Thirty-one years ago a man fell at the altar, dead in a pool of his own blood, an assassin’s bullet in his heart. Archbishop Oscar Romero had just blessed the communion bread and wine:
“Whoever offers their life out of love for Christ, and in service to others, will live like the seed that dies...May this immolated body and this blood sacrificed for all nourish us so that we may offer our body and our blood as Christ did, and thus bring justice and peace to our people...”
Those were his last words.
No man has inspired me more than this unlikely martyr. By fearlessly denouncing the murders, rapes and injustices being committed daily against his people, he earned the deep love and respect of millions while incurring the enmity of a few with wealth and power. He paid the ultimate price.
His story however does not belong lost in the rosy historical glow of sainthood. His prophetic words speak now. They resonate in the popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa, where people peacefully demanding the legitimate rights of basic human dignity, political representation, and economic participation are being violently repressed and killed by their own governments. Most importantly they challenge us to consider our responsibility to the world we live in and to those nearest us.
To each one of us Christ is saying: If you want your life and mission to be fruitful like mine, do like me. Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried. Let yourself be killed. Do not be afraid. Those who shun suffering will remain alone. No one is more alone than the selfish. But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all, you will reap a great harvest. You will have the deepest satisfactions. Do not fear death or threats. The Lord goes with you.
Romero was not born brave. An ordinary man like you or me, he was known for his timidity and conservative views. Named Archbishop of San Salvador at age 60, he favored the security of tradition. Uncomfortable with the social and political upheaval shaking his church and nation, he was afraid to get involved. However, as Romero opened his heart with compassion towards the suffering he encountered, it began to change him:
One begins to experience faith and conversion when one has the heart of the poor, when one knows that financial capital, political influence, and power are worthless, and that without God we are nothing.
We learn to see the face of Christ – the face of Christ that also is the face of a suffering human being, the face of the crucified, the face of the poor, the face of a saint, and the face of every person – and we love each one with the criteria with which we will be judged: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.”
Rooted in his own conversion, Romero’s all-embracing call to repentance is his most enduring legacy:
We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us.
It extended to the perpetrators of violence:
Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, especially those of you who hate me, who think I am preaching violence, who defame me and know it isn’t true, you that have hands stained with murder, with torture, with atrocity, with injustice – be converted. I love you deeply. I am sorry for you because you go on the way to ruin.
It confronts us as individuals:
The poor person is the one who has been converted to God and puts all his faith in him, and the rich person is the one who has not been converted to God and puts his confidence in idols: money, power, material things…Our work should be directed toward converting ourselves and all people to the authentic meaning of poverty.
How easy it is to denounce structural injustice, institutionalized violence, social sin! And it is true, this sin is everywhere, but where are the roots of this social sin? In the heart of every human being. Present-day society is a sort of anonymous world in which no one is willing to admit guilt, and everyone is responsible. We are all sinners, and we have all contributed to this massive crime and violence in our country. Salvation begins with the human person, with human dignity, with saving every person from sin. And in Lent this is God’s call: Be converted!
Now it is our turn. Confronted with the enormity of Christ’s ongoing suffering are we cut to the heart like the first Christians when the apostle Peter told them they had crucified the Son of God(Acts 2:36-37)? Do we dare address the injustices in our own lives and neighborhoods? Will we put the needs of others before our own? Are we willing to be vulnerable and misunderstood? We can meet the suffering in our society and communities only with the violence of love: a changed and compassionate heart.
Read more from Óscar Romero in The Violence of Love, a free ebook of excerpts from his homilies.