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Romero: faith and power in hard places

Thirty years ago today Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot as he celebrated Mass. His blood and the chalice were spilled together on the altar. His anniversary will be remembered around the world, for he provides one of the universal images of what living faithfully as a Christian might look like today.

For all its universal appeal, Romero's inner journey was Salvadorean. Just how much so, I began to appreciate only when I was in El Salvador as the civil war was drawing to a close.

I was in the back of a ute travelling to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the murder of Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and a close friend of Romero. Also bumping around in the ute was Grande's brother and some of his relatives. They were simply devout, and spoke in the warm Spanish of rural villages.

As we walked along the dusty road, retracing Grande's last journey to the village of Paisnal, passing the place where he was shot, I saw how big a step the pious and scrupulous Grande had taken to live in solidarity with the oppressed of his parish.

Like Romero, he had grown up in a country where at the corners of each main square were located the town hall, the police station, and the church. The administrative, coercive, commercial and Catholic life of the country were intertwined; the town arrangement conveyed powerfully the image of the divine and the human order harmoniously united.

The image was in the blood. Grande necessarily came by a long and painful road to see that the human order was broken and brutal, and that the image of its harmony with the divine order was consequently blasphemous.

I also began to see what Grande's death may have meant for Romero. They were both men of a traditional faith taken into hard places. The murder near Paisnal persuaded Romero that the heart of this faith was under attack. It was the decisive step in his conversion that enabled him to imagine a new way of being an archbishop in a fractured society.

The next day Archbishop Romero went without government authorisation to celebrate a Mass at Paisnal, spent the day listening to the campesinos in the area, and next day announced that he would take no part in government official events until the death was investigated. He also cancelled all masses in the archdiocese in favour of a single mass in the Cathedral.

These were all events of rupture. Seeing that the political order was based on the violation of human dignity of the many for the profit of the few, Romero built his ministry as Archbishop on the assertion of the human dignity of each human being, beginning with the least resourceful. The Church had to proclaim God's love for each human being, and so to call the systematic abuse of human dignity for what it was. This inevitably led him to be joined with other simple Christians in being murdered for their faith.

In this divided society some Catholics described Romero as leftist, communist, liberationist and atheist, and projected onto him their own view of a church at war with itself. It was a pity that this view fell on well-prepared ground outside El Salvador.

But that kind of labelling did not do justice to Romero. He remained a devout Catholic, committed to regular prayer, and with an instinctive view of the Church and its authority that were grounded in Catholic tradition. What had changed in him since taking office as Archbishop was not his understanding of Catholic faith, but his understanding of society in El Salvador and of the way in which the Church was used to validate the oppression of human beings.

Archbishop Romero's statue, together with those of Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Romanovna of Russia and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, now stands on Westminster Cathedral. All were killed. Each death pointed to the fracture lines and the brutality of a society that procured the killing. Each death also pointed to the different ways in which Christians could be called to be faithful in hard places, under governments of any persuasion.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, archbishop oscar romero, el salvador, paisnal, rutilio grande, liberation theology



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew for another glimpse into the life and times as lived by Oscar Romero. I find his conversion a compelling moment for reflection. It is interesting that he knew immediately what to do after his friend Rutilio Grande had been murdered. Seems that he was on this road before he knew it. I like this aspect of journey and Oscar Romero illustrates it well.

Some may know the beautiful reflection he wrote called ‘Prophets of a Future Not Our Own’. It is a piece of writing that encompasses much. My colleagues use this prayer as we begin our work with teachers in Restorative Practices. I invite participants to speak the phrase or words that resonate with them. My favourites are: “It helps now and then to step back and take the long view. and We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.

To seriously take in the long view and not be on a flight of fancy is a challenge in itself. Then there is the openness experienced when we realise that often as individuals we take an over burdened stance in this world.
True, God in Oscar still has much to tell us.

Vic O'Callaghan | 24 March 2010  

I have visited El Salvador twice, in 1993 and again in 2003. To my shame I had forgotten the anniversary until reading Andrew's article. Thanks Eureka Street. It has always saddened me that Romero has not been more embraced by Rome. The people of El Salvador of course have canonized him but not the universal church. What more must a man do? Perhaps he was too easily demonized as a communist, perhaps because as Andrew notes, his life and death critiqued a church that has made it own accommodation with the rich and powerful. Recall how few of the Salvadoran episcopacy attended his funeral. I'm glad to know that his statue stands with Bonhoeffer's at Westminster.

Michael Elphick | 24 March 2010  

Thanks again, Andrew, for all the writing you do for us - and today for this piece, a helpful background to the Romero story and a sharply focussed picture of the great man he was.

Joe Castley | 24 March 2010  

Archbishop Oscar Romero is among the many saints of God, who in emulating our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ 'laid down his life for his friends..' I'm sure he knew the possible/probable outcome for maintaining his concerns for RIGHT! I seem to recall that a statue of him may have been made and placed on the western wall of Westminster Abbey as are statues of Martin Luther King and Fr Maximilian Kolbe et al -quite rightly! These are universal saints and martyrs for Jesus Christ. They pray for us to follow the Saviour without reserve!

Fr Warren L Wade | 24 March 2010  

This is a deeply moving and informative piece.

mary ryllis clark | 24 March 2010  

If the Vatican Had many more men like Oscar Romero in the Curia we might not have as many problems as are with us today.

Richard Byrne | 24 March 2010  

Thank you for the timely reminder of a man who chose to really folllow Christ.

What graces are available to us , when we finally give in, or more importantly give up our will.

I suspect none of us want to be martyrs, so how do these people cope with such a calling.

Oscar Romero finally, after seemingly experiencing deep interior struggle, threw off the churche's mantle of greed, cruelty and tyranny, and chose to obey the words of his master, by loving his people.

May this reminder, bring us to pray for more courage.

Bernie Introna | 24 March 2010  

Thank you for a fine article. I hope that Archbishop Romero may soon be canonised. In the meantime, after several years of reading, I still await a Eureka Street article condemning the tens of thousands of abortions carried out in this country each year - humans who are not given the opportunity to be born, let alone to be able to become an Archbishop or an Abbess. If we were to compare the crude and relative shedding of blood then there is no comparison. Why is the murder of one man in Salvador so much worse than an ongoing Australian genocide? Where is the Society of Jesus in this issue?

Den Ryan | 25 March 2010  

Thank you for another outstanding article of great value for students of Yr 12 VCE Religion and Society Unit 3 Study 3.

marianne hale | 25 March 2010  

Given the seemingly countless things which can arouse our equally myriad and often conflicting indignations - I’m not sure why Des Ryan is so agitated as to be waiting for Jesuits to express a condemnation he already succinctly has. I’m sure someone else somewhere will have done so too. In the meantime someone has to relate stories like that of Oscar Romero.

Stephen Kellett | 26 March 2010  

From what I know of Oscar Romero I think he was a good and brave man. The film starring Raul Julia was very respectful. But perhaps a note of caution, even as his inspiring story is related. In 'Murder in the Cathedral' TS Eliot makes Becket check himself before the temptation of martyrdom, the appeal of sainthood. I wonder how many of all those canonised would have felt similarly? I suspect those of them who were genuinely holy (as I think Romero was) would have hated being canonised and prayed to. In which case the greatest respect we can show him and them is neither to canonise or pray to them… unless of course we think their attitude in life is of no account or they are no longer in a position to have a view about it.

Stephen Kellett | 26 March 2010  

I join others in saying a big thank you. I also agree that Romero should be canonised, but sadly he will not be in the near times as many in high places in the Church regard him as being leftist. I devoted a unit of my RE Lessons for my senior years classes to Social Justice issues and his life was always a major example for my students.However unless you visit similar countries with similar situations to what he faced, and they still exist today, you can not start to understand what it was that drove him, and many nameless others to pay the ultimate price for their convictions. I used to have that Verse but sadly I have misplaced it!

Gavin | 26 March 2010  

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