Oscar Romero

As I sit here at my computer to write this article, it strikes me, “well, where else would I be?”. Like everyone else in the ROI, if not confined to home, I am confined to a travel radius of just 5km from my front door. That by the way takes me exactly to the gates of the local dump! There is perhaps an irony or a lesson in there somewhere, but I am stubborn and persistent in my refusal to acknowledge it! As I write, it is Wednesday the 24th of March, my head is swirling with a list of things that need to be done, not least a service and sermon for Sunday, but the I suspect like many others during lockdown, I have become a big fan of that age old saying; “tomorrows another day”.
          Today ( March 24th) is the United Nations International day for the right to truth of victims of human rights violations and abuse. Created by a motion of the UN in 2010, it is a reminder that despite our noble aspirations, we can be a cruel race, inflicting war, killing and torture on anyone who stands in our way. As we can treat our fellow human beings with kindness, care and affection, we can also end a life as if it were a wasp threatening to sting us on a summers day.
          In his message for the day, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutteres said; “As we recognise the courage of human rights defenders everywhere, let us commit to protect those who seek truth and justice and provide victims with effective remedies and restore their dignity”.
          The date chosen was by no means random, it was chosen to honour the memory of a man who encapsulated all in the secretary generals statement. In our Unitarian tradition, we do not have saints in the formal sense of the elevation of an individual to special status by virtue of canonization. We do, however, recognise that some individuals leave an indelible mark on the world, a permanent footprint that the passage of tie will not erode, a footprint that points the way to a better way of living, of seeing the world and our neighbour. Today, March the 24th is the fest day of one such man, the UN sanctioned day is in his honour.
          Oscar Arnulfo Romero Y Galdanez was born in 1917 in the san Miguel district of El Salvador, despite being highly proficient in carpentry, the trade his father wanted him to take, the young Oscar set his sights on the priesthood. Entering the seminary, he would complete his studies at Rome’s Gregorian University, being ordained in 1942. In scenes reminiscent of today, his parents and siblings couldn’t attend their sons big day because of travel restrictions in place due to World War II. He would return to work in a parish in San Miguel, in fact he stayed in the same parish for twenty years. Hard working and diligent to his calling among his major reforms was the introduction of Alcoholics Anonymous into the district. He was then appointed rector of the local seminary and while on a retreat to alleviate symptoms of exhaustion he was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder or OCD as it is more commonly known. Priests who knew and worked with him have described him as being “scrupulous”.
          By 1977, his appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador came as something of a shock. It was welcomed by the government who didn’t see him as a threat or a troublemaker, he was seen as a “safe pair of hands”. For the clergy, his appointment was not a welcome one, Romero did not approve of Marxist/ liberation theology, he was very much a supporter of the Magisterium of the catholic church. Latter that year his world would be turned upside down by the killing of his close friend, Fr.Rutillio Grande, a Jesuit known for his work with the poor and for giving a voice to the victims of government oppression and human rights abuses. His death had a profound effect on the “safe pair of hands” that was the archbishop of San Salvador. He later said: “When I looked at Rutillio lying there dead, I thought, if they have killed him for doing what he did, I too have to walk the same path”.
          The blood- soaked landscape of El Salvador was to get worse when in 1979 the Right - Wing Junta government took power. Romero openly attacked the United States for supplying military aid. He wrote a scathing letter to President Jimmy Carter. During this time people were tortured, executed and “disappeared”, many were priests sympathetic to cause of the rebels. Romero became the junta’s most outspoken critic reaching the nation by way of his weekly sermons broadcast on the church owned radio station, YSAX, that was when it wasn’t bombed off the air.
          On March the 23rd during his weekly broadcast, he urged the soldiers of the El Salvadorian army to remember their Christian values and to stop the torture killing and abuses. The following evening, he was saying mass in the chapel of a hospice, which was also his home, he had refused to live in the Archbishop’s palace. Finishing his sermon, he stepped away from the lectern, as he did so, a lone gunman entered the chapel and shot Romero through the heart, he died instantly. He was just 63 years of age. No one has ever been prosecuted for his murder.
          At his funeral, smoke bombs were exploded as a distraction as gunmen opened fire from buildings overlooking the proceedings. Official government figures say 31 people were killed, eye- witnesses say up to 50. Among those attending the funeral was the late Bishop of Galway, Eammon Casey, a friend of Romero’s, in fact, Casey revealed he had received a letter from Romero on the day he was killed. Indeed, Casey was praised for helping those fleeing the attack.
          On the 14th of October 2018, Pope Francis raised Oscar Romero to the status of saint. Part of the delay seems to have been the Vatican deciding whether he had been killed for his faith or for political reasons. A statue of him was erected at Westminster Abbey, he stands alongside Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the gallery of 20th century martyrs. In Dublin, the Romero Centre promotes awareness about El Salvador and last year in Glenstal abbey, the newest member of the community of Benedictine monks, took as his religious name; Bro. Oscar.
          As I said earlier, as Unitarians, we do not do saints, but if we did……..

Rev.Mike O’Sullivan
Minister Unitarian Church Cork.                     Wednesday 24th March 2021