civil war that would take the lives of over 75,000 Salvadorans. Crowds gathered to hear him preach in the cathedral and even more listened to his sermons over the archdiocesan radio station. Broadcasts of his Sunday sermons reached 73 percent of the rural population in El Salvador and 47 percent in urban areas, as well as listeners across Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. As assassinations and disappearances mounted, and as the Salvadoran population became increasingly radicalized by conditions and by applying the message of Jesus of Nazareth to their everyday lives, there could be no turning back for Romero. Backed by Scripture and embracing an unequivocal alignment with the poor and dispossessed, he welcomed backlash if detractors disagreed with his reading of the role of Christians in society.

In a public homily the day before his assassination, Romero took the extraordinarily brave and dangerous step of beseeching soldiers to disobey orders and lay down their weapons saying, “the church cannot remain silent before such an abomination…In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.”

Thus, Archbishop Romero’s life was marked by transformation—a transformation he calls on us, the church, to also take part in. In today’s Gospel Jesus offers us a model of the sort of discipleship he desires for us with the image of a grain of wheat—which must be made new to produce life. In reflection on this passage, Archbishop Romero wrote, “whoever out of love for God gives oneself to the service of others will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently…only in undoing itself does it produce the harvest.”

It is my hope that as a community, in reflection and in loving and challenging one another, we are reminded that we too are to be transformed, we too can move from quiet acceptance of the way things are to courageous action. Most of us will not lose our lives for speaking out against inequality, police brutality, unfair labor conditions, wealth disparity, or unjust wars; yet, witness to the truth still costs us. We may lose some leisure time, privilege, or friends; take a hit to our pride by acknowledging our own complicity in the perpetuation of inequality and confront the power of our silences; or need to draw deeply from our inner reservoirs of courage to open and endure uncomfortable conversations and simply face uncomfortable realities.

But I hope you are encouraged by Romero’s words that remind us, “This is what we are about: we plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.” Sisters and brothers, let us remember that we are God’s hands and feet on this earth, let our community become rich soil for seeds to fall on, and let us encourage one another to be transformed this Lent and Easter.

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