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«Stop the Repression!»
Óscar Romero started his most famous sermon with a nod to his detractors: “I know that many are scandalized at what I say,” he acknowledged. (This is a series on Romero’s seven final sermons: Read the English text of the Homily here, the original Spanish text here and the original Spanish audio here.) He knew that many charged him with being too eager to meddle in politics, but he insisted that his sermons were carefully considered and prayed over. “I ask the Lord during the week,” he said, “while I gather the people’s cries and the sorrow stemming from so much crime, the ignominy of so much violence, to give me the right words to console, to denounce, to call to repentance.” And, “Though I continue to be a voice that cries in the desert, I know that the Church is making the effort to fulfill its mission.”
“Many remember [Romero’s March 23] homily for his courageous call to the military to ‘stop the repression!’ [But, w]hat precedes that call ... is a beautiful homily that is vintage Romero.” (Scott Wright, Easter is Now the Cry of Victory! Archbishop Romero’s Last Homily, October 15, 2008, SicSal-USA.org.) The Sunday readings on March 23, 1980 included St. John’s account of Jesus telling the accusers of an adulteress, “Let he amongst you who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7.) Before the iconic pronouncement, the Gospel paints an enigmatic figure of Jesus, doodling on the ground while the Pharisees try to entrap Him with the theological conundrum of how to treat the sinful woman under the Judaic law. That image of Jesus is a fitting symbol of Romero’s stance. Initially, Romero comes across as studious: some had said—unfairly, in my view—that Romero was content to fiddle while El Salvador burned (See, “Romero,” Paulist Pictures, 1989). But Romero’s wheels were turning as he confronted the Salvadoran crisis, and one can see his thought process develop week to week: The previous Sunday, Romero had insisted that civil war talk was exaggerated and ought to not be given too much importance. (3/16/1980 Sermon.) But, on this Sunday, he said, “It must be admitted that our country is living in a pre-revolutionary era and not an era of transition.”
Like Jesus, Romero was plagued by enemies who wanted to catch him in a trap: they wanted to ensnare Romero in the charge that he was an agitator and Marxist sympathizer. Also like Jesus in the Gospel account, Romero responded to his accusers with a humane and sophisticated retort which unmasked the false legalisms of their arguments and challenged the accusers to confront their own consciences first. Romero’s argument slowly built up to the memorable “Stop the repression” discourse, but began, like Jesus’ doodles on the ground, with Romero setting up the groundwork for the argument, building it, thinking it through.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, Romero explained, shows that Jesus would place the dignity of the person above overly-rigid interpretations of the law. “The human person is not subordinate to the law,” he said. “‘Man is not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for man’” (Mark 2:27). In stating this principle, he made it clear that both the Right and the Left had violated it. “Some wish to make the person an instrument of exploitation,” he said. “Others, like Marxist ideologies, view the person as simply a cog in the wheel, and the National Security vision places the person in a position of servitude to the State, as if the State were the master and the human person, a slave, while in reality the opposite is true, that is, the state exists for the human person not the human person for the state.” He also pointed out the false legalism of those who would attempt to oblige him to either accept tepid reforms from an illegitimate government or be insinuated into a false embrace of violent alternatives. “Let us not invoke the law in order to save the Constitution of our land,” he chided, “especially when this law is trampled upon from very side.”
Romero then laid out in explicit detail the many violations of constitutional rights in El Salvador, which made the meager reforms offered by the Junta appear so useless. Before going into detail, Romero noted that Pope John Paul II had highlighted deaths in Rome in his recent public statements: “I am sure that if the Pope were in my place he would point out not only the ten people who had been cruelly assassinated in Italy, but would take the time, like we are doing here, to point out the numerous assassinations that occur day after day.” Then, Romero began the terrible litany. He “reported that at least 78 murders had been perpetrated by state security forces during the previous week alone.” (Margaret PFEIL, PhD, Gloria Dei, Vivens Pauper: A Theology of Transfiguration, Catholic Peace Fellowship, Vol. 4.2, Spring 2005.) He went over the various incidents that produced those figures, one by one. “A day earlier, he noted, Amnesty International had declared that in El Salvador, human rights were being violated to an extreme not seen in other countries.” (Id.) Noting 600 political assassinations and the displacement of 3,500 peasants fleeing persecution, “Amnesty had established that in El Salvador human rights are violated to a worse degree than the repression in Chile after the coup d'état,” he said.
In this context, Archbishop Romero made his famous, final, forceful appeal, which tied up the Gospel references about human dignity vs. the law and the challenge to conscience:
I would like to appeal in a special way to the army’s enlisted men, and in particular to the ranks of the Guardia Nacional and the police—those in the barracks. Brothers: you are of part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail: «Thou shalt not kill!»(Hear Raul Julia's recitation from “Romero.”) Romero’s distillation of the Gospel in view of the insane spiral of violence coincided with Pope John XXIII teaching fifteen years before—when he declared that, “laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since it is right to obey God rather than men.” («PACEM IN TERRIS,» 1963.) Nevertheless, observers agree that in this sermon, “Romero preached his own death sentence,” because the military took his appeal as a call to sedition. (PFEIL, Supra.)
No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The Church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such abominations. We want the government to understand seriously that reforms are worth nothing if they are stained with so much blood.
In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!
Romero’s conclusion had been impactful and poignant. In a famous poem, Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga proclaimed, “Saint Romero of America, our pastor and martyr: No one will silence your final homily!” Father Roy Bourgeois once blasted a recording of the sermon into the School of the Americas military training grounds. “Stop the Repression” has been reproduced in graffiti, posters, songs, t-shirts and websites, making this the most important homily in the history of the Latin American Church. (See, Top Ten Romero Quotes, June 22, 2006, Yahoo San Romero Discussion Group).
“After the mass Romero stood on the steps of the basilica greeting people, listening to them. Some offered him little children to take in his arms. Others touched him and blessed themselves.” (James BROCKMAN, Romero: A Life (Orbis, New York, 1989), p. 242). At some friends’ house, later, that night, Romero “was silent and took off his glasses, which was unusual. At table he was unusually quiet; he gave ... a silent look as though he wanted to [say] something, and tears came to his eyes. The family wondered what was wrong. Then he began to talk about his best friends, recounting their virtues.” (Id.) It was his last night on this earth.
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