Oscar Romero at 40 years since his martyrdom, a light for our times.

Videlbina and Paul Fitch-Flores

March 22, 2020

Greetings to all, in this different time, when we are physically apart but in which we seek to be unified in a Lenten spirit of tragedy and triumph as we journey together towards Christ’s death and resurrection.

Our scripture readings for this week express, from Ephesians 5,

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord.” … “we were in the darkness, but now are in the light of the Lord and, as children of the light, we are to find out what pleases the Lord”.

In the Gospel reading, from John, chapter 9, we learn of a man who was blind from birth, to whom Jesus gave sight, and for whom was the source of great perplexity for the Pharisees. It shook their sense of order, of how they considered that things should be.

As we are inundated by a flood of news, information, opinions, and actions regarding the novel coronavirus, our sense of order, of how we consider things should be, have been thrown off. We enter into moments of malaise where we do not know exactly what to do. Wash your hands, isolate ourselves from one another, stay home becomes our new mantra.

But perhaps it is that much has been fundamentally off balance for some time, and this current crisis is a wakeup call, a trigger point, or an invitation to see and embrace the world with a renewed vision. Perhaps within all this crisis, there is a call for a deeper transformation, a deeper conversion to be light and life to one another and to the world.

We, Videlbina and Paul, share with you about Monseñor Oscar Romero, a prophet, now sainted, who is commemorated this week in the 40th anniversary of his death by an assassin’s bullet. It was a time of great tragedy in that land, El Salvador, when the wealthy and powerful, with the support of the United States’ Government, resisted the powerful movements of the people working towards a society where hunger, misery, and oppression where overcome and social justice would reign. The optimism and the force of the people for sweeping, democratic change was met by coup d’états, death squads, torture, bombings, and a gradual sliding into civil war.

Out of this arose a prophet, Oscar Romero, who had for decades, as a priest, given his full heart over to the church and to being humbly present with, and uplifting the spirit of the poor of the land. He did not get involved in politics, and even criticized priests who made social commentaries and advocated change through liberation theology. For this reason, the wealthy and powerful of the land were pleased when he was named Archbishop of El Salvador on February 23, 1977, and many priests and lay leaders who believed the church should speak and act with a prophetic voice were disappointed and highly critical.

It was only weeks later, on March 12th, that his good friend, since times of seminary, Father Rutilio Grande, was killed. Grande was a Jesuit who very actively practiced the social gospel of **hope for the poor in areas of the countryside where we have visited many times. His death, and the Government’s total inaction before it, had a profound impact on him, as well as the continuous visits by members of organizations telling him of acts of repression, and the direct testimonies he received as he visited and accompanied communities throughout the land. He came to say, “the people are my prophet” and “with this people it is not difficult to be a good pastor,” because he listened to them and allowed them to lead him on.

      Romero sharing with the people.

As the violence intensified and became more generalized, little news came out through the press and every public gathering was viewed with suspicion by the government and the military. The Sunday masses at the San Salvador Cathedral became one of the few times of gathering and information sharing that remained. They were broadcast by radio (when bombings didn’t put the transmitter out of commission) and, throughout the land from household to household people listened in with rapt attention. Homilies lasted as long as an hour, and along with biblical reflection and teaching, included much news of the tragedies and hopes of El Salvador.

Videlbina’s mother, Julia, was one who listened to these transmissions. She would say, “Monseñor Romero is a prophet, who preaches truth, who speaks of how things should be. He is with the poor. He sees the poor.”

Videlbina: “In my youth, since the time I was 13 years-old (in 1976) I thought, “young people don’t have much of a life, with real meaning. There was no future. Every morning we would wake up and it was the same. We had to stay hidden because the soldiers hunted us out, to abduct us into the army. The rich kids could be out, in their gym shorts, playing basketball across the street from my house, without any worries because the soldiers left them alone.

In those times, the family of my cousin Jose Paz, known as Pacito, lived around the corner from us, whereas he worked in San Salvador, and it is said he had been active in a labor union. One day as he was on a bus travelling back to work with a friend (named Ramiro), the driver made a detour to a military base and handed them over to the officers. There they were tortured for three days, then killed. Their families, and the whole town, searched months for them, until finally their bodies were found in a mass grave, containing the remains of 10 people. His sister, Juana de Dios, recognized his remains because he was wearing the clothes she had helped him pick out on that day. Months later Pacito’s brother, Emiliano (who lives in our house here in DC) was abducted into the army. He later deserted, and fled the country, because they associated him with his brother and began to threaten him with the same fate.