|The young Fr. Romero in St. Peter's in the 1950s.|
Thirty-five years is a long time. If Archbishop Oscar Romero had been looking back thirty-five years in 1980, the way we are looking back to his martyrdom that year, he would have had to look back to 1945, the year of the end of the Second World War. Another, more obvious, way of dramatizing the fact is to say that a baby born when Romero was killed would, of course, be thirty-five years old today.
If Romero himself had been born in 1980, today we would have the Father Romero of 1952—the year Romero was 35 years-old. That was the year Romero wrote about an upcoming Church conference in Colombia to study social issues facing the Latin American peasantry. “The church approaches the peasant generously,” Romero wrote, “to love him, to elevate him, and make him experience his greatness as a son of God and king of creation.” He contrasted the Church’s approach to that of “the rich farm owners and ranchers,” who approach the peasantry “with the petty and selfish desire to exploit and scandalize.”
The thirty-five year-old Romero lamented the domineering attitudes that urban effetes exhibited towards peasants: “such a blatant sense of superiority that we can almost say that we are living again through the era of masters and servants,” Romero lambasted. He warned that such contempt breeds exploitation and injustice, blasting the inequalities among the classes. “The abundant harvest and high prices smile a hopeful promise for the wealthy coffers that will underwrite all manner of luxury and whim,” he wrote, “while the poor, underpaid cutter, sleeps without dreams, under a foreign coffee canopy to digest a coarse omelet of beans—the only sustenance which becomes his pattern and custom throughout the season.”
In the first thirty-years of Romero’s life, his social conscience was merely beginning to coalesce, but passages such as the foregoing demonstrate that Romero was neither blind nor indifferent to social injustice as a thirty-five year-old. Similarly, we, in the thirty-five years since Romero’s death, are only beginning to appreciate the complete profile of the saint. He is not the caricature we have sometimes been presented, of a man who did not exist until the last three years of his life or, much less, who did not care or grieve over injustice for the first sixty years of his life. Instead, he was a man who undertook a life-long process of conversion that put him on a difficult path to the martyrdom that the Church has finally recognized after thirty-five years.
It is true that Romero became more “radical” at the end. Part of the reason for his radical disposition was that the situation was more radical, more desperate, and more extreme. But Romero also became more “radical” in the true sense of the word. The word “radical” stems from the Latin radic-, radix, meaning “root.” At the end of his life, Romero reverted to the root idea he had expressed as a thirty-five year-old priest: that the Church must approach the poor, the peasants, to elevate them and help them experience the grandeur of feeling themselves sons of God. “True promotion or development,” Romero preached in March 1980, “involves us in being able to experience ourselves as children of God.”
He had written that message in ink as a thirty-five year old and, thirty-five years ago, he blazoned the same message in blood; and it is this message which gives meaning to his martyrdom. Thirty five years on, the Church, and all of us, understand that a little better.
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