Thirty-five years ago Tuesday, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador celebrated Mass in the small chapel of a cancer hospital. As he finished his homily and started back to the altar, a rifle was fired from the back of the chapel. The bullet struck him in the heart. He died within minutes.
Romero's murder shocked the millions of poor Salvadorans whose struggles he had embraced during a time of brutal oppression. The day before his death, he made a national broadcast calling on Salvadoran soldiers to refuse to be agents of the continuing violence.
"In the name of God," he said in words that may have sealed his fate, "in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you: Stop the repression!"
Last month, Pope Francis named Romero a martyr for the Catholic faith. He will be beatified on May 23 in San Salvador - the final step before being canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church. But Romero is not simply a beloved figure for the Salvadoran people or a holy figure for Catholics. As a voice for love and justice, he speaks to all of us.
When he became the country's senior bishop in 1977, Romero was expected to continue the traditional alliance of church leaders with the government and wealthy families who ran the country. But less than a month after his appointment, one of Romero's personal friends, the priest Rutilio Grande, was murdered for his work among the poor. Grande's death shook Romero deeply:
"When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.' "
Romero embarked on that path, and he never turned back. He became a vigorous critic of the poverty, injustice, and violence in El Salvador. He spent much of his time in pastoral visits to poor communities, hearing their stories, embracing their suffering, and moving more eagerly into the gospel mystery of God's special love for the outcast.
Even as threats against him mounted, Romero spoke out assertively against human rights abuses by paramilitary groups and the government. He called on President Jimmy Carter to end U.S. military aid to the ruling junta. He especially denounced the harassment of thousands of priests, nuns, and lay workers of the church, who faced regime-backed threats and violence.
Part of Romero's power was his understanding that the church, by her nature, must be revolutionary in the truest sense: She seeks, and at her best actually lives, a revolution of Christian love. This revolution is a task of "integral human salvation" that promotes the progress "of whole persons - in their transcendent dimension and their historical dimension, in their spiritual dimension and their bodily dimension. Whole persons must be saved, persons in their social relationships who won't consider some people more human than others but will view all as brothers and sisters and give preference to the weakest and neediest." We could easily transfer his words about the Salvadoran people to our own situation: "We either serve the life of [those who are suffering in our midst] or we are accomplices in their death. . . . We either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death."
As Philadelphia readies itself for the visit of the pope this year, the witness of Oscar Romero is worth remembering. Even in our local communities, we have brothers and sisters whose cries of poverty and abandonment rise up to heaven. Too many of our fellow citizens suffer from broken families, hunger, homelessness, and unemployment.
To commemorate Romero's sacrifice, the Hunger and Homelessness Committee of the World Meeting of Families 2015 has invited dozens of civic, religious, political, and business leaders to spend time meeting with the poor in our region on Monday. We will visit shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, and health clinics, listening to stories and seeking to understand the personal and social dimensions of poverty. We hope we can in some small way begin to ease the wounds of society that affect us all.
Archbishop Romero knew the risks of his pastoral ministry. But he believed in the resurrection and the triumph of love over evil. "If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty, and a sign of the hope that will soon become a reality," he said. "A bishop will die, but the church of God - the people - will never die."
Today, in our own lives, may we nurture the seeds of liberty and hope that he planted more than 30 years ago.