human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Óscar Romero

a voice of justice for the poor, oppressed and the vulnerable

On 14 October 2018 blessed Óscar Romero, former archbishop of San Salvador, will be canonised (made saint) at the Vatican ceremony together with six other persons. Romero was killed by a bullet on 24 March 1980 in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence during the Mass which he was celebrating. Just a few minutes before his death, the archbishop reminded his congregation of the parable of the wheat. “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grain of wheat that dies.  It only apparently dies.  If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain.  The harvest comes because of the grain that dies… We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us”. Romero actively denounced poverty, social injustice within the political and ecclesial structures, assassinations, and torture, while firmly standing at the side of the most poor and marginalised. He is buried in the Cathedral of San Salvador where he had preached justice and courageously defended the faith.

Who was Óscar Romero?

Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Goldamez was born in 1917 in the town of Ciudad Barrios in the mountains of El Salvador near the border with Honduras. After leaving school at twelve, he began his training as a carpenter. Yet, following his priestly vocation, young Óscar underwent training at San Miguel and San Salvador and completed his theological studies in Rome. Ordained priest in 1942 and returned to San Salvador in 1944 to serve as a country priest, before taking charge of two seminaries. In 1966 Romero assumed a position of the secretary to the El Salvador Episcopal Conference, a post he held for 23 years.

In 1970 Romero became bishop and served as an assistant to the elderly Archbishop of San Salvador and later as Bishop of Santiago de Maria. The assassination of his close friend in 1977, a Salvadorian Jesuit and a graduate of the Lumen Vitae Institute in Brussels Rev. Rutilio Grande, became an obvious trigger in Romero’s views on the role of the Catholic Church in political life, shifting his focus from defending the status quo, to actively working against it. As a newly appointed Archbishop of San Salvador Óscar Romero turned his preacher’s pulpit into a forecourt of justice and proclamation of truth even at the cost of his own life.

His message was like a sharp light: critically unmasking, but also heart-warmingly inspiring; full of meaning to his oppressed compatriots, people he accompanied then and a faith witness full of inspiration for many people today. For his prominent role in transforming society and the church on 2 February 1980 Oscar Romero was rewarded with an honorary doctorate from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium). You can read here his speech from that day.

An Inspiration and hope for people in need

Romero courageously spoke out against violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable people and defended the principles of protecting lives, promoting human dignity and opposition to all forms of violence. He is increasingly recognised as a living testimony of an embodiment of the ‘preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable’. Once he was asked to explain that strange phrase, ‘option for the poor’. He replied: “I offer you this by way of example. A building is on fire and you’re watching it burn, standing and wondering if everyone is safe. Then someone tells you that your mother and your sister are inside that building. Your attitude changes completely. You’re frantic; your mother and sister are burning and you’d do anything to rescue them even at the cost of getting charred. That’s what it means to be truly committed. If we look at poverty from the outside, as if we’re looking at a fire, that’s not to opt for the poor, no matter how concerned we may be. We should get inside as if our own mother and sister were burning. Indeed it’s Christ who is there, hungry and suffering.”

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 24 March as the “International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims” in recognition of the role of Archbishop Romero in defence of human rights.

The Óscar Romero Prayer

The prayer often and widely shared as ‘The Óscar Romero Prayer’ brings forward the powerful message which Romero was conveying. Interestingly, these words are commonly attributed to Óscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him. The prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, for a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in 1979 at a celebration of departed priests. Pope Francis used this prayer in December 2015 in his Christmas address to the Roman Curia.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Other persons who will be canonised with Romero on 14 October 2018 are:

  • Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini), Supreme Pontiff;
  • Francesco Spinelli, diocesan priest, founder of the Institute of the Sisters Adorers of the Most Holy Sacrament;
  • Vincenzo Romano, diocesan priest;
  • Maria Katharina Kasper, virgin, founder of the Institute of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ;
  • Nazaria Ignacia de Santa Teresa de Jesús (née: Nazaria Ignacia March Mesa), founder of the Congregation of the Missionary Crusaders of the Church;
  • Nunzio Sulprizio, a young Italian layperson.

Read more about Archbishop Óscar Romero by our CAFOD friends.

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Maryana Hnyp

Institutional Development Officer
Caritas Europa