St. Oscar Romero and the Drama at the Border

*an artist adds a halo to the mural of Oscar Romero in the Columban Mission Center

by Scott Wright, Director

“Easter is a shout of victory! No one can extinguish that life that Christ resurrected. Not even death and hatred against Him and against His Church will be able to overcome it. He is the victor! Just as He will flourish in an Easter of unending resurrection, so it is necessary also to accompany Him in Lent, in a Holy Week that is cross, sacrifice, martyrdom.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero, March 23, 1980 homily

November is a season to honor the saints and the martyrs, and it ends with the great feast of Christ the King, which invites us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit those in prison, and welcome the stranger (Mt 25:31-46). Soon we will celebrate Advent and the birth of Jesus, before we enter ordinary time and the season of Lent and Easter. There are many seasons of our faith, though recently our history and the daily news seem filled with more darkness than light, more cross than resurrection, more Lent than Easter.

Since we are in a month that celebrates the saints and martyrs, I want to begin with Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, a newly canonized saint.

On the US/Mexico border, there are many murals of San Romero de las Americas, as he is called by people across the Americas. One of these murals is at the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, currently a temporary home for immigrant families who have recently crossed the border. There Romero is in a beautiful portrait on the wall, surrounded by humble Salvadorans, all bearing the mark of the cross on their hands.

Another mural is at Casa Vides, part of Annunciation House, and a house of hospitality that has served more than 120,000 undocumented immigrants over the past forty years. There a portrait of Romero may be seen beneath the arc of a beautiful rainbow, again in the company of his beloved Salvadoran people, surrounded by a room full of recent immigrant families, many from El Salvador.

There are two other portraits of Romero I remember, these linked by time, not geography.

One is a portrait of the Archbishop I saw on the wall of an adobe house, partially destroyed during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. Then I was serving as a pastoral worker among displaced rural communities that were targeted by the Salvadoran government and US-trained military for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and supporting the wrong side.

The poster read: "The Good Shepherd does not want security as long as his flock has no security.” These were words from one of Romero’s homilies, in response to an offer from the Salvadoran government to provide him with the protection of armed security guards. He chose to challenge the government to protect his people first, before they would protect him. Seventy-five thousand people were murdered or disappeared during the twelve-year civil war, most of them by the Salvadoran military and their death-squads.

On March 24, 1980, a day after calling on the military and security forces to stop killing their brothers and sisters, Romero was gunned down at the altar, his blood mixing with the consecrated wine and blood of Jesus. The day before, Romero spoke these words in his Sunday homily and “signed” his death sentence: “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!”

Thirty-five years later, I saw another portrait of Archbishop Romero, this time hung from the church in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome where I stood with 75,000 people, including the thousands of humble Salvadorans who made the long journey from El Salvador to celebrate this day. On October 14th, just three weeks ago, Oscar Romero, already declared a martyr, was officially recognized as a saint by Pope Francis. It was a joy to be there, to see the joy of the Salvadoran people, and to hear Pope Francis’ words of affirmation for the prophetic message of St. Oscar Romero.

The Drama at the US/Mexico Border

“Nothing is so important to the Church as human life, as the human person, above all, the person of the poor and the oppressed, who, besides being human beings, are also divine beings, since Jesus said that whatever is done to them he takes as done to him. That bloodshed, those deaths, are beyond all politics. They touch the very heart of God.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero, March 16, 1980 homily

What does the canonization of Oscar Romero as a saint have to say to us today? Romero is often remembered as a pastor and a martyr, but he was also a prophet who spoke out boldly in defense of the poor and challenged his own government to end its attacks on them when they organized to demand justice: “We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.” He spoke these words just before he was assassinated at the altar on March 24, 1980.

A poor peasant, when asked what he remembered most about Archbishop Romero, replied: “He spoke the truth and defended the poor, that’s why they killed him.” He knew what Romero had said: “The Church believes that in each person is the Creator’s image and that everyone who tramples it offends God.”

So what about us? What about our country? What about our Church? What does God ask of us today?

Three months ago, I was at the border when the Columban Mission Center hosted a meal for a group of forty parents and their children, some as young as three years old, who had just been reunited after being detained by immigration authorities and separated in different detention centers for six weeks. It was heart breaking to see the trauma imposed on these families. It was morally wrong for the government to impose it. No family should ever be separated in this manner. It was wrong when Africans were separated from their families during slavery, it was wrong when Native Americans were separated and children sent to boarding schools, it was wrong when Japanese Americans were separated and detained during the Second World War, and it is wrong today. It totally contradicts our Catholic values and is contrary to the Gospel teaching in which we are invited, even commanded to see Christ in the migrant and refugee: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

Today, the drama at the border is growing more tense. A caravan of refugees from Honduras is making its way through Mexico on its way to seek asylum in the United States; at the same time, more than 2,000 National Guard have already arrived and 5,200 US military personnel are making their way to that same border to seal it.

Last summer, Bishop Mark Seitz from El Paso issued a moving pastoral letter on migration which he entitled, “Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away.” In it, he spoke clearly of Gospel values of hospitality, and the human dignity of migrants and refugees:

“As a border community, we have a unique vocation to demonstrate the Christian virtue of hospitality…. No one can deny the terrible human impacts of a system that divides families, permits some to detain human beings for profit, and compromises our nation’s historic commitment to the refugee and asylum seeker…. Recently, we have witnessed indefensible, hateful words towards our neighbors in Mexico, the demonization of migrants, and the destructive language about our border…. Our elected leaders have not yet mustered the moral courage to enact permanent, comprehensive immigration reform…. Law should be at the service of human beings and ensure the sanctity of all life…. Building walls, deploying a mass deportation force and militarizing our border are not long-term solutions.”

There is much that we can do to help build “God’s just reign,” beginning by treating migrants and refugees with dignity, welcoming them at this difficult time in their lives, and working for a just and comprehensive immigration system.

The saints and the martyrs are a reminder and an invitation for us to follow in the steps of their exemplary lives, and to pray to them to give us strength and courage. If there is one message from St. Oscar Romero with which to conclude this reflection, it is this: “The Christian, the Christian community, must not despair. We are a community of hope!”

St. Columban, pray for us. St. Oscar Romero, pray for us.