Archive for category Latin America
The concept of sustainability, considered in its widest sense and not reduced just to development, embraces all actions focused on maintaining the existence of other beings, because they have the right to coexist with us. And only starting from this premise of coexistence do we utilize, with sobriety and respect, a part of them to satisfy our needs, while also preserving them for future generations.
The universe also fits within this concept. From the new cosmology, we now know that we are made of the dust of stars and that passing through us is the mysterious Basic Energy that nourishes everything and which unfolds into the four forces –gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear strong and weak– that, by always acting together, maintain us as we are.
As conscious and intelligent beings, we have our place and our function within the cosmologic process. Although we are not the center of everything, we certainly are one of those forward points through which the universe turns into itself, that is to say, the universe becomes conscious. The weak anthropological principle allows us say that, for us to be what we are, all the energies and processes of evolution had to organize themselves in such an articulated and subtle manner that our appearance was possible. Otherwise, I would not be writing here.
Through us, the universe and the Earth look at and contemplate themselves. The capacity to see appeared 600 million years ago. Until then, the Earth was blind. The profound and starry sky, the Iguaçu Falls, where I am now, the green of the nearby jungles, could not be seen. Through our sight, the Earth and the universe can see all of this indescribable beauty.
The original peoples, from the Andean to the samis of the Arctic, felt one with the universe, as brothers and sisters of the stars, making a great cosmic family. We have lost that feeling of mutual belonging. They felt that the cosmic forces balanced the paths of all beings and acted within them. To live in consonance with these fundamental energies was to have a sustainable life, filled with meaning.
We know from quantum physics that consciousness and the material world are connected and that the manner a scientist chooses to make his observation affects the observed object. Observer and observed object are inseparably linked. Hence the inclusion of consciousness in scientific theories and in the very cosmic reality is a fact that has already been assimilated by a large part of the scientific community. We form, in effect, a complex and diversified whole.
The figures of the shamans are well- known. They were always present in the ancient world and are now retuning with renewed vigor, as quantum physicist P. Drouot has shown in his book, The shaman, the physicist and the mystic (El chamán, el físico y el místico, Vergara, 2001) for which I was honored to prepare a prologue. The shaman lives a singular state of consciousness that allows him to enter into intimate contact with the cosmic energies. The shaman understands the call of the mountains, the lakes, the woods and the jungles, the call of the animals and of human beings. The shaman knows how to direct such energies towards healing ends and to harmonize them with the whole.
Inside each of us lies the shaman dimension. That shaman energy causes us to stand speechless in the face of the immensity of the sea, to sense the eyes of another person, to be entranced on seeing a newborn child. We need to liberate the shaman dimension within us, so as to enter into harmony with all around us, and to feel at peace.
Could not our desire to travel with the spacecrafts in cosmic space perhaps be the archetypical desire to search for our stellar origins, and the desire to return to our place of birth? Several astronauts have expressed similar ideas. This unstoppable search for equilibrium with the entire universe and to feel that we are part of the universe pertains to the intelligible notion of sustainability.
Sustainability includes valuation of this human and spiritual capital. Its effect is to generate within us respect, and a sense of sacredness, before all realities, values that nourish the profound ecology and which help us to respect and live in symbiosis with Mother Earth. This attitude is urgently needed, to moderate the destructive forces that have overtaken us in recent decades.
Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P. (born 8 June 1928 in Lima) is a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest regarded as one of the principal founders of liberation theology in Latin
America. He holds the John Cardinal O’Hara Professorship of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has been professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and a visiting professor at many major universities in North America and Europe. He is a member of the Peruvian Academy of Language, and in 1993 he was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government for his tireless work. He has also published in and been a member of the board of directors of the international journal, Concilium.
Fr. Gutiérrez has studied medicine and literature (Peru), psychology and philosophy (Leuven), and obtained a doctorate at the Institut Pastoral d’Etudes Religieuses (IPER), Université Catholique in Lyon. One of the central figures in the emergence of liberation theology, he was born in Peru, and spent much of his life living and working among the poor of Lima. In September 1984, a special assembly of Peruvian bishops were summoned to Rome for the express purpose of condemning Gutiérrez, but the bishops held firm. Gutiérrez’s groundbreaking work,
A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (1971), explains his notion of Christian poverty as an act of loving solidarity with the poor as well as a liberatory protest against poverty.
According to Gutiérrez true “liberation” has three main dimensions: First, it involves political and social liberation, the elimination of the immediate causes of poverty and injustice. Second, liberation involves the emancipation of the poor, the marginalised, the downtrodden and the oppressed from all “those things that limit their capacity to develop themselves freely and in dignity”. Third, liberation theology involves liberation from selfishness and sin, a re-establishment of a relationship with God and with other people. Liberation theology and Gutiérrez have both been the subjects of repeated Papal scrutiny.
A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation was reviewed directly by then-Cardinal Ratzinger and found to contain ideas which, in the view of conservative Catholics, were disturbing. Although Gutiérrez himself was not censured, many other liberation theologians received Papal censure. Because of the perceived connection between followers of liberation theology and leftist groups in Latin America, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, many liberation-minded priests were killed in Central American countries during the wars and civil conflicts of the 1980s. These martyrs included Archbishop Oscar Romero  and six scholar-priests at the University of Central America  in San Salvador.
Romero and the Social Gospel: the challenge for us today
Fr. Juan Hernández Pico SJ, gave the following lecture at St Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, yesterday at a memorial service held before the March for the Alternative.
Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador is no stranger to the United Kingdom. Some years ago Romero’s statue was placed above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey among other twentieth century martyrs. In the words of Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga’s poem “Saint Romero of the Americas”: referring to the colonnades in St Peter’s Square in Rome, “the people have already placed you in the glory of Bernini”.
Speaking of “the glory of Bernini”. When Romero was granted an honorary doctorate at Louvain in Belgium, a month and a half before he was to be murdered, he tried to find the best words for his own form of pastoral action, and he said: “The glory of God is life for the poor.” With such a famous patristic phrase he was actually rewording a quotation from Ireneus which says: “The glory of God is life for man”. In other words, he was pointing to the option for the poor, which the Bishops of Latin America, had embraced at Puebla.
Poverty continues to be the same scandal in this world as it was more than thirty years ago during Romero’s time as
Archbishop. If anything, poverty has even worsened because globalisation has paradoxically added further social exclusion over and above poverty. Exclusion polarises the world between people who count and people who don’t count, people with hope for development living in so-called “emerging” countries and those other hopeless people who live nowhere, so to speak.
In February 1977 there began in El Salvador what we can call the Romero phenomenon, an impressive religious phenomenon with political consequences where the archbishop, whose appointment had been so eagerly anticipated by the few wealthy people of El Salvador, was converted – most unexpectedly – from being a model of spotless rectitude to one of prophetic courage. Where did that conversion start? Actually, it was in the little rural town of Aguilares during a long night of contemplation, touching and watching over the body and blood of his murdered friend, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, who was the parish priest there.
Some time later the other priests in Aguilares were kidnapped, imprisoned and exiled. The army occupied the town and committed sacrilege by violating the tabernacle, throwing away the hosts and trampling on them. No priest was allowed into Aguilares for two months and the army committed many crimes against parish catechists and peasant organizers of the region. Eventually the archbishop was notified by the government that he could appoint a priest again to the parish. Romero himself drove to Aguilares together with many priests and religious women. During the Mass he spoke words that demonstrated the prophetic character of his episcopacy: “It has fallen to me to go around picking up dead bodies and everything else that this persecution of the Church brings with it. Today it has been my lot to come over to pick up a destroyed tabernacle in this desecrated parish and, most important of all, to comfort these people who have been so outrageously humiliated. Hence…I bring to you the word that Christ has commanded me to tell you: a Word of solidarity, a Word of courage and guidance and, finally, a Word of conversion.”
Romero was convinced that “even bishops and the Pope, and all Christians” were in need of conversion. “May we all live with that tension that Christ left in the world, conversion.” Two months later he said: “I need to become converted all over again… It is the Church that has to convert to what God wants in this period of history in El Salvador… I know that I have gone down badly with many people, but I know that I have gone well with all those who are sincerely in search of the Church’s conversion… We all are in need of conversion and I am the first, even though I am preaching to you now.” No wonder that when he started to be opposed by the press, the government and most of all by the wealthy few of El Salvador, he answered back by appealing to his own congregation who knew very well that Romero’s language “wanted to sow hope, and boldly denounce injustices of land and abuses of power, not with hate, but rather with love and calling for conversion.”
Referring to people murdered by the security forces in August 1977 he forges one of his most famous and momentous sentences: “I want to be near the grief of [their families] and to be the voice of those who are voiceless: to cry out against such abuses of human rights, that justice be done.”
Coming to the end of that year, he gives a lesson from his own experience to the people in his Cathedral: “Brothers and sisters: do you want a test to prove whether you are a true Christian? Here is your touchstone: who gets on well with you? Who criticizes you? Who rejects you? Who flatters you? Remember what Christ said one day: I haven’t come to bring peace but division; and there will be division even within your own families.”
A month later he made very clear his own criterion for discernment in matters of dealing with the State authorities, something like his own version of giving either to Caesar or to God: “I do not confront anybody, I am just trying to serve the people, and whoever is in conflict with the people will also be in conflict with me”.
Romero then gave a succinct definition of his own role as a preacher. “I study the Word of God that we are going to read on the coming Sunday; I look around me, at my people and shine the light of the Word upon them, and then I come up with a synthesis to be able to convey it and to enable this people to become the light of the world – so that they don’t allow themselves to be guided by the norms and the idols of this world. But naturally these worldly idols and idolatries feel that the Word I preach is an obstacle and would rather like for it to be destroyed, silenced, killed.
Of course he knew very well that to be a prophet, to be faithful to the prophetic mission that he considered a duty of the people of God, carried with it a high cost. It was the cost of freedom. On that same day he preached the following: “This is costing our Church a lot, brothers and sisters. This freedom from the idol of Money, from the idol of power, and to appear before the world the way Paul did, audaciously free. To thank those who give freely to us but without accepting any condition whatsoever.”
At the end of 1978, when threats of death were already starting to reach him, the archbishop responded with some of his most memorable words. First by being prophetic: “Dear Brothers and Sisters, I wish my words had the prophets’ eloquence to shake up those who are on their knees before the gods of this earth! Those who wish that gold, money and properties, power and politics would be their gods for ever. All that is going to end!” And second, by starting to become aware of the probability of his own violent death: “The Word stays and this is the great consolation for the preacher: my voice may disappear, but my Word, which is Christ, will stay in the hearts of those who have taken it in.”
At the beginning of 1979, the country’s President offered him official protection. Romero answered in his homily: “I want to tell the President… that much more than protection for my personal security I would wish this week, for security and tranquillity for the one hundred and eight families and their missing relatives, and for all who are suffering. I don’t have any interest in my personal wellbeing or in security for my own life while my people endure the weight of an economic, social and political system, which brings ever wider social differences. What I would wish from the Supreme Government would be an effort to guarantee the real peace that we all desire, but that cannot be achieved with repression and abuse, and only with social justice, which is the most urgent need of all.”
On the 13th of May, returning from a visit to Rome, he told his congregation this: “In travelling to such a different world I have felt very proud of my archdiocese, because everywhere there is talk about us and people are eager to learn about our Church’s experience:” And a week later, he said with great sincerity: “There is no right to be sad… A Christian must always move his own heart to the fullness of joy. Just experience this, brothers and sisters, the way I have tried to experience it in the bitterest of times, when slander and persecution are most intense; become united to Christ the friend, and feel a sweetness which all earthly happiness cannot give.”
On the first of July 1979 he told his congregation: “Murders from one side and the other, this death dance of political retribution is the most horrific indicator of the injustice of our system, which seeks camouflage in repression” And further: “I would rather be silenced for telling the truth and defending justice than keep on speaking under the manipulation of repression…..It is not that I believe myself to be a prophet. It is rather that you and I, we are a prophetic people; every baptized person has received a share in the prophetic mission of Christ… I feel that the people are a prophet to me… My function is just to arouse in the people their prophetic sense. The prophet’s success lies not in converting people… but in convincing a stubborn and unfaithful people to acknowledge that a prophet has talked to them in the name of God.”
Romero had heard that some people on the political left were saying that he was the “opium of the people”. He answered back: “Never, never! I am saying that precisely these encouragements to transcendence are there to awaken even more involvement in the historical, the social, the economic, and the political. And I am saying that God has not only made heaven for human beings after death, but that he has made this earth as well for each and every human being. This is by no means opium!”
The month of October seemed to open up new prospects. The President was overthrown. A ruling council of civilians and military people took power…or so it appeared. Romero asked everyone to look with new eyes towards this hopeful horizon. Some far-left organizations and clandestine political parties tried to discredited Romero for being hopeful about this new scenario. Unfortunately massacres of activists, peasants and people of the slums of San Salvador, and even of university students kept on happening. It became all too clear that the Junta had no real power over the military and the security police. Civil war was in the air.
In an open letter to President Jimmy Carter, Romero tried to dissuade the United States government from continuing to provide military aid, but his plea fell on deaf ears.
In the middle of December Romero had made it very clear that he wanted to keep his freedom and independence from both the state and from the popular organizations, even if he acknowledged that he had an obligation to them. He stated very firmly that he was going to continue defending the people’s right to organize and supporting every just claim of their organizations. On the 6th of January 1980, once the ruling government council had failed, he addressed the wealthy families of El Salvador: “I am simply the pastor, the brother, the friend of these people, who knows their suffering and hunger and I raise my voice to tell you”. With a metaphor that he had borrowed from Brazilian Cardinal Lorscheider he told the wealthy: “You must learn to take off your gold rings so that your fingers aren’t cut off.”
As his violent end was approaching, Romero’s voice was becoming ever more courageous and sincere, ever freer. Thanks to his Diary we know that threats to his life were piling up and that there were moments when he felt fear and anguish encircling him. No wonder. He was no greater than his own guide and master Jesus of Nazareth, who, the night when he was going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies, suffered anguish and even sweated blood. But just like Jesus, Romero overcame the fear and became ever more audacious in defence of the poor of El Salvador.
“As a pastor and as a Salvadoran citizen I am deeply grieved when I see how our people are being massacred just because they go out into the streets to demand justice and liberty. I am sure that it won’t be in vain.” And he went on: “This people’s cry for liberation is a clamour that goes up to God that neither events nor anyone else can stop.”
A week before his murder he told his audience “Those who believe my preaching to be political and provoking violence – as if I were the cause of all the evils in the Republic – they forget that the word of the Church is not inventing these evils but is just shedding light upon them. Light illuminates what already exists, but does not create it.”
On the eve of his murder he said “I try to preach the Gospel properly before our people. Therefore I ask Christ all week long, while I am picking up the cries of our people and the suffering caused by so much crime and the ignominy of so much violence, for Him to give me the appropriate word to console, to denounce, to call to repentance. Even if I know that my Words are just a cry in the wilderness, I know that the Church is trying very hard to fulfil her mission.”
It was his concluding remarks at that same Sunday Mass that probably turned the plans for his murder into reality since for the powers-that-be his voice was no longer tolerable. Romero told his congregation: “No soldier is bound to obey an order against God’s law. Nobody has to obey an immoral law. The time has come for you to come to your senses and obey your own conscience rather than a sinful command. Therefore in the name of God and in the name of this suffering people.., I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression.”
The army and the wealthy elite were outraged at his words. The next evening, while Romero was celebrating Mass, he was shot dead.
But what about Romero’s challenge for us today? This challenge is different for us, Central American Christians, as compared to you, Christians here in the United Kingdom. We live in a society that has not yet become secularised. Certainly we live under a Constitution that declares the State to be lay. But the culture among us is still religious. Here, you live in a very secular society and culture. It is good that the Churches in Britain seek together to find a common meaning of God and Jesus Christ in secular society.
But no matter whether we live in a religious or in a secular culture we live in the same civilization. We, like you, have become globalized. And globalization is the work of money, the work of wealth as opposed to human labour. Both President Obama and the European Economic Commissioner talked of this world-wide crisis of globalization as “a crisis of greed”. And this shocking reality unites us and presents us with the same challenge. In the words of the Gospel “we cannot serve two masters, because we’ll love the one and hate the other or will support one and despise the other. We cannot serve God and Money” or, using the Aramaic word, “you cannot serve God and Mammon” (Mt 6, 24).
This is the challenge: to dislodge the gods of Power and Money, that is to say of the power invested in Money. Tell me sincerely from the bottom of your hearts: can there be meaningful solidarity from the wealthy countries to the poorer countries without tackling that power invested in Money? Must the poorest sectors across our world today pay the bill for the profligacy and grotesque excesses of bankers and speculators who have played the world’s markets as if they were a global casino? In the last analysis to fight for a civilization where human labour is the jewel in the crown as opposed to finance is precisely to search for the justice of the kingdom of God (Mt 6, 33). This is entirely consistent with Jesus’ Beatitudes. And what is the image that wealth has for the majority of Christians? Would it not be personal consumption? Don’t we live in a consumerist society? Wouldn’t Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrected Christ, wouldn’t He tell us today: happy are those of you who don’t put consumption at the top of your human agenda because you are thereby building the kingdom of this earth – and so the kingdom of God will come to you? And wouldn’t He tell us: woe to you who have fallen prey to the race towards ever greater consumption because you contribute to the kingdom of the power of Money?
This is the challenge that the life and work of Archbishop Romero present us with. Yes, Saint Romero of America, Saint Romero over the Door of Westminster Abbey. If we work conscientiously for a more austere society, we will certainly frustrate the magicians of globalization, the servants of the power of Money, to the extent we are seen as utopians and so outsiders, outcasts for the best reasons -and not only for our unfashionable faith.
This is the way nowadays of being despised by the world. But the world, this world so loved by God, this physical cosmos which is in such danger around us in our small planet, and the poor of this world, our sisters and brothers, will in their own way recognize our human solidarity, and most certainly they are in need of it. And since The Son of God’s became flesh and pitched his tent among us, all that is human is Christian and Divine. Let us help each other, then, to be up to this challenge today in the way that Romero was.
Romero: ‘the voice of those who had no voice’
Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ
Using many of Archbishop Romero’s own words, Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ gives an account of the public life of the modern martyr whose anniversary is celebrated tomorrow. How did the formerly conservative priest ‘rediscover his roots’ and become a champion of the cause of the oppressed?
On 24 March 2011, people all over the world will be celebrating the 31st anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador. He was shot, by orders of the government, while celebrating Mass in the chapel of the hospital for incurables where, as Archbishop, he lived. The previous day he had preached what was to be his last Sunday sermon in the cathedral. In it he made an appeal to the ordinary soldiers in the army and low-ranking policeman, calling on them not to obey immoral orders from their officers. His words were moving:
Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.
The following day, a sniper was sent to shoot him while he was offering Mass. Little did the authorities realise that, instead of silencing his voice, this would spread it to the four corners of the earth, and that his message would give hope and inspiration to thousands.
When Romero’s predecessor, Archbishop Chávez y González retired after 38 years, neither he nor the majority of his priests wanted Romero to succeed him. Timid, retiring, hesitant, conservative in thought and action, he seemed the last person they needed at that particular moment of El Salvador’s history. They wanted Bishop Rivera y Damas, auxiliary of San Salvador, a firm supporter of the post-Medellín Church who was not frightened to speak out. But Romero was the candidate nominated by the Nuncio, who had consulted the government, the military, business circles and society ladies who felt he would be ‘one of ours whom we could control’. They even offered him a luxurious mansion and a large new car, both of which he refused.
The story of Romero’s conversion, though he himself preferred to speak of rediscovering his roots, is well known but bears repetition. While its importance should not be exaggerated, an event which occurred only three weeks after Romero had taken over as Archbishop had a profound and lasting effect on him. Rutilio Grande, a young Salvadoran Jesuit priest, was assassinated, together with an old man and a 15-year-old boy as they were on their way to celebrate Mass in the small village church of El Paisnal some 30 miles north of the capital. Romero and Rutilio had come to know each other ten years previously when both were living in the diocesan seminary, Romero as secretary to the Bishops’ Conference and Rutilio as teacher and prefect of the students. As soon as he heard of the assassination, Romero left the city and went to the church in Aguilares where the three bodies were laid out. There he celebrated Mass with the Jesuit Provincial and then, with peasants who had come in from many surrounding villages, spent part of the night in prayer and part seeking advice on what should be done.
As Romero recounted afterwards, that night he read the Gospel message anew through the eyes of the poor and oppressed. He began to understand what Jesus has to say, and therefore what he as Archbishop should also be saying to the despised, the persecuted and the underprivileged. As he put it later to César Jerez, the Jesuit Provincial: ‘When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought: if they killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’ When morning came, he returned to the capital, summoned his priests and advisers and decided after long and sometimes difficult discussions, to boycott all state occasions and meetings with the president until an official investigation into Rutilio’s death was carried out.
It never was, and throughout his time as Archbishop, Romero did not attend a single state occasion, not even the swearing-in of the new president. He also decided to close all Catholic schools for three days, inviting both pupils and teachers to reflect on what had happened. Finally, in the face of strong ecclesiastical opposition from the Papal Nuncio, he decided to suspend all Masses in the capital the following Sunday and celebrate just one Mass in the Cathedral with all his priests, both as a sign of protest to the Government and of solidarity with Rutilio and the cause for which he died. Over 150 priests concelebrated the Mass which was attended by an estimated 100,000 people, one of the biggest crowds ever seen in the country. And in the streets around the Cathedral, long lines queued up to go to confession. For many, and not just Romero, it marked a turning point.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Over the next three years, Romero, visibly growing in strength and conviction, became the defender of the oppressed, ‘the voice of those who had no voice’, the conscience of a nation. His Sunday sermons in the cathedral – which, towards the end of his life lasted 1½ hours – were, when the diocesan radio station was functioning and hadn’t been sabotaged, listened to by friend and foe alike throughout the country, and by many abroad.
To his enemies he was an agitator, a communist, a false priest, an ambitious schemer out for himself. Some such attacks – and this hurt him most – came from his fellow bishops who accused him of being politicised and preaching erroneous theology. But Rome also lent an ear to these accusations. No less than three apostolic visitors were sent to examine him in a little over a year while the Congregation of Bishops, under Cardinal Baggio, considered imposing on him an apostolic administrator with full powers to run the diocese. It is common knowledge that, whereas he felt confirmed in his ministry after meeting Pope Paul VI, his first encounter with Pope John Paul II left him sad and disheartened. And, as we have seen, to the government and the military, Romero was a permanent threat, a thorn in the side, a subversive voice that had to be silenced.
A month before his assassination, Archbishop Romero received a warning from the Papal Nuncio in Costa Rica that there were new death threats against him and that he should be very careful. This warning was repeated shortly afterwards by the Nuncio in El Salvador just as Romero was beginning his annual retreat with a group of diocesan priests. It is not surprising therefore that, during this retreat, Romero tried to come to terms with the prospect of his assassination. He was clearly frightened. He wrote in his retreat notes: ‘I feel afraid of violence against my person. I fear for the weakness of my flesh but I beg the Lord to give me serenity and perseverance.’ And a little further on: ‘My disposition should be to offer my life to God, whatever way it may end. He helped the martyrs and, if need be, I will feel Him very near as I offer him my last breath.’ And then comes his full acceptance: ‘I accept with faith in Him my death, however hard it be.’ He ends with a firm act of faith: ‘For me to be happy and confident, it is sufficient to know with assurance that in Him is my life and my death, that in spite of my sins I have placed my trust in Him and shall not be disappointed, and others will carry on with greater wisdom and holiness the works of the Church and the nation.’
It was certainly the grace of this retreat and the strength Romero found through his prayer that enabled him to reply two weeks later to a Mexican journalist, who asked him if he was afraid of death:
I have often been threatened with death. I have to say, as a Christian, that I don’t believe in death without resurrection: if they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. I tell you this without any boasting, with the greatest humility. As pastor, I am obliged, by divine command, to give my life for those I love, who are all Salvadorans, even for those who are going to assassinate me. If the threats are carried out, even now I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace of God I don’t think I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my blood be the seed of liberty and the sign that hope will soon become reality. May my death, if accepted by God, be for the freedom of my people and as a witness to hope in the future. You can say, if they come to kill me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully they may realise that they will be wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.
These great words express the real nature of martyrdom: and not just the martyrdom of Romero but of hundreds and thousands of ordinary people who, throughout the ages, have offered their lives in defence of what they believe. For that is the essence of martyrdom: to give witness to the truth through the offering of one’s life.
This man, who offered his life, is venerated across the world by Christians and non-Christians. His statue, along with those of nine other twentieth century martyrs, sits atop the west entrance to Westminster Abbey. There are many reasons for such devotion to Archbishop Romero, but I would like to emphasise three.
First of all, he was a simple and humble man who not only remained in touch with the poor, but went out of his way to listen to and learn from them. As his Vicar-General, Mons Urioste explained, at the age of 60 he went back to school. But his teachers were not university professors or professional theologians. They were the simple uneducated peasants who flocked to his office from all over the country to explain their situation to him and seek his understanding and support. He was always ready to receive them and gave them priority over the many VIPs who also sought to see him. In this he resembled Jesus himself. A new life published for his 30th anniversary makes this point very clearly and describes the remarkable similarity between his life and that of Jesus of Nazareth.
Both were born into conditions of poverty in the province of a small and insignificant country. Both lived a life of profound intimacy with God and prayed by night. Both learned the trade of a carpenter. For both, the assassination of a good friend became a decisive event in their lives. They became public figures through their preaching, proclaiming the goodness of God and announcing the coming of the kingdom of God as a new order of love among all people. Both took sides with the poor and those who were socially excluded. Following the tradition of the prophets of Israel, they denounced injustice and corruption. In time, all the important social groups were allied against them. They were accused of being traitors who tried to upset the established order. Both confronted the imperialist powers of their day, and their public life lasted a mere three years.
Secondly, as several incidents in his life show, he sought advice from many people and, being a man of deep prayer, spent hours on his knees in the presence of God before deciding on a particular course of action or what to say in his weekly homilies, listened to by thousands all over the country. Romero was always ready to admit his mistakes and ask forgiveness for them. But once his mind was made up, he was fearless in speaking out, denouncing corruption and evil with no regard for his own personal safety. As he put it, ‘if I denounce and condemn injustice, it is because this is my duty as pastor of an oppressed and downtrodden people. The Gospel enjoins me to do this and, in its name, I am ready to go before the courts, to prison and to death.’This was one of the reasons why he himself claimed that his word would not die but would live on in the hearts of those who have wished to receive it. For it was not his word but the word of Christ speaking through him. Describing one of his early sermons, a witness reports: ‘At the beginning of Mass, I noticed Monseñor Romero nervous, pale, perspiring. And when the homily started, he seemed slow, without his usual eloquence, as if doubting to enter the door history and God were opening for him. But after five minutes, I felt that the Spirit of God had descended on him.’
Finally, his message is still valid today and needed as much as it was 30 years ago. The core of it, as he repeated many times, was the call of the Latin American bishops at their 1968 conference in Medellín, repeated in his presence at Puebla in 1979, for ‘the conversion of the whole church to a preferential option for the poor with a view to their integral liberation.’In a country torn apart by violence and bloodshed, he saw quite clearly where the root of the problem lay:
I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to the violence, we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, the exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.
From this it follows that it is the duty of the Church and all its members ‘to know the mechanisms that generate poverty, to struggle for a more just world, to support the workers and peasants in their claims and in their right to organise, and to be close to the people.’
The present situation in El Salvador has hardly changed in this respect and, though open hostilities have ceased and a new government more open to justice issues been put in place, the suffering of the poor and discrimination against them continue. And on the whole they are the same people and their situation has not improved. Globally, wealthy countries continue to impose harsh structural adjustment programmes on debt-ridden and defenceless nations, who have no option but to accept and endeavour to implement them, knowing full well that most of their own citizens will be the first to suffer.
So what Romero has to teach us about being a genuine follower of Christ is still relevant to all of us. He doesn’t mince his words: ‘It is inconceivable to call oneself a Christian without making, like Christ, a preferential option for the poor.’; ‘A Christian who defends unjust situations is no longer a Christian’; ‘The wealthy person who kneels before his money, even though he goes to Mass, is an idolater and not a Christian.’ And finally a warning: ‘It is a caricature of love to cover over with alms what is lacking in justice, to patch over with an appearance of benevolence when social justice is missing.’
Because of Romero’s forthright stand, the example he gave and the sort of person he was, the poor in El Salvador and many other countries still look to him as their saviour, their father. I would like to end this brief account with the testimony of a witness who went into the cathedral early one morning to pray at his tomb.
One winter’s morning, the sky dark with rain, a man in rags, covered in dust, his shirt in shreds, was carefully cleaning Romero’s tomb, using one of his rags. It was barely light but he was already active and awake. And though the rag was filthy with grease and age, he was giving a polish to the stone. On finishing, he smiled contentedly. At that early hour he had seen no one. And no one had seen him except me. When he went out onto the street, I felt I had to speak with him. ‘You, why are you doing that?’ ‘Doing what?’ he replied. ‘Cleaning Monseñor’s tomb.’ ‘Because he was my father.’ ‘How was that?’ ‘I’m no more than a poor beggar. Sometimes I’m a carrier in the market with a cart, other times I beg, and sometimes I spend everything on liquor and lie senseless in the gutter. But I never lose hope. I had a father. He made me feel somebody. Because people like me, he loved and didn’t turn up his nose. He spoke to us, touched us, asked us questions. He trusted us. He let it be seen the love he had for me. Like the love of a father. That’s why I clean his tomb. As a son would.’ 
Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ is former Provincial of the British Jesuits. He is now a member of the Jesuit community at Farm Street, Central London. He is the author of the recent, Just Faith: A Jesuit Striving for Social Justice (Way Books, 2010).
 Piezas para un Retrato, María López Vigil, UCA Editores, 3a Ed., 1995, p. 149
 El ultimo retiro spiritual de Monseñor Romero, Revista Latinoamericana de Teología, V, No. 13, enero-abril 1988, pp. 4-7.
 La voz de los sin voz: La palabra viva de Monseñor Romero, UCA Editores, 2a Ed., 1986, p. 62 and p. 461.
 Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints (Orbis Books, 2009)
 Homilias, 14 May 1978: Vol. IV, p.47
 Piezas, op. Cit., pp. 108-109
 Puebla: La evangelización en el presente y en el futuro de América Latina, UCA Editores, 3a Ed., 1985, p. 223: §1134.
 Homilias, 23 September 1979: Vol. VII, p.294
 Ibid., 6 August 1979: Vol VII, p.153
 Ibid., 9 September 1979: Vol VII, p.236
 Ibid., 16 September 1979: Vol VII, p.262
 Ibid., 11 November 1979: Vol VII, p.426
 Ibid., 12 April 1979: Vol VI, p.276
 Piezas, op. cit., p. 398