‘Martyrdom is a great gift from God that I do not believe I have earned. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty and a sign of the hope that will soon become a reality… A bishop will die, but the church of God—the people—will never die.’ — St Oscar Romero
At long last, Oscar Romero, the great martyred Archbishop of Central America, was canonised on 18 October 2018. The Church now officially recognises that St Oscar Romero is a personification of this beatitude: Blessed are the persecuted.
An Archbishop in El Salvador, he was assassinated shortly after giving a sermon one Sunday because he advocated for the poor and those whose human rights were being violated in his country.
Archbishop Romero, like the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina (now Pope Francis), came to see anew that the preferential option for the poor was crucial to the witness of a renewed and authentic Church.
Because Romero made this choice, he suffered much from the fierce hatred of people with vested interests in seeking to maintain the unjust status quo in his country.
But I suspect that he felt an even more terrible inner agony, as he was tragically misunderstood by some within his own beloved Church. We now know this because of his published diaries. There, he acknowledged his fears and loneliness, especially the pain he felt from the opposition of his fellow bishops and the apparent distrust of some in Rome. Most of the then-fellow Bishops of El Salvador even boycotted Romero’s funeral Mass in 1980.
We should never forget that St Oscar Romero was but one of many Catholic martyrs who gave their lives for the poor. The tragic history of the genocide of indigenous peoples in Latin America by so-called ‘Catholic’ colonisers makes almost unbearable reading; let alone the scandal that even more millions continue to live desperately poor lives.
Why? Too often because people who called themselves Catholics made a ‘god’ of money. Many have paid, and are still paying, a heavy price for their courageous choice to unmask this idolatry.
Oscar Romero and the Church in El Salvador were, of course, by no means unique in suffering persecution. History is replete with examples of the Church being persecuted, especially by communist and fascist regimes in the 20th century.
What is unique about St Oscar Romero and the poor of El Salvador is the anomaly that their persecutors dared to call themselves ‘Catholics’.
Their victims did not die simply for clinging to the faith, but for clinging, like Jesus, to the poor. It was this insight that marked a new theological depth in Romero’s message. For Romero, the Church’s option for the poor was not just a matter of pastoral priorities. It was a defining characteristic of Catholic faith.
St Oscar Romero and a host of lay women and men in Latin America were persecuted for this witness. Their glory is that, like Jesus, they ‘answered’—with their lives.
This article is part of a series of reflections entitled Blessed Are You: Meditations on the Beatitudes & Daily Life by Br Mark O’Connor FMS.
Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.