May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Two years ago at our Diocese Synod, the synod of Huron voted to memorialise Archbishop Oscar Romero. What this means in the Anglican tradition is that we recognise his status within the Roman Catholic Church. As he proceeds toward sainthood (San Romero), we in the Diocese of Huron have chosen to embrace this journey and make his soon to be saint day, his day of remembrance part of our calendar. That day is March 24, the date of Romero’s assassination, just two days ago. Today I want to reflect upon Romero, how he lived his life and he was blind but regained his sight.
When you step off the plane in El Salvador and you enter into the city of San Salvador, without realising it you are stepping deep into the biblical narrative. That isn’t to say that El Salvador is some backwards third world country that has you stepping backwards 2000 years into the past, for San Salvador is much like any North American city complete with gas stations, shopping malls and of course ice cream shops.
No. What I mean is that the biblical story has been lived out in El Salvador in our lifetime. This becomes abundantly clear as you drive around the city and country and you steep yourself in its people and its history. This is the place that its people suffered in slavery, suppressed by Pharaoh, the right wing government of oligarchs. This is the place where they journeyed for years in exile during the civil war, searching for their promise land, to share all that God had promised them with each other, where the land could provide enough for each person, a land flowing with milk and honey. And this is the place that gave birth to some of the most prominent people in the Liberation Theology movement, prophets to be sure.
Let me explain. You see before Oscar Romero was Oscar Romero, he was a dutiful priest in El Salvador. He was, in many ways, ill prepared for his ascension to the role of Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. He was a quiet man, who more often than not shrank from confrontation. He was prayerful of course and he lived a pious and meagre life, serving the people that God sent to him.
But much like the Catholic Church as a whole at that time, he focused on the salvation of the person’s soul, not the material conditions in which people found themselves. The scripture that informed the church’s position in El Salvador was, “blessed are the poor for theirs shall be the kingdom of heaven”. He taught, much like the rest of the church, that you ought to be happy with your lot in this life for in the kingdom of heaven you would receive their reward. And that is how the church became a tool of the right wing government, the military and the oligarchy that helped to maintain the status quo and the oppression of the poor. Take your lumps for your reward will be in heaven. Hardly the principles of a legend, like Romero. Much more akin to one who is blind to the plight of his people.
That was, of course, till Romero met a friend and mentor, Padre Grande. Padre Grande was a revolutionary, a rogue and a radical. And he was a mentor to Romero. Padre Grande preached a radical message. He preached a message of the love of God for the poor, not only in the next world but also in this world, in the material conditions in which the poor found themselves. He preached that God chooses the poor, he resides with the poor and that God has a preference for the poor, a message with deep scriptural and theological roots.
This revolutionary and counter-cultural message of the times rubbed the ruling families the wrong way. Romero hadn’t adopted this position when he ascended the throne of the archbishop of El Salvador. In fact, he was chosen specifically to be archbishop because he was quiet and a moderate. The government and the oligarchs of El Salvador figured he would be a useful tool in using religion as the opiate of the masses in an effort to maintain the status quo and their position of privilege.
Two events changed the course of Romero’s life and therefore also changed the fate and destiny of the people of El Salvador. He was asked to be present by the army at a student protest, for the army feared violence would break out and the archbishop’s presence with the military could help keep the peace. Three times the generals asked Romero, and three times Romero denied them, quietly and simply saying he would pray for them.
When Romero woke the next day and opened the paper, he read of the violence that had occurred, how the army had opened fire on the peaceful protesters and how hundreds were now dead, murdered by their government. Romero had an epiphany that day. A moment when the heavens are torn open and God descended. That doing nothing was, in fact, a choice, and therefore he was complicit with the murders and the violence that had just occurred because choosing to do nothing meant he chose the side of the oppressor.
And while Romero was wrestling with this epiphany, during a period of fasting and prayer, Padre Grande his mentor and friend and a leader in the liberation theology movement in the Roman Catholic Church was assassinated by the government of El Salvador. Much as John the Baptist was killed and silenced by Herod, Padre Grande was also silenced by those he opposed with nothing more than a message of peace, love and repentance. A message the oligarchs deemed too dangerous.
These two events, the gift from God of knowledge and the death of a mentor spurred Romero into a new direction, a new ministry; a ministry to be with the poor and to speak on behalf of the poor. A ministry that focused on the life of Christ, the life that Christ lead; of feeding the poor, healing the sick and caring for the most vulnerable of society. A ministry that focused on not only allowing the light of Christ to guide our lives, but for the light of Christ to become a beacon for nation suffering under foreign oppression and domination, as the US government ignored atrocities of entire villages being murdered as they poured over 1 million dollars a day in military aid into the right wing government and the oligarchs that controlled it.
If this reminds you of the baptism of Christ and Jesus’s relationship with John the Baptist, it should, for it is a mirror of the Gospel story. Romero would champion the cause of the poor. The light of Christ guided Romero and his work of healing a nation and a people divided. The government, the Pharisees, though fought him every step of the way.
Until they could take no more. The Pharisees, the government, conspired after one of the most controversial sermons Romero preached on a radio address to the people of El Salvador in which he ordered the soldiers of the military junta to disobey commands when ordered to open fire and kill their brother or sister, their fellow Salvadorian. That God’s law of thou shall not kill trumps any order from any officers in the military, or the government, or the Pharisees, the oligarchs.
And while preparing to celebrate the last supper, the Eucharist, the greatest offering to God of the church, Romero was assassinated. Gunned down in cold blood has he stood behind the altar of our Lord.
After preaching love, healing and care for the poor in the outskirts of the Holy Land, the outskirts of Jerusalem, Romero would come to Jerusalem, San Salvador and would be killed by the authorities. I remembered Christ own journey from baptism and his light rising as John light faded, till John was eventually killed like Padre Grande. And I remembered how Christ actions of siding with the poor and fighting systems of oppressions of oligarchs and foreign domination would lead to his eventual crucifixion.
This is where the story diverges, although I wonder if it truly does. Christ was resurrected, while Romero lies dead still. I have visited and prayed at his tomb. Except, except that in his final sermon the night before his assassination, Romero boldly predicted that even if he were killed he would live on in the people of El Salvador. And after visiting his tomb and walking past mural after mural, shrine after shrine, the image of Oscar Romero is literally everywhere in El Salvador.
I tell you this story of the people of El Salvador for a reason. We, like Monsieur Romero have a choice. We can either choose blindness or we can choose to see. Romero was blind to the plight of his people until the light of Christ illumined the suffering of the people of El Salvador. And we too have the same choice. The salve to open our eyes lies within the words of scripture, the Logos, the word made flesh, Jesus. The healing of our blindness comes from following Christ. Our sight is dependent on washing ourselves in the waters of baptism as the blind man washed himself in the pool of Siloam.
But like the blind, I will not promise you that from baptism comes a life of ease. We will be questioned as he was questioned. We will be doubted as he was doubted. We will be pushed out and ostracised as he was. Yet even though it will not be easy, the grace that flows from the waters of baptism will heal us and we others. We were blind but now we see. And once we see the plight of the poor, once we have walked with them in their lives, in mission and service of mutual transformation, we, like Romero will never be the same. I was blind, but now I see.
Dios bendiga a monseñor Romero y Dios los bendiga. Amen