[Except for four new paragraphs at the beginning, this is a slightly revised excerpt from a sermon preached by Bill Lewellis in 2010.]
Almost a year before I left the Roman Catholic Church, Oscar Romero became one of my heroes. Onetime Archbishop of El Salvador, he was assassinated at the altar on March 24, 1980.
Pope Francis recently announced that he would declare Romero saint of the universal church in a ceremony in the Vatican on Oct. 14, 2018.
The Episcopal Church had added him to our book of saints, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, now Holy Women, Holy Men. He was attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, in Love … and, when necessary, he changed.
Ironically, it was his change that got him into trouble with the institutional church. Many holy women and holy men experienced that. Does make one wonder. Pope Francis recognized that.
A conservative bishop who sided with the local power brokers who kept the poor oppressed, Oscar Romero was made archbishop in 1977 as a “compromise” candidate who was not impressed with Vatican II renewal.
When he was named archbishop, the local liberation theology Jesuits threw up their hands and wrote him off. They had been asserting heroically by their ministry that “the contemporary church must wield not only the teaspoons of charity, but also the bulldozers of justice, and become the voice of the voiceless.”
Over the next few years, however, especially after personally witnessing early morning clean up of bloodstained corpses on San Salvador's streets, victims of paramilitary death squads, and the slaying of his good friend, Father Rutilio Grande, Romero became a powerful critic of those in power who sanctioned atrocities.
When his Jesuit friend was gunned down in his jeep, Romero cancelled all services in San Salvador the following Sunday except for a single Mass outside the San Salvador Cathedral, celebrated with 100,000 people. His repentance and transformation accelerated after these and other events turned him around the bend. Reprisals intensified, while right-wing groups were leafleting the nation: Be a patriot: kill a priest.
“Romero's journey was not easy,” Canon Andrew Gerns at Trinity Easton on the 30th anniversary of Romero's martyrdom. “He was not raised to be a radical. He was raised in privilege and was appointed to care for the church in his archdiocese in a rather conventional way. Appoint priests, oversee schools, manage the books...don’t rock the boat. But he had a heart for faith and was willing to go where Jesus led him. At first tentatively, and later boldly, he began to connect the dots. He believed that the job of the church was to care for the weakest of God’s people. For Romero, this was a death sentence.”
We may not be able to point to any one event during which Romero was born again. As it is said of most Episcopalians, he was born again and again and again ... transformed, transformed, transformed and transformed. Not long after his incremental transformations – and actions taken in line with his transformation – Romero was shot on March 24, 1980, in the shadow of the cross.
For those of us who have read Mountains Beyond Mountains, it might be enough to note that Dr. Paul Farmer, living at Duke University when Romero was murdered, marks his own conversion and transformation from that event, from the witness and transformation of one man. Farmer, a Harvard doctor, reinvented international healthcare to bring medicine and healing to the poor in Haiti, Rwanda, Russia, Peru, Mexico and other nations.