Brian J. Pierce, OP
On March 24, Christians in Latin America and throughout the world remember and celebrate the anniversary of the paschal death and resurrection of Archbishop Oscar A. Romero of El Salvador. For those of us who are preachers, Romero continues to be, in many ways, one of our greatest modern mentors. He was a preacher par excellence, one who knew himself to be called by God—in a particular place and time in history—to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ. His profound sense of call not only fortified his prophetic ministry, but also served as the basis of his deep humility. As he said in a homily not long after being named Archbishop of San Salvador, “I do not think I am that important. I believe that this message, which is only a humble echo of God’s Word, enters your hearts, not because it is mine, but because it comes from God” (October 29, 1978).
Monseñor Romero, as he was affectionately called by his followers throughout the country, was aware that his preaching was seen as anything but “humble” by certain sectors of Salvadoran society. His courageous unmasking of lies and his speaking of the truth were denounced almost daily by the wealthy and the powerful—even by some of his own brother bishops. He knew well the risks that such a ministry entailed. In his New Year’s day homily, 1979, he said, “I was told this week that I should be careful, that something was being plotted against my life. I trust in the Lord, and I know that the ways of Providence protect one who tries to serve him.”
Romero’s deep “trust in the Lord,” however, had little to do with being concerned with his own personal security; his greatest trust was in the transforming power of God’s Word. Aware of the dangers of speaking the truth in a world held captive by lies, he said, “My voice will disappear, but my word, which is Christ, will remain in the hearts that have made it their own” (December 1978).
The death and resurrection of Christ was Monseñor Romero’s daily bread, his sustenance, his hope. Just two weeks before his death, Romero gave an interview to the Mexican daily newspaper, Excelsior. In this interview, he gave an eloquent summary of his understanding of a Christian’s participation in the paschal mystery of Christ:
I have frequently been threatened with death. I must say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise in the Salvadoran people. I am not boasting; I say it with the greatest humility. As a pastor I am bound by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that includes all Salvadorans, even those who are going to kill me. If they manage to carry out their threats, I shall be offering my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador (Sobrino, pp.99-100).
At first his words do ring with an almost haughty, messianic tone—almost as if he saw himself as another Christ—rising in the hearts of his disciples. Nothing could be further from the truth. There was no pride in Romero’s encounter with death. He understood the death and resurrection of Christ in a way similar to how many mystics understand love—from the inside out, from lived experience. The French saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, frustrated at one point in her short life with the reality that she would never be ordained a priest or go to a foreign land as a missionary, said in a moment of mystical frustration, “Then I shall become love.” For Thérèse, becoming love was not an intellectual affirmation; it was a vocation. She transcended all boundaries and limitations by allowing God to become love in her.
Romero, I believe, did the same. Like Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, Romero moved beyond simply consenting faithfully to his belief in the resurrection of Christ; he became the paschal mystery. He so fully poured his own life out that the paschal Christ could become one with him—body, soul, and spirit. “I live, yet no longer do I live but Christ lives in me… and dies in me… and rises in me and in the Salvadoran people.”
For us preachers, what is so very pertinent is that Romero was profoundly aware—convinced—that it was through his preaching, perhaps more than anything else, that he lived out his paschal union with Christ. It was the Word which he preached that would rise from the dead and live in the hearts and struggles of his people. “A bishop will die,” he said in the Excelsior interview, “but the church of God—the people—will never die.”
After yet another attempt to bomb and destroy the YSAX radio station of the Archdiocese, Romero commented, “If some day they take the radio station away from us, if they close down our newspaper, if they don’t let us speak, if they kill all the priests and the bishop too, and you are left, a people without priests, each one of you must be God’s microphone, each one of you must be a messenger, a prophet” (July 8, 1979). Romero had no doubts: the Word of truth is eternal and will rise in the hearts of the faithful.
For Oscar Romero, the very Word of God that took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth was eternal. It was God’s voice weaving itself through history, through the universe. It is enfleshed in the words of those who speak the truth. God’s Word, hidden within the limited words of the prophet, is not subject to death. It sounds forth for all ages from the Cross of Christ and from the crucified Body of Christ, the Church. “My voice will disappear,” said Monseñor Romero, aware that he was nothing but a humble instrument of God, “but my word, which is Christ, will remain in the hearts of those who have wanted to receive it” (December 17, 1978).
Sources for the above quotes: Mons. Oscar A. Romero: Su Pensamiento (Arzobispado de San Salvador); James R. Brockman, S.J., The Church is All of You and The Violence of Love (Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus); Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections (Orbis Books); Monseñor Romero: El Pueblo Es Mi Profeta (Equipo de Educación MAIZ, San Salvador).
Originally appeared in the journal Living Pulpit. Reprinted with minor changes with permission of the author.