March 24: Oscar Romero and the Martyrs of El Salvador, Archbishop of San Salvador, 1980
Psalm 31: 15-24
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
There is a fairly well-known prayer attributed to Oscar Romero. It begins like this:
“It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.The Kingdom [of God] is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.”
The prayer is a mystery. It’s a mystery because while it is attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the words were never spoken by him. The prayer was written by another bishop for yet a third bishop to speak in a homily in celebration of priests who had died. The real irony being, that Archbishop Romero was still very much alive in Nov. 1979 when this “prayer” was first offered. No one is exactly sure how the words became attributed to Oscar Romero, but they have. Google “Romero prayer” and you will find it.
Probably it came to be attributed to him, because it resonates so strongly with things he actually did say. And we have an awful lot of what he actually said.
But let me step back and take a slightly longer view.
Oscar Romero is probably known to many of you. Some of the older people here (and I mean my age and up), can remember hearing about his assassination on March 24, 1980. Some of us remember growing up (or already being grown) in the era of the Cold War and hearing how it impacted the countries of Central and South America. I remember hearing frequently about the civil war in El Salvador, and the unrest and violence in Nicaragua…learning the difference between “Sandinistas” and “Contras”…learning terms like “disappearance” and “dirty war.” An estimated 30,000 people were “disappeared” in Argentina during the 70s and 80s. An estimated 75,000 lost their lives in El Salvador’s decade long civil war that some say really erupted with the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero. As a teenager and young man, I remember being formed by movies like “Salvador” and “Missing” and album’s like the Clash’s “Sandinista.” I remember Raul Julia playing Romero in a 1989 biopic. Unlike many of the saints we celebrate in the Episcopal Church who are ancient or obscure, Oscar Romero has been an contemporary and visible part of our cultural landscape for much of my life.
He became Archbishop of San Salvador forty years ago, in 1977. Actually, this year is the 100th anniversary of his birth. He was considered a “safe” moderate choice by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The Church was also caught up in the Cold War and wrestling with more or less radical Liberation Theologians and clergy who operated with a “preferential option for the poor” on one hand, and more conservative clergy who sought to support even oppressive governments for the sake of stability and not becoming Communist on the other. Romero was initially not trusted by the radicals, and the conservatives thought he could keep a lid on things.
But not long after he was appointed Archbishop, his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande was murdered along with and elderly man and an 16 year old boy. Romero urged the government to investigate the crime, but they did nothing.
The Sunday following the murder, Romero canceled all of the masses in the archdiocese, and celebrated one single mass in the cathedral. Over 150 clergy and 100,000 people are estimated to have attended and heard Romero call for an end to the violence.
For the next three years, Romero was increasingly viewed as the “voice of the voiceless poor.” He broadcast his weekly sermons on the church’s radio station, and used that medium to list all of the disappearances, tortures, and murders that had taken place. These sermons became immensely popular in the countryside, and deeply troubling in the halls of power.
In the midst of tremendous division…Romero preached the truth of what was happening, and also a message of hope. In a sermon from July 1977 he said words that still ring powerfully today.
“One of the signs of the present time is the idea of participation, the right that all persons have to participate in the construction of their own common good. For this reason, one of the most dangerous abuses of the present time is repression, the attitude that says, “Only we can govern, no one else, get rid of them.”
Everyone can contribute much that is good, and in that way trust is achieved. The common good will not be attained by excluding people. We can’t enrich the common good of our country by driving out those we don’t care for. We have to try to bring out all that is good in each person and try to develop an atmosphere of trust, not with physical force, as though dealing with irrational beings, but with a moral force that draws out the good that is in everyone, especially in concerned young people.
Thus, with all contributing their own interior life, their own responsibility, their own way of being, all can build the beautiful structure of the common good, the good that we construct together and that creates conditions of kindness, of trust, of freedom, of peace.
Then we can, all of us together, build the republic — the res publica, the public concern — what belongs to all of us and what we all have the duty of building.” July 10, 1977
On Monday, March 24, 1980, Romero was celebrating a memorial mass at a small hospital chapel, for the mother of the editor of one of the few independent newspapers in El Salvador. Just the day before, on the 5th Sunday of Lent, in his sermon, he begged the enlisted men of the Salvadoran Army, to stop the killing…some heard it as an invitation to mutiny.
“Brothers, [he said]: you are of part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. […] No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. […] It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The Church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such abominations. We want the government to understand seriously that reforms are worth nothing if they are stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
That same day, he told a reporter, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”
As he neared the end of his homily on March 24th, a sermon on the Gospel passage we heard tonight, a single shot rang out, and Archbishop Romero fell dead beside the altar. No one was has ever been arrested for the crime, although most agree it was carried out by one of the government death squads.
1977 to 1980. Three years he served as Archbishop…actually not quite three years…but his legacy is eternal. There are many of us now, who wonder what it is that we can do in our world. Certainly not the world of Salvadoran Death Squads, but certainly a world where we hear all too frequently a refrain similar to “only we can govern…no one else…get rid of them.” The idea of participation in a common life that Romero spoke of…the right and duty of all persons to participate in the construction of the common good…remains timely, in part because that idea that we can even agree on the common good seems pretty threadbare right now. But Romero’s life and death reminds us that we all have a role to play, and that we must play it fully and faithfully regardless of whether we can see the fruit of our labors or not. And why this mysterious prayer…attributed to him…continues to resonate today.
“It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a 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, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to 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 end 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.