He was, coincidentally enough, a carpenter’s son. He entered the priesthood during a time of turmoil—World War II—and rose in the Church’s ranks in a country so small and insignificant that many people couldn’t reliably locate it on a map. For decades he was seen as “too” many things—too political, too literal in his understanding of scripture, too big a reminder of a time no one wanted to remember. And yet on October 14, Oscar Romero will become a saint.
He’s sharing that date with a pope, someone far more illustrious, one might think, than an archbishop. And, let’s face it, the Church already has a lot of saints. Why should anyone care about this one?
Romero was appointed archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 and was considered a safe choice for not rocking the boat. El Salvador was teetering on the edge of a bloodbath of a civil war; a small group of families controlled the wealth, the government, and the military, and no one in the Church's hierarchy expected the new archbishop to disturb the status quo. His only goal when he arrived was to maintain the Church's presence in his native country and serve its people in the same ways the Church had been doing.
And then he got his feet on the ground, so to speak, and understood that he was being called to something much bigger, to speak for the voiceless, to minister to the poor and the powerless. His subsequent role as prophet and martyr was clearly not one he chose, though that fact gets lost in the accusations of political motivations on his part. Romero was before anything else a man of God, responding to God’s call. That alone should answer the question, why should we care?
In his book, The Violence of Love, Romero explains why he answered this most difficult call: “Beautiful is the moment in which we understand that we are no more than an instrument of God; we live only as long as God wants us to live; we can only do as much as God makes us able to do; we are only as intelligent as God would have us be.”
The late Dean Brackley, SJ, went to live in El Salvador in 1989 after the civil war’s last great spasm of violence against the Church, the murder of six of his fellow Jesuits and two women by the military. “Romero points the Church forward,” noted Brackley in 2010. “This is the way we have to go. We have to walk with the crucified people today. Romero understood that if it was not good news for the poor, it was not the Gospel.”
There it is again: the Gospel and the poor. Pope Francis points it out, Romero pointed it out, and Jesus himself made it abundantly clear: the Gospel and the poor are inextricably linked. “What was distinctive about his life was what contributed to his murder,” says Robert Ellsberg, author of The Franciscan Saints. “It would be difficult to separate the fact that Romero was killed because he stood up to the oppressive forces in his society on behalf of the poor.”
Romero wrote, “There are not two categories of people. There are not some who were born to have everything and leave others with nothing and a majority that has nothing and can’t enjoy the happiness that God has created for all. God wants a Christian society, one in which we share the good things that God has given for all of us” (quoted by the Ignatian Solidarity Network).
In celebrating this newest saint, we cannot pretend that he doesn’t continue to challenge us today. In celebrating this newest saint, we need to remember why we honor him: because he took Jesus at his word—and lived and breathed and spoke and died for that word.
In a time and culture that are creating more—not less—poverty, this is a message meant for us. Romero is a man of our time as well as of his own. Those who dismiss him might consider that he is, in fact, very similar to... another carpenter's son.