Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Oscar Romero (1917 – 1980)

Oscar Romero was born in Ciudad Barrios, a small town in El Salvador . From a very young age he felt called to be a priest.
Ordained in Rome in 1942. Appointed in 1967 as Secretary General of the National Bishops’ Conference, his ecclesiastical career was on track. In the twenty-five years of his priesthood Vatican II (1962-65), with its plea for aggiornamento (renewal), had not impressed him. He supported the arrangement whereby the Church kept the masses docile while the aristocracy exploited them and the military enforced it all.

In 1968 at the Council of Latin American Bishops in Medellin ( Columbia ),the Jesuits declared their “option for the poor”. They articulated a cogent theology that voiced their vision. They believed their theology to arise from confidence in the apostles’ witness that the Kingdom of God has come and needs to be leant visibility. A teaching order, the Jesuits schooled their students convincingly as Romero equivocated, apparently supporting “liberating education” while declaiming against “demagoguery and Marxism.”

In 1975 the National Guard raided Tres Calles, a village in Romero’s diocese. (By now he was bishop of Santiago de Maria.) In the early-morning attack hacked people apart with machetes as it rampaged from house to house, ostensibly searching for concealed weapons. The event catalyzed Romero. At the funeral for the victims Romero’s sermon condemned the violation of human rights. Privately he wrote the president of El Salvador , naively thinking that a major clergyman’s objection would carry weight.

When Romero was promoted as Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital city, the ruling alliance intensified its opposition. Six priests were arrested and deported to Guatemala . One of them remarked that the church finally was where it was supposed to be: with the people, surrounded by the wolves. Romero’s first task as archbishop was grim: he had to bury dozens whom soldiers had machine-gunned when 50,000 protesters demonstrated against rigged elections.

By now Romero had turned the corner.” Summoning priests to his residence (he had moved out of the Episcopal palace and was bunking in a hospital for indigents) he told them he required no further evidence and he knew what the gospel required of church leaders in the face of the people’s misery. All priests were to afford sanctuary to those threatened by government death squads.

Immediately a message was sent to Romero, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit friend who had struggled to implement Vatican II reforms, was gunned down in his jeep along with two others. Undeterred, Romero prayed publicly at length beside his friend’s remains, and then buried all three corpses without first securing government permission – a criminal offence. Next he did the unthinkable: he excommunicated the murderers. In a dramatic gesture he cancelled all services the following Sunday except for a single mass in front of the cathedral, conducted outdoors before 100,000 people. Rightwing groups were leafleting the nation, “Be a patriot: kill a priest.”

Reprisals intensified. In one village anyone found possessing a bible or hymnbook was arrested, later to be shot or dismembered. Four foreign Jesuits were tortured, their ravaged bodies dumped in neighbouring Guatemala . Thousands of people disappeared without trace. In all of this Romero never backed down:

Knowing himself to be on the government’s “hit list,” he went to the hills to prepare himself for his final confrontation with evil. He telephoned his farewell message to Exclesior , Mexico ’s premier newspaper, insisting that like the Good Shepherd, a pastor must give his life for those he loves.

Romero was shot while conducting mass at the funeral of a friend’s mother. His assassin escaped in the hubbub and has never been found. 250,000 thronged the Cathedral Square for his funeral. A bomb exploded. Panic-stricken people stampeded. Forty died. In the next two years 35,000 Salvadorans perished. Fifteen per cent of the population was driven into exile. Two thousand simply “disappeared.”
compiled from several soruces

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