|Raul Julia as Blessed Oscar|
In El Salvador, the new bishop speaks out against the death squads and the terror campaign the government is using in an attempt to crush the guerilla war that is being waged against them. This is seen as disloyality and the number of priests attacked goes up and even churches are shut down by the government. Based on a true story, Romero was assassinated in March, 1980.That's a pretty quick summary, and if you're content with it, you can stop reading here. Maybe take a minute to give thanks for the courage of people like Oscar Romero who are willing to criticize authoritarian regimes. Maybe even take a minute to ask Blessed Oscar to strengthen your own courage, if you believe in communion with saints.
Lent Madness Match-ups
If you're not familiar with Lent Madness, it is quite simply a head-to-head competition about saints. Beginning with a bracket of 32 people, internet voters select one annual recipient of the Golden Halo. A tongue-in-cheek blend of religion and the NCAA basketball tournament, it offends some folks as making light of the most serious of subjects, but draws others in as a daily reflection on holy lives. In the 2013 round of Lent Madness, Oscar Romero defeated Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in the Round of 32 (68%), Saint Lucy in the Saintly Sixteen (70%), and Florence Li Tim-Oi in the Elate Eight (63%). He will most likely face Luke the Evangelist in the Faithful Four.
Romero's Life and Work
Although Oscar's working class parents encouraged their son's academic inclinations, his dad also trained him in carpentry, noting that book-learning didn't tend to provide much income in El Salvador. Economic and social mobility is not a hallmark of a country where thirteen families owned 40% of the land. Nonetheless, in 1930, the thirteen year-old Oscar entered a local seminary, to be followed by the national seminary, to be followed by university studies in Rome. For early evidence of Oscar's courage, consider that his ordination in Rome was April 4, 1942, two and a half years into World War II. Fascist Italy is not where I'd have wanted to spend my college years, but I was neither as brave nor as serious as a college student as he. He stuck around to finish a doctorate of theology, but his bishop called him home as the Allies brought the war closer to Rome. Of course the journey home was somewhat Ulyssean; he went from Franco's Spain to Batista's Cuba, where he was detained as a possible fascist. (How's that for irony?) Eventually, he was permitted to move on to Mexico, and from there, back home to El Salvador.
As a priest who moved up the ranks from auxiliary bishop (1970) to full bishop (1975) to Archbishop (1977), he worked with the poor, with Alcoholics Anonymous, and within the Church hierarchy. The latter work, plus his role as director of the Catholic journal Orientación, cast him in a conservative light. His promotions were criticized by priests caught up in the liberation theology movement; Marxism was gaining steam in the Latin American Church and Bishop Romero's defense of traditional Catholicism didn't jibe well with it. [Okay, I know I am out of my depth in that one. Church conservatives saw liberation theology as Marxism in a cassock. I don't know any better. Feel free to correct my ignorance in the comment section below.]
The assassination of a Jesuit priest named Rutilio Grande had a profound impact on Archbishop Romero. Father Rutilio had been working with the campesinos; the Archbishop's requests that the government investigate the killing went unanswered and the press was censored about the killing. Romero became more critical of the government, especially after the 1979 coup d'etat that brought a junta into power. His weekly sermons, broadcast nationwide, included lists of people who had disappeared or been murdered, as did Orientación. These became the primary source of news for many folks within El Salvador, which might be good for ratings but is terrible for liberty and justice.
Archbishop Romero's work on behalf of the poor and terrorized was courageous and controversial. He inspected dumps on a regular basis, looking for the corpses. He suspended construction of the cathedral until peace was restored and the poor were fed. He opened the seminary as a sanctuary for domestic refugees, i.e. those who had reason to fear that the government would soon arrest or murder them.
Romero's Assassination and Funeral
On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel when a death squad burst in and opened fire. The Archbishop had just lifted the chalice during the Eucharistic rite. One might have thought that it would be a good time for the government and it's paramilitary allies to back down a little, since 250,000 people attended the funeral Mass, which was presided over by a Cardinal. Nope. Instead, bombs went off in the crowd, and then gunshot were fired from several buildings including the National Palace, killing between 30 and 50 mourners. Although apologists for the government claimed this was more agit-prop, the subsequent evidence shows this is just ludicrous.
Everybody loves a dead martyr, but the living one's are tough to take. They say that Pope John Paul II had actually signed an order relieving Romero of the office of archbishop, but had not sent it out before the assassination. Lucky thing, because he then praised the dead Archbishop in glowing terms, as did just about everyone else outside El Salvador. Today, his face is on T-shirts and murals up and down Latin America. And while the Roman Catholic Church has yet to venerate Oscar Romero, the Anglican Communion has declared him a saint. Perhaps Pope Francis will take care of the Latin American interests promptly by accelerating the canonization process for Saint Oscar Romero a little bit.