Deputy Principal - Mission and Faith

Oscar Romero

On May 23 this year, the murdered Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero was beatified.  Romero has been declared a martyr as he was assassinated, “odium fidei”, because of “hated of the faith”.  Romero was murdered while saying Mass in the Chapel of a hospital for cancer patients in 1980.  He is the first bishop to be murdered at the altar since Thomas Becket was killed in 1170 at the request of Henry II.

What is highly significant here is the theological convergence of doctrine and evangelisation with the work for justice in the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church acknowledges that Romero was killed because of hatred of the faith, which in the case of Romero, was his work for justice i.e. his defence of the poor of El Salvador.  Until recently this would not have been seen as martyrdom.  It would have been seen as far too political and even Marxist or Communist.

Romero’s understanding of the Gospel and social justice stemmed from the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent meeting of Latin American Bishops at Medellin, Colombia in 1968.  It was at Medellin that the Bishops of Latin America wanted to apply the Gospel to the situation of the poor.  Inspired by Vatican II they asked themselves what is the situation of the people of Latin America?  They answered:

"Inherent social injustice and institutional violence which results in disease, lives without options and early death".

The Bishops at Medellin then called on the Church to make a “preferential option for the poor”.  This later became known as “Liberation Theology” and its genesis can be seen in Luke’s Gospel chapter four:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Vatican II took this theme up in its final document Gaudium et Spes when it said:

While an immense number of people still lack the absolute necessities of life, some, even in less advanced areas, live in luxury or squander wealth. Extravagance and wretchedness exist side by side. While a few enjoy very great power of choice, the majority are deprived of almost all possibility of acting on their own initiative and responsibility, and often subsist in living and working conditions unworthy of the human person.  (para 63)

Gaudium et Spes also said:

…it devolves on humanity to establish a political, social and economic order which will growingly serve man and help individuals as well as groups to affirm and develop the dignity proper to them. (para 9)

Gaudium et Spes was interpreting Jesus’ message for the modern age and asking the Church to interpreted Jesus message to their own situation.  We see Jesus telling parables such as the Good Samaritan (Lk 10) and indicating that we will be judged according to our help of the helpless (Mt 25).  The Gospel is political and the Church must stand on the side of the poor as they seek justice and their fair share.  If you hate the struggle of the poor, you have “hatred of the faith”.  This is why Romero was killed, his struggle for justice for the poor of El Salvador.  Those that killed him hated what he was doing - he was just being faithful to the Gospel.

Romero put himself in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and in opposition to structures of injustice.  Romero was regarded by many as a traitor and as divisive.  With his beatification the Church has acknowledged the biblical origins of Romero’s work and calls on us to return to this biblical understanding of following Jesus.

What Romero has to say to us about being a genuine follower of Jesus includes statements such as:

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 keels before his money, even though he goes to Mass, is an idolater and not a Christian.

And Romero warns us that:

It is a caricature of love to cover with alms what is lacking in justice, to patch over with an appearance of benevolence when social justice is missing.

Pope Francis knows this well.  He has called on the Church to be poor and for the poor.  Echoing Jesus, Romero, and the Latin American bishops at Medellin he has said:  “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.” (Evangelii Gaudium para. 187)