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The Canonization of a Radical

During his homily on Sunday, March 23, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of San Salvador made a special appeal to the National Guard soldiers of his country:

“The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s words, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ 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!”

The following afternoon, he went to the Divine Providence Hospital to celebrate Mass. Halfway through the Mass, a red Volkswagen Passat stopped in front of the hospital chapel. A gunman emerged from the car, entered the chapel and fired one shot hitting the archbishop in the heart.

This is the man Pope Francis canonized last Sunday together with Pope Paul VI, Father Francesco Spinelli, Father Vincenzo Romano, Sister Maria Caterina Kasper, Mother Nazaria Ignacia of Saint Theresa of Jesus and Nunzio Sulprizio.

Six days after his assassination, more than 100,000 people attended Archbishop Romero’s funeral on Palm Sunday, 1980.

His three years as pastor of the Archdiocese of San Salvador were a time of turmoil and division. While left-wing guerrillas and the right-wing government engaged in an increasingly brutal civil war, Archbishop Romero denounced the repression of the army and the dangers of the atheistic ideology of the guerrilla movement.

Archbishop Romero was not a popular figure among the upper classes of El Salvador, the army, nor even the episcopate. (Only one of the bishops of El Salvador was present at his funeral Mass.) His supporters were the poorest of the poor, the families of the victims of repression, the innocent caught in the endless massacres of the civil war.

For some people he was a conservative — he spent the last day of his life in a retreat organized by the Opus Dei — while, for others, he was a Communist sympathizer. He was just trying to be faithful to the Gospel and his conscience.

While many in Latin America supported dictatorships or kept silent on the most outrageous atrocities, Archbishop Romero denounced the evils he saw in his country. He just wanted to be the voice of the voiceless. He knew very well he would probably pay for that commitment with his life.

“Jesus is radical,” Pope Francis said in his homily at the canonization Mass last Sunday. “He gives a love that is total and asks for an undivided heart.” In times of division in his country and his Church, Archbishop Romero was also a radical in his commitment to the poor people of El Salvador and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At that final Mass he wouldn’t be able to complete, Archbishop Romero said at the end of the homily: “May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain — like Christ, not for self, but to impart notions of justice and peace to our people.”

At that very moment, the gunman was stepping out of the red car outside the chapel. Two minutes later, the archbishop was assassinated. Let’s pray to St. Oscar Romero that we could imitate his commitment to the Gospel and his courage to pay whatever price such a commitment may entail.

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