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Voice of hope

This is a homily ARCHBISHOP MARK COLERIDGE gave at a Mass in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane, on May 22 to celebrate the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero which was held in San Salvador, El Salvador, the following day.

Martyr: Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is pictured in a 1979 photo. He was beatified in San Salvador on May 23. Photo: CNS/EPA

Martyr: Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is pictured in a 1979 photo. He was beatified in San Salvador on May 23. Photo: CNS/EPA

ARCHBISHOP Oscar Romero was killed on the evening of March 24, 1980. He was celebrating Mass; he’d just finished the homily and moved to the altar when the shots rang out and he fell dead.

How right it was that he should die at the altar of Christ’s sacrifice and in a chapel that bore the name of Divine Providence.

In his earlier years, he could never have known that God’s providence would lead him to this; and yet in his later years he must have known that he was, quite literally, in the firing-line.

Looking back now, there was almost an inevitability about his death.

From the Gospel of John, we have heard the voice of Jesus:  “When you were young, you put on your own belt and went where you wanted. But when you grow older, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.

“With these words he indicated the kind of death by which Peter would give glory to God.”

The Lord’s words are uncannily true of Oscar Romero.

His background was conventional, even conservative from a religious point of view.

Born in 1917, he entered the minor seminary at the age 13 and was eventually ordained priest in 1942.

In 1970 he was named Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador; in 1974 he was appointed bishop of the poor, rural diocese of Santiago de Maria; and then finally he was made Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977.

In that year, something happened that was a turning-point in his life.

It was the assassination of the Jesuit Fr Rutilio Grande, a friend of Romero’s who had worked among the poor to establish self-reliance groups.

Romero said later: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought to myself, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path’.” And so he did.

Like Fr Grande, Archbishop Romero was influenced by liberation theology, but understood in a particular way.

He once said, “There are two kinds of liberation theology – one of the Marxists, the other of Pope Paul VI. I am with Paul VI”.

He had not the slightest interest in ideology; saints never do. But he was passionately interested in the Gospel and what it meant in practical terms for his people, especially the poorest of them.

He was certainly interested in liberation, the need for which was there for all to see in El Salvador where the pattern of brutal military rule, endemic at the time to Latin America, was dramatically evident.

But the liberation which Romero sought in life and in death was the liberation that lies at the heart of the Bible and is the work of God.

Romero came to recognise Egypt and the brutal logic of Pharaoh when he saw them; he also recognised the logic of God who sets his people free; and Romero felt he had no choice but to lead his people along the dangerous path of Exodus.  That choice cost him his life.

All totalitarian regimes depend upon the death of hope among their people.

They thrive on the logic of Pharaoh: “Once a slave, always a slave”.

The logic of God is different; it says that slaves can come free; it’s the womb of true hope.

That’s why the Bible is so dangerous and why all totalitarian regimes either ban it or burn it.

They have to silence the voice of hope, just as they did when the shots rang out in the chapel of Divine Providence. But it never works.

The attempt to silence the voice of hope – in the end the voice of God – only gives it greater power.

The military tried to silence Romero, but their bullets only ensured that his voice will be heard long after the gunfire has ceased.

They tried the same with St Paul, of whom we hear in the readings of these days.

In the final chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul spends most of his time in prison.

This seems strange when Luke is telling the story of the unstoppable progress of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome.

But Luke’s point is that every attempt to silence Paul and to stop him in his tracks only helps to give more power to his voice and greater impetus to his mission.

His imprisonment was a key part of the unstoppable progress.

As was his death: they thought it was the final solution; it would silence Paul for ever, stop him for good.

But it succeeded only in ensuring that the voice of the Apostle would be heard for ever and everywhere.

The same was true of Stephen, of whom we have heard in this evening’s first reading.

They tried to stop him with stones, but they succeeded only in ensuring that his witness would stand for ever, even in Brisbane where the cathedral bears his name.

Stephen was the first martyr; Oscar is the latest to be publicly proclaimed by the Church.

The two men came from vastly different times and places and cultures. But they are one in their witness, which is what the word “martyr” means, “witness”.

They witness eternally to a liberation beyond all slavery, to a hope beyond all hopelessness, to a life that’s bigger than death.

In that sense, they are the pre-eminent witnesses to Easter.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke portrays figures like Stephen and Paul as strangely like Jesus.

His point is this: if we look at such figures carefully and correctly, we begin to see Christ in them.

It’s his face we see, not theirs.

They’re not just like Christ; they are Christ in the witness of their death.

The same is true of Oscar Romero.

He may be the latest but he will not be the last of the martyrs. Because if ever there came a time when there were no more martyrs, then the Gospel would have lost its power to triumph over death; and that will never happen.

As we look to the figure of Blessed Oscar Romero and celebrate his beatification, let’s remember the many Christians, most of them unknown, who at this moment are facing death for the sake of Christ.

There were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in all the centuries before; and in this new century Christians are facing dramatic persecution.

We pray for them all this evening, and we ask Blessed Oscar Romero to intercede for them.

To conclude, I adapt words of St John Paul II:

“May the great host of martyrs, old and new, never cease to teach the Church what it means to bear witness to the Lamb in whose blood they have washed their shining robes (cf. Revelation 7:14)! May they stand as indomitable witnesses to the truth that Christians are called always and everywhere to proclaim nothing other than the power of the Lord’s Cross! And may the blood of the martyrs be now as always the seed of new life for the Church in every corner of the earth!” Amen. Alleluia!

Click here to read more coverage of Archbishop Romero’s beatification.

Written by: Guest Contributor
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