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    Following Oscar Romero’s Example

    A letter bomb victim reflects on the Salvadoran saint’s martyrdom.

    By Michael Lapsley

    August 9, 2021

    Available languages: Español, 한국어


    This is the introduction to the book The Scandal of Redemption: When God Liberates the Poor, Saves Sinners, and Heals Nations in the Plough Spiritual Guides series.

    My view of Oscar Romero is shaped by my own journey. When Romero was shot while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980, I was living in Lesotho, a small mountainous kingdom completely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa, having been banished from South Africa for speaking out against injustice, as Romero and many other religious leaders were doing at the time. The South African state was enforcing apartheid, a form of constitutionalized racism. The United Nations had declared that apartheid was a crime against humanity, and the international Christian community had said that it was heresy or false doctrine, yet the apartheid state still claimed divine guidance and insisted that it was a Christian state.

    Like Romero, following Jesus was my desire from early childhood. At the age of seventeen, I left New Zealand and traveled to Australia to begin training for the priesthood of the Anglican Church as well as to join an Anglican religious order, the Society of the Sacred Mission.

    My religious order transferred me to South Africa in 1973. I imagined that when I arrived I would find three groups of people: the oppressed, the oppressors, and the third group to which I would belong: the human race. My first rude awakening was the realization that the color of my skin made me part of the oppressor group even if I did not wish to be. The day I arrived in South Africa I stopped being a human being and became a white man.

    Michael Lapsley

    Michael Lapsley

    I was expelled from South Africa in September 1976. Just three months earlier, on June 16, 1976, the police and soldiers had begun shooting school children. This was a defining moment in my own life journey.

    For Archbishop Romero, the turning point was the assassination of Father Rutilio Grande on March 12, 1977. As Romero said: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’”

    Unlike Archbishop Romero, I chose to join the political liberation movement. Like Romero, however, the only weapon I ever used was my tongue. For me, joining the liberation struggle was about recovering my own humanity, in solidarity with people of color struggling for their basic human rights. Soon after the blood of children poured out in the streets of South Africa, I was elected to be the national chaplain to Anglican students. I began to speak out against the killing of children and the widespread detentions and torture.

    The news of Romero’s assassination certainly made me stop and consider what my actions might cost, and I’m sure people of faith engaged in similar struggles for justice around the globe could say the same. But more than that, his words and his witness gave us courage and determination to apply the words of Jesus even more clearly and boldly to the situations we faced. In 1982 there was a massacre in Maseru where forty-two people were shot dead by the South African Army. I was not there at the time but was believed by some of the church authorities to be one of the targets of the massacre. It was then that I made a vow that my own life would be dedicated to help end apartheid and build a society in which little children would go to bed safe and wake up safe.

    Because I was on a hit list of the South African government, for several years I had to live in Zimbabwe, with armed police guards twenty-four hours a day. There, in April 1990, three months after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I received in the post a letter bomb hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines. In the blast I lost both of my hands and an eye, and my eardrums were shattered.

    When the bomb went off, I felt that God was with me in my crucifixion. I also felt that Mary, the mother of Jesus, understood what I was experiencing. The prayers and love of people around the world were the vehicle that God used to make my bombing redemptive, to bring life out of death and good out of evil.

    And once again, Romero’s example spoke directly to me. I recalled his last words, moments before he was shot at the altar. “May this body that was immolated and this flesh that was sacrificed for humankind also nourish us so that we can give our bodies and our blood to suffering and to pain, as Christ did, not for our own sake but to bring justice and peace to our people.”

    I was particularly challenged and inspired by an interview Archbishop Romero gave just days before his death, in which he indicated that he wanted whoever would murder him to know that he forgave him. To this day, I don’t know who sent me that bomb in April of 1990. But if that person is still a prisoner of what he did, I have a key and I would be happy to turn it.

    My reflections on my own journey of healing, as well as on the journey of the people of South Africa, led me in time to establish the Institute for Healing of Memories. As part of the global work of this non-governmental organization, in November 2016 I was invited for the first time to visit the land of Oscar Romero, the only country named after the Savior of the world, to see if in some modest way we could contribute to the healing journey of the Salvadoran people. On All Saints Day 2016, at the Wall of Truth and Memory in San Salvador, I participated in an ecumenical memorial for the thousands disappeared and killed during the Salvadoran civil war. And I was able to kneel at the tomb of Oscar Romero, as well as at the spot where his assassination and martyrdom took place.

    Tragically, the land of the Savior is still characterized by huge social violence and inequality. But Romero’s witness lives on. As José Osvaldo Lopez, an Anglican in El Salvador, writes:

    With the life and works of Romero, I am certain that Jesus himself passed through El Salvador, leaving us a clear and strong message by his life example as a person and a pastor. Romero is for me not simply a pastoral model, but above all an enormous challenge, one that requires me as a Christian to assume a critical attitude against social and structural injustice. Yet Romero does not only challenge me to denounce injustice. Above all he invites me, calling on me forcefully, to love those around me. … By loving my brothers and sisters, I will not only be imitating Romero but also Jesus, with whom I will be contributing to building a better world. And in the end, I will be part of the construction of the true kingdom of God on earth.

    As I seek to make my own humble contribution to the healing of the human family, I continue to be inspired by the life and legacy of Oscar Romero. It is my hope and prayer that through this book he will do the same for another generation of people who hunger and thirst for righteousness. I have no doubt that if you read this book with an open heart, it will deepen your own faith and commitment to work for justice and to participate in God’s dream for all of us.

    Contributed By MichaelLapsley Michael Lapsley

    Father Michael Lapsley is the founder and director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories in Cape Town, South Africa. He is the author of several books, including Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer.

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