*Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
On Sunday 14 October, Pope Francis will canonize seven women and men as saints of the Catholic Church. Each of these have proved outstanding in holiness and contributed in significant ways to help make our world a better place.
One new Saint, who will truly be celebrated by several, particularly by the poor and oppressed, is Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Even in his lifetime, several of his own revered Romero. On 24 March 1980, he was brutally assassinated whilst celebrating the Eucharist in San Salvador. He was an outspoken critic of his Government, the military and of the other right wing elements of his country, for their continued oppression and exploitation of the poor. There has never been any doubt about who was responsible for his death. In his martyrdom, he became an immediate ‘Saint’ for millions. As he receives the official ‘halo’ from the Catholic Church, Romero is today remembered in many ways!
Romero was primarily a pastor. A true shepherd, who in the words of Pope Francis “smelled of the sheep”, He was there in the midst of his people, accompanying them, sharing their struggles. He writes in his diary, “Between the powerful and the wealthy, and the poor and vulnerable, who should a pastor side with? I have no doubts. A pastor should stay with his people.” He practised what he preached. Priesthood today is challenged as never before; the role of the Bishops is questioned; some have abdicated their role and responsibility as pastors.
As a young priest and in his early years as Bishop, Romero was known for being a ‘conservative’; he was afraid to rock the boat and preferred to maintain the ‘status quo’. He never wanted to be on the wrong side of the powerful of El Salvador. Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande, was however a good friend of Romero. Grande left no stone unturned to highlight the plight of the poor and the oppressed and to make their struggles his own. Unlike Romero, Grande did not hesitate to take up cudgels against the powerful of his land.
On 12 March 1977, Grande was killed by the regime. Just three weeks earlier, Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. Grande’s death came as a terrible shock to Romero. Presiding over the funeral Mass, Romero said, “The government should not consider a priest who takes a stand for social justice as a politician or a subversive element when he is fulfilling his mission in the politics of the common good.” He also said openly and emphatically, “Anyone who attacks one of my priests, attacks me. If they killed Rutilio for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”. The death of his dear friend was a turning point in the life of Romero. From that day onwards, he wholeheartedly worked for the rights of the poor, until his own murder, three years later.
Romero was essentially a prophet. He was not afraid to denounce the unjust and dehumanizing systems of his country. His sermons, demanding social justice for poor people and excoriating politicians and military leaders, reached hundreds of thousands of people via radio broadcasts. On 23 March 1980, the day before he was killed Archbishop Romero delivered a now-famous homily ordering soldiers to stop killing their own fellow citizens. “It is time to regain your conscience. In the name of God and the name of the suffering people, I implore you, I beg you, I order you, stop the repression!”
Archbishop Romero was beatified in San Salvador, on 23 May 2015 in the midst
of hundreds of thousands from his native land. In a message on the day of his beatification, Pope Francis said, "The beatification … is a cause of great joy for Salvadorans and for those of us who rejoice at the example of the greatest children of the church. Monsignor Romero, who built peace from the strength of love, gave testimony of the faith with his life, committed to the very end.” So much of Romero — his courage, his language, his praxis and passion for the poor — are very visible in the words and deeds of Pope Francis, and deeply reflected in 'Gaudete et Exsultate,' with its central focus on the beatitudes.
The canonization of Romero comes as a fresh impetus, for priests and bishops, to recommit themselves to the pastoral and prophetic dimensions of their priesthood. Sadly, a large number of the clergy are identified today with the powerful and the privileged; ensconced in their comfort zones; afraid to take sides with the poor and the oppressed. Romero reminds us, “A church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth – beware! – is not the true church of Jesus Christ. A preaching that does not point out sin is not the preaching of the gospel. A preaching that makes sinners feel good, so that they are secured in their sinful state, betrays the gospel's call”.
We desperately need to emulate Romero today. Untruth and injustice, divisiveness and discrimination are rampant everywhere. Several political, business and even so-called ‘religious’ leaders use hate, exclusivism and xenophobia to nurture their lust for power and greed for wealth. Truth and Justice in several countries of the world are disregarded. Hardly any attention is paid to the victims of crime and violence – particularly the institutionalized ones. The poor continue to be the victims of unjust structures everywhere. Romero lived his vocation to the fullest, “You have heard in Christ’s Gospel that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us… whoever out of love for Christ gives themselves to the service of others will live”.
Oscar Romero is truly a saint for our times! Let us celebrate him! Let us follow his example!
*(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights activist.Contact:firstname.lastname@example.org)