Archbishop Romero: A Servant of God

February 2015

"Prophets are able to discern and denounce the evil of sin and injustice. Because they are free, they are beholden to no one but God, and they have no interest other than God. Prophets tend to be on the side of the poor and the powerless, for they know that God himself is on their side."—Pope Francis

Brother David Henley, Glenmary vocation director

Pope Francis recently declared that Monseñor Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, be officially recognized by the Church as a martyr. The decree states that Archbishop Romero was "killed in hatred of the Faith," March 24, 1980, in San Salvador, El Salvador. The Church can now say that his faith and witness during his life and by his death define him as a "Servant of God."

The decree concerning Archbishop Romero is of particular importance to me because the prophetic stances he took during his life—such as speaking against violence and standing in solidarity with the poor—made an impact on my own vocation story. Even though I had never heard of Archbishop Romero before he was brutally slain, it was his death and the deaths of other religious missionaries in Central America that helped me to become aware of the need for prophets in our time. It also challenged me to ask the question, "Why were they killed?"

Their deaths were confusing to me. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, I could not understand why someone would be killed for his or her faith. My Catholic education had taught me that the saints and martyrs were part of the Church's ancient history, not the present.

In many ways the stories of the early saints and martyrs had been sanitized, and I saw them as pretty statues in sacred spaces. In contrast, the images of the martyrs from Central America were gruesome and vivid. Their deaths were not something that I could easily dismiss as events that happened a long time ago and were not relevant to me in this current age. Their stories were happening now and were confrontational.

It was Tertullian who wrote that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." For me it was Archbishop Romero, and the others like him, who demonstrated this truth by showing how we all are called to live our faith. They were not afraid to take up their crosses and follow Jesus, even though they knew that doing so could lead to their death. Even today, prophets and missionaries "go to places where they are needed but not wanted and stay until they are wanted but no longer needed," right here in the United States.

Archbishop Romero and others are powerful reminders that we are indeed a mission Church and that there are challenges that go along with following Christ! We are called by our baptismal promise to be missioners and some of us to be martyrs.

Romero and the other martyrs who have gone before us serve as examples of those who have sacrificed their lives to build up the kingdom of God. Are we willing to accept that part of our baptismal promises? Even in this day and age, offering our life may be required.

A few examples of some of the religious missionaries who offered their lives in 2014 are as follows:

  • Father John Ssenyondo—Killed in Mexico.
  • Fathers Anselme Wasukundi, Jean-Pierre Ndulani and Edmond Kisughu—Killed in Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Father Frans van der Lugt, SJ—Murdered in Syria.
  • Sisters Bernadette Boggian, Lucia Pulici and Olga Raschietti—Killed in Burundi.
  • Fathers Miguel Pajares and Manuel García Viejo—Succumbed to the Ebola virus while attending to victims of that disease in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

I am sure that there are others whom I have failed to mention. But we pray that these courageous men and women inspire us to follow our own vocation call. In addition, we should pray that we never be put to the test. If we are, we pray that we are able to remain faithful to the Lord.

And we pray in thanksgiving for all those martyrs we know who are not just pretty statues but have inspired us to discern our own call.

Read previous columns by Brother David.