A Tale of Three Two’s: On Oscar Romero
A sermon for the Feast of St Ignatius of Loyola at Richmond Eastern Catholic Church (July 31, 2019). Edited with permission and posted in response to the escalation of police brutality in Hong Kong.
Today’s sermon is called “A Tale of Three Two’s” — it’s a story about Two Buddies, Two Bodies, and Two Choices. We’ll start with the Two Buddies. I’m guessing that you’ve probably heard of the first one: Archbishop (now Saint) Oscar Romero.
When I was a young Jesuit training in El Salvador, I used to work in a refugee camp every week. I would take the bus from the countryside to the capital city, but it would only arrive very infrequently. That meant that I spent a lot of time in the cathedral praying at Archbishop Romero’s grave. It was always lit with candles, and there were usually pieces of scrap paper with poorly written Spanish taped to the wall, thanking him for some miracle. He was the first buddy.
The second buddy was a priest named Rutilio Grande, who was one of Oscar Romero’s friends. Although you’ve probably never heard of him, he has long been one of my heroes. Father Rutilio was a Jesuit, and he and Romero were buddies throughout their minor seminary days (i.e., when they were about high school age). They were both natives of El Salvador in Central America — a very small and poor country. But not everyone in El Salvador was poor: about 1 percent of the population was extremely rich.
Some of you may have seen the film Romero. I don’t like that movie because the reality was far worse than what it portrays. That 1 percent truly owned the entire country. In Spanish, they were called “Las Catorce Familias” — “The Fourteen Families.” They owned all of the land, businesses, and factories, and practically everybody worked for them, including the peasants. Of course, these peasants had no land, schools, healthcare, pension, or rights.
While I was there, one of the Jesuits tried to explain what life was like before Romero. One evening at a local cantina, a landowner was shooting pool and missed an incredibly easy shot. A peasant burst out laughing, so the landowner took out his pistol and shot him to death. No one dared to stop him because he was from one of The Fourteen Families. As you can imagine, anyone who tried to change things (by educating peasants, unionizing, or fighting for fair elections) was accused of being a subversive, communist, or revolutionary. Such was life in El Salvador.
Today we all know Archbishop Romero as a champion of the poor, but he didn’t always have this reputation. The Fourteen Families didn’t allow him to become their archbishop because he was going to help the poor! They picked him because he was on the side of the rich and because they could rely on him to defend the system. Under Romero’s watch, the Church’s message to the poor went something like this: “Listen, don’t make trouble. Yes, you’re suffering on earth, but if you don’t make trouble and are good peasants, then God will reward you in heaven after you die. So suck it up right now and don’t cause trouble.“
If that used to be his message, then what happened? What transformed him into the defender of the downtrodden? The answer lies in his encounter with Two Bodies.
The first body was that of Father Rutilio, who was raised in the countryside of El Salvador. He was smart — so smart that he was offered a place as a student at the minor seminary. There he began his studies and became friends with the young Oscar Romero.
After he graduated, Rutilio joined the Jesuits. Unfortunately, he suffered from multiple health issues which held him back in his training. Yet because he was smart, the Jesuits gave him several important jobs — all of which he failed at. Eventually, they gave up and sent him to a remote country parish in an area named Aguilares, which was basically Nowheresville.
Father Rutilio became a simple country priest, but to everyone’s surprise it was there that he finally found success. His heart was with these peasants as they were similar to his own family, and his ministry flourished. He started schools and hospital clinics, trained lay catechists to teach and hold services, and opened up legal clinics to defend people’s rights. He personally accompanied the peasants to the police station when they needed help, so of course they loved him.
But The Fourteen Families weren’t happy, as they could see that this might cause trouble down the road. They threatened him with death and demanded that he stop, but he refused. Finally, one afternoon as he was driving down a country road, they machine-gunned him to death. He was the first body.
Enter Archbishop Romero. Whenever one of his priests was murdered, it was his job to retrieve their body. At that time the authorities would label those whom they had killed as communists, revolutionaries, or troublemakers. Romero had trusted them up until this point.
But now picture him on this dusty country road, cradling the body of his friend. The army tried to smear Rutilio as a troublemaker, but for the first time Romero didn’t believe them. This was his buddy from minor seminary — he knew him. The Archbishop suddenly woke up and realized that if the authorities were lying about his friend, then they must have been lying about their other victims as well.
After placing the body in his car, Romero drove to Rutilio’s old church and found a second body: not that of a typical human being, but the body of Christ, scattered across the church floor. The soldiers had smashed open the doors and machine-gunned the tabernacle, where the communion elements were kept.
Here we have two images: one of Oscar Romero carrying the body of his friend, and the other of him kneeling in the dirt, picking up the remains of the blessed sacrament — the very presence and body of Christ in our midst.
That was the moment of his conversion. That was when he realized that he could no longer be politically neutral or indifferent to the poor. He suddenly saw whose side he had been on all this time, and it wasn’t the side of those who were protecting Jesus, but those who were crucifying him.
These two bodies changed Romero. They converted him from being a servant of the rich, to being a servant of the poor. They saved his soul.
From this point on, Romero opened his eyes to what was going on; likewise, he opened his heart to the people of his country, to his diocese, and to those who had been victimized and oppressed. For the first time in his life he began to take their side.
Like Rutilio, his ministry began to flourish. He restructured the entire archdiocese — every parish, seminary, and organization — to help the poor and defend their rights. Each afternoon he preached on the radio so that even the poorest of peasants could tune in to hear him. He helped the people to find and reclaim their voice.
Of course, when people try to throw off their oppression, those in power respond with something called “repression.” As people attempt to lift up their heads, the authorities smash them back down and make public examples of them to deter others.
So things got worse. People began to disappear so frequently that the word itself became a transitive verb (e.g., “Maria was disappeared”). The police would drag people out of their beds at night and their bodies would be discovered weeks later, complete with torture marks. Worse still, the police and army couldn’t do this in their uniforms, so they eventually formed death squads. Archbishop Romero denounced their atrocities repeatedly until one day The Fourteen Families had had enough.
At that time, Romero was living in a hospital run by the Sisters, and he would regularly say Mass for them in their small, beautiful chapel. One day a car pulled up mid-way through the Mass. It was a warm country, so the doors to the chapel were wide open. As Romero was holding up the chalice to offer it to God, a gunman stepped out of the car and opened fire. The wine spilled across the altar, and Romero collapsed to the floor and died. Meanwhile, the gunman got back into his car and drove away.
This brings us to our final “two”: the Two Choices. Many people told Father Rutilio to stop defending the poor, but he chose to continue serving them. They said the same thing to Archbishop Romero: “Stop speaking out — they’re going to kill you! The situation is too tense right now; why don’t you leave the country until things calm down?” Yet Romero also refused to back down. The Church, he insisted, was called to be the voice of the voiceless.
Rutilio and Romero both had a choice. They could do the easy thing or the hard thing, the safe thing or the dangerous thing. They could get involved or mind their own business. They could listen to their fear, or discern how to act in spite of their fear.
The other day I came across this quote from Nelson Mandela: ”May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.“ The truth is that we all have fears. Father Rutilio was afraid. Oscar Romero was afraid. The question is, will we act according to our fears, or will we act according to our hearts — that is, according to our deepest hopes and loves?
Archbishop Romero had a choice, and Father Rutilio had a choice. Each one of us must also make a choice. As Martin Luther King Jr. says, there’s no such thing as remaining neutral. Not doing something — that’s a choice. Not getting involved — that’s a choice. Not choosing — that’s a choice. Even if it’s costly or difficult, we all have to take a side.
And why must we take a side? Because God takes a side. Yes, God takes sides! The Church calls this ”the preferential option for the poor.” This means that although God loves everyone, he’s on side of the poor. Although God cares for everyone, he’s on the side of the victims. Although God accepts everyone, he’s on the side of the oppressed. It means that God cares not just about saving souls, but about saving lives as well. He wants to lift up the downtrodden, free the slaves, and embrace the mistreated here and now — not just in heaven.
How do we know this? Because we heard it in today’s gospel reading. Jesus went to the synagogue, unrolled the scroll, and declared: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, release for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to free the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” This is what he came to do.
My sisters and brothers, Father Rutilio and Archbishop Romero both answered God’s call. They overcame their fear. In the same way, God calls us to make a choice — to choose the good and the right thing. He calls us to be courageous, to be “people for others,” to fight against the darkness, to stand with the poor and the oppressed.
In today’s first reading, we heard God’s call to make a choice: “I set before you life and death, blessings and curses.” God implores us, “Choose life, that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God.” Let us, then, choose. Let us choose life in the face of death. Let us choose light in this dark world. Let us choose love in the face of ego. Let us choose to serve God and the poor in the face of our fears.
We’ll conclude with an excerpt from Romero’s last sermon, which he preached the day before his assassination. He couldn’t stand the prospect of more disappearances from among his friends, coworkers, and parishioners, whose bodies he had to retrieve. So he issued an extraordinary plea:
I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill.” No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!
My sisters and brothers, this “Tale of Three Two’s” — Two Buddies, Two Bodies, Two Choices — is difficult to hear. I know this as I often used to wrestle with deep discouragement and anger while praying at Romero’s grave. And yet he and Father Rutilio are faithful witnesses of courage, hope, and resurrection. They remind us that we cannot fight the earthly powers with our own might or guns; instead, they call upon us to choose life, to choose hope. Let us then choose this day to call upon the name of the Lord.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.