BEATIFICATION OF ARCHBISHOP ROMERO, MAY 23, 2015
Horrific news from El Salvador: reports are both alarming and disheartening. This past August, the crime that plagues the country left more than 900 dead, setting a new record at levels not seen since the days of the Salvadoran civil war. The toll hit members of the juvenile-delinquent groups or “maras” the hardest as they continued to eliminate each other in frightening episodes like the slaughter of 14 gang members in a prison in Quezaltepeque at the end of the month. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court recently categorized the maras—and their “collaborators” and “apologists”—as terrorists. In support of this judgment, the magistrates cited gang activities such as attacks on police stations and military garrisons, a vast network of extortion that stifles commerce at a national level, and forces families from their homes and forces more and more students to drop out of school.
El Salvador is living through a desperate hour, and everything suggests that this terrible crisis requires a response that is equally extraordinary if not miraculous. Archbishop Romero was the most dynamic leader in Salvadoran history and he was also an outstanding peacemaker. He held off the start of the civil war through his sole and frantic efforts, so that his death unleashed all-out war. Archbishop Romero was, according to the decree of beatification issued by Pope Francis, a “Heroic witness of the Kingdom of God—Kingdom of justice, brotherhood and peace.” He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But the peace of Archbishop Romero was not a romantic and sugary peace of strolling hand in hand down the boulevard. The Brazilian poet bishop Dom Pedro Casaldáliga described him well when he called him “Romero of the almost impossible peace” in a land of conflict. Romero himself speaks of “the peace that could have been and the peace that has been lost [and] will not be restored until there is justice.”
That is to say, Archbishop Romero specialized in hand-crafting peace when there was no raw material available to do so. If anyone can teach us how to find peace when all roads seem to be closed off, he is the one that can give us the inspiration to find solutions and free ourselves from this impasse in which we find no exits. Moreover, Archbishop Romero prophesied that we would find ourselves in this stretch at this time. “What’s coming is going to be terrible,” he told his brother, “no one can stop the war now.” With a chilling vision of the future, he went on to say, “but the worst thing is what comes after the war.” In a homily he explained the reasons: “The names for the violence will change, but there will always be violence as long as we do not change the roots that cause this violence and so many other horrible things that occur daily in our nation.”
To erect a Romero-like response to these challenges, we might think of the broad appeals to the various sectors that Romero made, such as the ones at the end of the homily for March 16, 1980, intended to desperately keep the peace and avoid war.
1. An appeal to the church.
To proclaim the “Kingdom of justice, brotherhood and peace.” Imagine that Archbishop Romero were here to denounce every Sunday not only homicides, but also extortion, forced evictions, etc. If the Christian base communities were capable of defying death squads, and courageous priests like Rutilio Grande were able to accompany their flocks amidst the repression of military dictatorships, the Church can walk shoulder to shoulder with the people to face and overcome this difficulty, and it has the obligation to join with other churches to achieve a wider and more effective reach. I challenge the Church to proclaim during the Jubilee Year of mercy announced by Pope Francis a year of solidarity in El Salvador, to begin on November 21, Feast of the Queen of Peace, Patroness of El Salvador, to form the frame for these seven interpellations.
2. An appeal to the gangs.
To obey God and respect the lives and rights of their neighbors. No gang-member “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.” (March 23, 1980 Sermon.) With particular forcefulness we can insist that “Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail: THOU SHALT NOT KILL!” And in the name of God and in the name of the people we can demand, ‘Stop the extortion!’
3. An appeal to young people.
To imitate the young Blessed Romero, who was a studious and hardworking young man. Romero said that “The poor and young people constitute the wealth and the hope of the Church in Latin America.” (February 17, 1980 Sermon.) In the crisis that the country faced in the 80s, it was the poor who were at the center of the drama. Today is the hour of youth, and the country needs much of its young people. That they pray the prayer of Romero: “God help me, prepare me! You are everything, I am nothing. But with Your everything and my nothing, we can do a lot...” Romero devoted his youth to forming himself and he became the most important man of his day to redeem El Salvador, and every young Salvadoran should seek the same today.
4. An appeal to the rulers.
To join together and overcome partisan and ideological interests to seek the common good. Anyone who seeks to disregard the great need of the moment to favor their party or make their opponents look bad will be “performing a sad role of betrayal” of the people during “such an historic moment for the nation.” (March 16, 1980 Hom.) The challenge for those in government is to live a year for the common good, setting aside all electioneering to seek joint solutions to this uniquely compelling set of problems.
5. An appeal to law enforcement officials.
To not forget that the members of the criminal gangs were also created in the image of God, and that any authority entrusted to you should always be used in service and not to amass power or seek revenge or engage in social purges.
6. An appeal to the Salvadoran people.
To reclaim their country, their culture and society. Come back to the Church. Soak in the healthy and correct doctrine and become protagonists of change in your family, in your neighborhood, in your work. Retake the schools, the markets, the cultural spaces. “People who are unorganized are a mass and can be toyed with, but people who are organized and defend their values and justice are people who must be respected.” (March 2, 1980 Sermon.) They should also receive reformed gang members with open arms and the merciful love of parents.
7. An appeal to friends of the Salvadoran people abroad.
To stand in solidarity with El Salvador, as did many Christians in times of Archbishop Romero. Encourage the various sectors of Salvadoran society to seek the common good of the people. Demand that your governments support policies seeking ways to solve the problems for the short and the long term. Although travel to El Salvador is dangerous and any plans to visit El Salvador should be consulted in general and in their details with national and international security experts, El Salvador needs you more than ever.
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“'Coraggio' Archbishop Romero used to say in Italian. 'Courage!'.” So Cardinal Amato reminded us during the beatification ceremony. At the ceremony we had (albeit fleetingly) a model of the desired social harmony, when unity prevailed, the spirit of volunteerism reigned, and a large positivism permeated that historic event, which took place during a weekend without gang murders. Romero shows us how to make it a lasting reality.
Archbishop Paglia invited us to convert the Romero episcopal motto, “feeling with the Church” to “feeling with Romero”, which means “walking together with him, distancing ourselves from all forms of violence and practicing love and peace.” And if we do this we can be sure that “El Salvador and the world will change.” I have faith that these seven points hold the keys for striving towards that transformation.