At that moment a shot rang out

Ashley Beck

The first full edition in English of all the homilies of Blessed Oscar Romero has been published. Ashley Beck is Senior Lecturer in Pastoral Ministry at St Mary's University, Twickenham and Assistant Priest of Beckenham in the Southwark archdiocese. He is author of Oscar Romero: Martyr for Faith (Catholic Truth Society 2015)

A Prophetic Bishop speaks to his People
The Complete Homilies of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, translated by Joseph Owens SJ, 6 vols.

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Publisher: Convivium Press

In May 2015 Archbishop Oscar Romero, one of the most significant figures in Latin American Catholicism, was beatified. It was made explicitly clear that he is to be seen as a martyr, killed by those who had an odium fidei. His bravery in the face of death threats and the manner of his martyrdom have inspired the Catholic Church and many other Christians.


At the same time it needs to be recognised that had he not been killed he would still have been a major figure because of the depth and importance of his teaching ministry as a bishop. This is clear enough if you read his lengthy pastoral letters, mostly written to mark the feast of the Transfiguration in August, the 'feast of title' of the nation of El Salvador: he integrates brilliantly his deep knowledge of Scripture, his familiarity with the teachings of the Church and his shrewd analysis of the political situation in his country.

It is now possible to see this even more clearly in the new six volume complete edition of his homilies, translated into English from the original Spanish edition published in 2005 (with assistance from CAFOD). The translation project has also been supported by the Romero Trust, whose director Julian Filachowski, a member of the editorial board of this journal, has been on the team which has prepared the translation.

The new volumes follow closely the structure of the Spanish edition. In each one there are detailed indices, which include scripture references, and each introduction explains the context of the volume and the political and ecclesiastical events of the period covered; one of those contributing to the introductions is the Liberation Theologian Fr Jon Sobrino. They also point out ways in which Romero's approach developed over the three year period he was archbishop.

The translator and editor also explain the principles behind the collection. Parts of the most important sermons had been translated many years before in a number of standard collections and biographies. This is a completely new translation, and Fr Owens has aimed to adhere more closely to the Spanish original. This poses a challenge since Romero's style is often colloquial and impassioned, geared to a popular audience: most of the Sunday homilies from the cathedral in San Salvador or other churches in the city were broadcast live through the Church's own radio station (this was bombed and destroyed more than once - and rebuilt partly with money raised from Catholics in this country). The result is readable and a faithful rendering of what the archbishop said. The editors of the Spanish edition drew on Romero's own notes for his homilies - he didn't normally preach from a complete written text - and taped transcripts produced at the time. The translator also points out that sometimes Romero's scriptural quotations are made from memory.

The homilies cover the wide range one would expect in any bishop's ministry - parish visitations, ordinations, confirmations, Chrism Masses and so on. But two specific categories stand out. First, the many homilies preached at the funerals of priests, usually the victims of violence. We see in these homilies the strength of presbyteral family in a diocese, particularly in the face of hatred and persecution (there were posters put up in the country with the words 'Be a patriot! Kill a priest!'). Second, the Sunday homilies which make up the largest single group in the collection. For the benefit of preachers today it is useful that the three years of Romero's ministry as archbishop spans the three-year Sunday lectionary cycle: he was deeply rooted in the Church's liturgical life and in the seasons of the sacral year. Normally the archbishop preached every Sunday at the 8am Mass in his cathedral, so we have a remarkably comprehensive picture of his preaching ministry in that particular setting. His sermons are not short, and some thought they were too long even by Latin American standards. We also know that he prepared them very carefully each week, through study of the Scripture passages, reference to Magisterial documents and, in order to be up to date with events in the past week in the country, meetings with colleagues and others. Since the newspapers and the most of the rest of the media were controlled by those whom Romero always called 'the oligarchs' the live broadcasts of these homilies constituted almost the only real voice of opposition to the regime, the security services and the death squads; he was not afraid either to challenge the popular resistance movement and guerilla groups, and repeatedly called for victims of kidnapping to be released.

Romero followed a clear method and, fortunately for all of us, his homilies have a clear structure which is well laid out in the collection. Romero's depth and confidence as a theologian is shown in so many ways.

Volume one (March Ð November 1977) begins with a homily already well known in studies of Romero, preached by him at the funeral of his friend Fr Rutilio Grande and his companions on 14 March 1977; the funeral took place in the cathedral in the presence of the papal nuncio. After consultation with the priests of the archdiocese on the following Sunday he suspended Masses all over the diocese and asked the faithful to come to a single Mass in the cathedral as a sign of unity after the murders. At this Mass he preached about the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this homily and in others in the first volume he expresses clearly his stance very early on in his ministry, identifying himself and the Church with the sufferings of the poor (some have argued that Fr Grande's death was a crucial point in his development, although there are clear signs of that earlier on). Those amongst the rich and powerful in the country who thought that Romero would side with them and would be a 'safe pair of hands' would have been disappointed very early on.

Sometimes Blessed Oscar Romero is treated as a partisan figure, not only by his detractors (who are less open nowadays) but by his admirers. He has become a hero of many who would describe themselves as 'progressive' Catholics. However, any thorough study of his life and teachings shows that he cannot be pigeonholed: he was entirely orthodox theologically and completely loyal to the whole body of Catholic teaching. So in his homily on Pentecost Sunday in 1977 he equates dissent from Catholic teaching about abortion and contraception with persecution of the Church:

'Persecution comes from sinners. Persecution comes from all those who have something against the Decalogue. Those who promote abortion feel pained that the Church is against abortion. Those who use artificial contraceptives feel pained that the Church in her encyclical Humanae Vitae states that it is not lawful to mutilate the sources of life. Those who kill are pained when they are reminded of the fifth commandment: 'You shall not kill'. Those who steal and lie are disturbed by the commandments that reproach them for those actions.' (p. 135)

The second volume deals with the period from the beginning of the next liturgical year in late November 1977 to the end of May 1978. The period saw an increase in violence in Salvadorean society against the poor - it also saw the passing of a 'Law for the Defence and Guarantee of Public Order' which suspended various constitutional rights. Romero, drawing on the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas, denounced this law as unjust. Much of the violence which is the backdrop of the homilies in this volume happened in Holy Week in the town of San Pedro Perulapán, so the archbishop's homilies for the week reflect on this. Part of what we find in the homilies in this volume is the ability to distinguish true and false religion:

'Practical atheism flourishes among those who have no sense of the tenderness of God or who prefer to believe that God does not exist so that they can act unjustly or commit sins that God might punish. That is why it is not just Marxism that is atheistic; capitalism also is atheistic in its practice. The divinizing of money and the idolatry of power create false idols which take the place of the true God. Sadly, we live in an atheistic society.' (p. 454)
You do not have to be living in a poor Latin American country in the late 1970s to understand the truth of these words. Volume 3 (June - November 1978) covers the period when he was nominated (by British parliamentarians) for the Nobel Peace prize and the change in the Church ushered in by the death of Blessed Paul VI, the short papacy of John Paul I and the election of St John Paul II. In his homilies of this volume the archbishop strengthens his support for the victims of state violence, alongside his pastoral letter 'The Church and the People's Political Organisations'. He also shows an increasing awareness of attacks against him within the family of the Church. In this passage, preaching about Matthew 16.21-27, Romero is reflecting about the cross, referring to the visit which Hitler made to Rome in May 1937, the year when Romero began his studies for the priesthood in Rome:

'When the cross of Hitler was raised on high in Rome, Pope Pius XI said, 'In Rome they have raised up a cross that is not the cross of Christ'. That's why that valiant pope withdrew from Rome; in the diplomatic world they claimed that this was a sharp rebuff of Hitler, who at that moment was at the peak of his power. And truly, the cross of the Lord is different from the crosses that human beings want to raise on high because the cross of Christ is different from the crosses that seek to sedate people.' (p. 205)

The fourth volume (December 1978 - June 1979) encompasses the period of CELAM III, the important assembly of Latin American bishops which took place at Puebla in Mexico in January and February 1979. We know from his diaries that this was immensely formative for him, giving him a lot of strength when things were very difficult in El Salvador, but we see here how much the assembly informed his ministry of preaching. This group of homilies is particularly marked by the funerals of clergy, and also by the disappearance of many trade union organisers and others: in response left wing organisations kidnapped foreign diplomats and businessmen. Also in this period Romero had to guard against the undermining of his position in the Church following the appointment of an apostolic visitor to the Archdiocese of San Salvador who recommended the appointment of an apostolic administrator effectively to replace him: the archbishop saw this off by going to visit St John Paul II in May 1979. A constant theme of all Romero's homilies is his deep love for the Church, something we all try to celebrate each year on the feast of Pentecost. In his homily for the feast day on 3 June 1979, celebrating the sacrament of Confirmation in the diocesan seminary, he reflects on the signs of the Pentecost, signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit:

'The spirit of holiness is given to us precisely to free us from our passions, our idolatries, our sins, our disorders, our self-indulgences, our injustices. Give thanks to God that the Church fulfils this duty, and do not become upset when the Church points out sin in the world and seeks to free her children from that sin. When the Church tells the political forces to stop their abuses and when she tells the economic forces to stop theirs, the Church is not meddling but it simply doing her duty. She is ousting sin from the world and guiding people along the true path of development and holiness.' (pp. 462-463)

The penultimate volume (June - November 1979) includes the military coup against the government of the archbishop's namesake General Carlos Humberto Romero, following a period of increased violence and repression. With many others Romero cautiously welcomed the new government, but insisted from the very beginning that it put a stop to the violence against the poor, members of labour unions and others; but soon it was clear that not much was going to change. In his homilies of this period the archbishop identifies the victims of violence as martyrs. In this passage from early October 1979, preaching on Mark 10.2-16 and drawing on the teachings of Gaudium et Spes, he says:

'This is the appeal I make to all you here, sisters and brothers, you who are creators of so many families, builders of so many homes. Let no family in El Salvador be an obstacle to the urgent changes our society needs. Let no family isolate itself from others in order to maintain its own private comfort. Couples don't marry just to be happy by themselves. Marriage has a great social function; it is meant to be the torch that brightens other paths of liberation and helps other couples.' (pp. 369-370)

The homilies in volume 6 (December 1979 Ð March 1980) illustrated how bad things were becoming; it is also possible that two of these homilies led directly to his death.

In his homily of 17 January 1980 the archbishop read out a letter he had just written to President Jimmy Carter. In this letter he asked the United States to stop training and giving other support to the security services of El Salvador because of the crimes they were committing:

'As a Salvadorean and as archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, I have an obligation to see that faith and justice reign in my country. I ask you, if you truly want to defend human rights, to forbid that military aid be given to the Salvadorean government...' (p. 281)

In the last Sunday homily he preached the day before he was killed Romero went out of his way to issue a direct call to the army and the security services to stop killing people, and to disobey orders to do so. For many of his enemies both these public actions constituted treason against the state and some commentators have argued that they may have led to a final decision to have him killed, even though he had been subject to death threats for some years, threats to which he often alludes in his homilies.

Of course, the last homily of all is the most poignant, preached at an anniversary Mass in the chapel of the woman's cancer hospital where he lived - the shortest in the collection, but full of faith in the Resurrection of Christ. He had finished the homily and proceeded to the altar for the offertory; in the text here these words simply follow: At that moment, a shot rang out.

This is an outstanding collection and a major publishing achievement which will serve scholars, clergy seeking inspiration in their homilies and others for many years. The Romero Trust, the editorial team and the translator are to be congratulated. The volumes are well produced and easy to use and, hopefully, the full appearance of the English series will be a good way to mark Oscar Romero's canonization when it happens soon.