An Excerpt from:
"Oscar Arnulfo Romero: Prophet to the Americas"
By Margaret Swedish

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In the years following his death, Oscar Romero became truly incarnated in the lives, the sufferings and the hopes of the believing poor of El Salvador. His spirit guides them, strengthens them, encourages them, comforts them. He is their "Monseñor" in every facet of their lives -- in the streets and villages, in the countryside and in the fields, as they faced the bombing and repression during the war, as they now try to keep their communities together or build them anew, as they reflect on the gospel, as they give birth to their children and as they bury their dead.

The Salvadoran people are Romero's own prophecy about his death now fulfilled -- "If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people." By keeping his memory alive, by living the commitment to which he called the Christian community, by proclaiming the cross of Jesus in their own suffering and his resurrection in their hope and struggle, they have ensured the resurrection of Romero in the people, for this was his message to and about them.

"Six years after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Salvadoran people give homage to him because he has been the greatest apostle of the poor in Latin America during this century," said the Christian communities in 1986. "Archbishop Romero has risen in his people because not only today, but every day, we recall his guiding and transforming word."

Every year, in celebrations throughout El Salvador, among Christian communities animated by catechists in the countryside, in local churches, at Romero's tomb in the cathedral, people recite his words once again from the homilies that gathered up for them and reflected back to them the truth of their situation. This was a remarkable thing for the poor of El Salvador -- to hear someone pronounce their reality, to name the causes of their suffering, to denounce the injustice, to speak to their hopes and help them believe that it was right and good to believe that these hopes should be realized in this world -- that indeed this was at the heart of the meaning of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

"In distant cantones and repopulation areas, celebrations were held in many communities on March 24. What the people there really remember and celebrate is known only in the depths of their hearts. 'He visited us in our canton' is a common expression, spoken with simplicity and immense appreciation. And now, in these terribly difficult times, it is as if all they have left is Msgr. Romero.

"A woman from Chalatenango who had lost six sons in this cruel war was informed that her seventh son had just been killed. To the priest who broke the news to her and who tried to console her, she said with incredible strength and humility: 'I only want you to mention my son's name along with Monseñor's at the Mass on the 24th.'"

Say pastoral workers in El Salvador, "There is something about Msgr. Romero that continues to inspire us with an irresistible force that doesn't diminish but which becomes deeper with time." An international religious worker was asked after one year in the country, "What do you really think about Msgr. Romero's presence in El Salvador?" He answered, "I see that Msgr. Romero brings many people together. I also see that there are two ways to remember him, one more hierarchical and one more popular. The people's recollection of Msgr. Romero is very vivid. He is an inspiring person. When he was alive he knew how to question, protect and inspire. And that stays with us still."

At the eighth anniversary celebration at the Jesuit Central America University in San Salvador, Jesuit Father Ignacio Ellacuría, martyred on November 16, 1989, placed on the altar a piece of blood-stained cloth from the hospital chapel where Romero was murdered. During the homily, Fr. J.I. Gonzalez Faus said, "What most strikes me about Msgr. Romero is that he really knew how to listen to the cries of his people. Just like Moses on Mount Sinai and like Jesus, he spoke the truth. And like Jesus, he suffered because of it. He was a true believer in God."

"As always, the communities have been the best at preparing for and promoting the remembrance of Msgr. Romero. A single central celebration wasn't held, but in several parishes of the capital and in others in the interior, the people organized what for them has become of great importance -- all-night vigils. It is not easy to spend eight or nine hours at a vigil after a full day of work, or after hours in a bus, coming from San Vicente, Morazán or Arcatao...In the parish of Mejicanos the poor of the city and countryside sang, reflected, prayed and listened to the testimonies of campesinos and foreigners, the so-called 'internationalists' who should really be called good Samaritans. The entire night was spent thinking about Msgr. Romero, about El Salvador, about the Church, and about what each of them should do."

The following day, the anniversary itself, people went, as they do every year, to the tomb. "With great devotion many went over to Msgr. Romero's tomb. He was waiting for them. With songs and prayers, they poured out their hearts to him."

Touching the meaning of the annual commemoration celebrations in El Salvador, Fr. Francesco Cavazutti, a priest who worked among the poor of Brazil, said at a memorial Mass in Rome in 1988, "Blessed be Msgr. Romero and with him the Church in Latin America that gives to God eyes and ears so that he may see and hear the pain of his enslaved people."

In seeking to explain the real purpose, the motivation that animates the celebrations in El Salvador, the need of the poor to come together on March 24 each year, the editors of Letters to the Churches, a publication of the Central America University, write: "Msgr. Romero remains alive and continues to be a real point of reference for many Salvadorans...He continues to offer hope, courage, inspiration, direction and dignity to those who suffer the most. His importance doesn't lie so much in the fact that he offers concrete solutions to contemporary problems but rather that his vision, attitude and fundamental commitment were based in the reality of El Salvador. When he spoke the truth clearly, fearlessly denounced atrocities, visited and accompanied the poor, he risked his own life and the name of his church in favor of a radical compassion. He had the ability to criticize clearly and forthrightly, everyone: the government, the United States, the FMLN, the Church. The memory of his ministry has left a legacy of light, hope, courage and consolation."

"His word of truth, denouncement, critique; his word of encouragement, hope and illumination continues to be valid. His love for the poor above all, his nearness, his defense of their rights and their lives, his solidarity with their suffering and insecurity, his life given up, continue to be truth. Monseñor Romero loved his people, and this is neither forgotten, nor can it be forgotten, when so many people need to hold on to something or someone who speaks of life and not death, of hope and not despair.

"Monseñor Romero spoke to them of God, and was present to God, when so many needs had to be expressed to the common Father of all; he believed in a God capable of creating reconciliation and liberation from slavery when so much repugnance produced gods which were offered to people from the North.

"Romero is alive, he is remembered and celebrated because in him is exemplified what the Salvadoran people really want: truth, freedom, justice, peace, reconciliation and love. To go out into the streets and pray in the churches on March 24, people are simply saying that, despite everything, they believe this is possible."

Romero, then, has risen in his people because he reflected back to them their own story, their faith, their reality. At the same time, the people rose and continue to rise in Romero, for it was their inspiration, their courage, their martyrdom, their faith and witness, that inspired him to become a pastor at their service. "With this people it is not hard to be a good shepherd," he once said. "They are a people that impel to their service us who have been called to defend their rights and to be their voice." In giving voice to their reality, he helped them to find their own voices. But, in living their simple faith and accepting the gospel as good news to the poor, the people of El Salvador helped Romero to find his voice as well.

Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino, who lost most of his community in the November 16 massacre at the Central America University, reflected on the role Romero played in the faith life of his martyred brothers. Romero was close to the Jesuits and they nurtured one another in the faith. But speaking of Romero's role in their lives and in El Salvador, he wrote, "I believe that for them, for me and for many others, Monseñor Romero was an actualized Christ and, as Christ, a sacrament of God. To confront oneself with Romero was like confronting oneself with God. To encounter Monseñor Romero in one's personal life was as encountering God. To try to follow Monseñor Romero was to follow Jesus today in El Salvador" (essay on the assassinations, Nov. 28).

Clearly, only faith can make this statement.

"Not to accept the possibility that there are witnesses to the faith that continue to inspire us even after death, would be to deny that God passed through the world" (Letters).

"And now we need to ask, for what purpose should we commemorate Msgr. Romero? And the most obvious answer is -- to put him to work...

"Monseñor is well used when our memory of him promotes all that has to do with hope, courage, and commitment. When the Salvadoran people work for peace, justice and reconciliation and are motivated by a belief in the God of the poor, they are following the example of Msgr. Romero who himself followed the crucified Christ and gave himself to the poor of his time."

What does this mean for the international community? Msgr. Romero had an explicit message for the first world, and especially for the US, so involved in the suffering of his people. He called our world to conversion. He named the sin committed against his suffering people -- the death of Salvadorans, by violence and by poverty -- and he named the causes of that death -- greed, absolutized capitalism, the doctrine of national security, indifference.

Romero's memory, incarnated in the poor of El Salvador and all of Latin America, is a call to us and an invitation to join the poor on this faith journey, to be converted, to accompany them as they struggle for the fulfillment of their hope. That's why the international community also celebrates the anniversary of his death each year, to acknowledge that in Oscar Romero, a prophet did indeed come into the world and that hearing him, accepting his judgment on the world, his pronouncement of what sin is and the causes of that sin, and allowing ourselves to be converted and changed by it, has become critical to the authenticity of our own faith.

By Margaret Swedish

Quotes are reprinted from, Letters to the Churches, Central America University, San Salvador, March 16-31, 1986 and 1988.

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