It was a shot that would eventually ring in the whole world's ears. His name was Oscar Romero. He had only been archbishop of San Salvador, the capital, for three years - certainly a short term and maybe not enough to make a real impact. But a real impact he did make.
El Salvador was at the start of a horrible bloody civil war - the military-led government against leftist guerrilla groups, a civil war that would continue for 12 more years after Romero's martyrdom. People were disappearing, people were being murdered daily, some streets littered with blood. The Church was being persecuted, as the government thought priests and nuns who worked with the poor were subversives, egging on the poor against the government. I know several Sisters that lived during that time period in El Salvador and they recall that they've never been more scared in their life. One Sister, a young girl at the time, was walking to school when she saw a young naked body lying face down on the sidewalk surrounded by military soldiers. She held her books more tightly, lowered her eyes to her feet so no one would notice her and switched to the other sidewalk. Another Sister remembers bombs going off near the convent. The novice mistress ordered them to hide wherever they could and they scattered. She hid in a closet, where she stayed for hours afraid to move even after the explosions stopped. Meanwhile, the novice mistress assumed her dead because she couldn't find her.
The time was tense and everyone who spoke out was soon killed or mysteriously disappeared. But Archbishop Romero chose not to care about that. He knew he might be killed - he even said so. It was a radical act of courage to speak up for those who were gone every day, to denounce the violence in his publicly-heard homilies over the radio. He refused to attend government functions he was invited to "until the repression stops". He wrote a letter to US President Jimmy Carter, begging him to stop sending arms to El Salvador.
But Romero wasn't radical for radical's sake. He probably never saw his ideas as "radical" and I won't even say his ideas were radical. Everything he said was said out of love. The same love of neighbor Jesus Christ called for. The same love cloistered nun St. Therese called for in his "Little Way". The same love St. Vincent de Paul called for in his love for the poor. In fact, something Romero said in February 1980 could well have been something Saint Vincent de Paul would have said some 300 years earlier: "We believe that from the transcendence of the Gospel, we can assess what the life of the poor consists of and we also believe that placing ourselves on the side of the poor and attempting to give them life we will know what the eternal truth of the Gospel consists of."
Monseñor Oscar Romero is the "unofficial" saint of Latin America, a region I feel a deep affinity for, starting in high school and continuing until now, an affinity that led me to live in Bolivia for two years and visit a number of Latin American countries throughout the years. But that is not the reason I remember him today.
I remember him today as an outstanding example of what I, as a believer in Jesus Christ and follower of the spirituality of Saint Vincent de Paul, should be. I'm not called to be an archbishop, probably not called to be a martyr, probably not called to speak out against injustice publicly despite fear of death, but I am called to love all, most especially love the poor as St Vincent, St Louise, St Elizabeth Ann and Monseñor Romero did....for that is where Christ is and that is where the gritty work of the Gospel lies. Love is what will win, love is what Christ tells us to do more than anything else.
“Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love. Love must win out; it is the only thing that can." - Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917 - 1980)
Who is one of your personal heroes? Why do you remember them?