The Lessons of Oscar Romero for SA today
Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred in 1980, will be beatified on May 23. RAYMOND PERRIER looks at the relevance of the Salvadoran archbishop to us in South Africa today.
In one scene, a group of soldiers of the military regime march into a square, surround the unarmed villagers, and announce: “You have five minutes to disperse or we shoot.”
I recall showing the film to a group of Catholic educators in their 40s and 50s and a shudder went through the room as that scene played.
Chris Jones, who runs the Catholic Institute of Education office in the Northern Cape explained to me: “Those were the exact same words that the apartheid army used to intimidate us when we were protesting.”
Many parallels have been drawn between the old South Africa and the military regimes of Latin America. In turn it is not surprising that the liberation theology that inspired and mobilised many bishops, priests and lay people to fight against injustice there also had an influence on the Church here.
Thus, the beatification of Archbishop Romero is being met by South Africans, both Catholics and Protestants, with joy and excitement. For many, he is already the unofficial global patron saint of justice and peace and as of this weekend he is a step closer to official recognition.
It is clear that Archbishop Romero’s history has parallels with South African history but what is his relevance for South Africa and the Church today?
Archbishop Romero’s death in 1980 was not the end of the struggle in El Salvador. In fact the civil war in which tens of thousands were killed, including many more priests and religious, went on for another decade; it was only a few years ago that a government was finally elected that was willing to admit the atrocities of the past and confess that Archbishop Romero had been assassinated under orders. In that sense, Archbishop Romero is like Steve Biko: his death was a trigger and a touchpoint for an ongoing struggle.
The other parallel that is sometimes drawn is between Archbishop Romero and our own late Archbishop Denis Hurley. In a quirk of history they were both studying in Rome at the same time in the late 1930s, though there is no record of them meeting.
When I visited El Salvador in 2008 I had the great pleasure of speaking to many of the people who worked with Archbishop Romero and knew him intimately, including his vicar-general, Mgr Urioste, and Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino.
In a similar way, I never knew Archbishop Hurley, but now as the director of the Denis Hurley Centre, I have the great privilege of meeting many people here who knew him extremely well.
Julian Filochowski, the former head of CAFOD, the Catholic development charity for England & Wales, worked with both archbishops. When he lectured in Durban a few years ago he spoke of many similarities between the two men.
There is of course one striking difference: Romero was archbishop for three years before being assassinated at the age of 63; Hurley was archbishop for 45 years and was aged almost 90 when he died.
But the similarities are great. Both were born into a world scarred by the First World War, both were traditional Churchmen whose lives were turned upside down by Vatican II (though Archbishop Romero did not attend it), both stood up for justice against oppressive regimes, both continued even when faced with intimidation and death threats, both found support but also hostility from their fellow bishops and from Rome, neither was a Jesuit but both were influenced by Jesuit friends and theology, both had fine intellects but also made time for ordinary parishioners and especially the poorest and most marginalised, both spoke eloquently but understood that a religious leader also has to listen.
One of my favourite quotes from Archbishop Romero is this: “It is not enough to pray and wait for God to act. Praying and doing nothing is not holiness – it is laziness.” I would not have been surprised if Archbishop Hurley had said something very similar.
There are also striking parallels between the two places. El Salvador is similar to KwaZulu-Natal in terms of territory, size of population, landscape (mountains, beaches and pasture), and economy. In both places you can find suburbs and shopping malls that rival the best in America; and then, not far away, villages that could come from an aid and development brochure.
And in both places Christians, whether Catholic or not, are divided between those who are poor, those who stand alongside the poor, those who see the poor as an occasional project of charity, and those who do not even notice the poor so focused are they on increasing their own wealth.
There is one way in which we can learn from El Salvador. Amidst the McDonald’s arches and the BMW dealerships and the dusty bus stations, everywhere, and I mean everywhere you see images of Archbishop Romero. He is remembered not just for what he did in his life but also for his role as the on-going conscience to the people today. The president calls him the Spiritual Guide of the Nation.
Archbishop Romero foresaw this. When asked if he was afraid of death, only a few weeks before he was killed, he remarked: “They may kill an archbishop but they cannot kill my spirit which will rise up again in the heart of the Salvadoran people.”
So ordinary Salvadorans are challenged to judge their own actions, and those of their neighbours and of their rulers, against the standard that Archbishop Romero set for them.
Many people, politicians and Church leaders, have tried to neutralise the memory of Archbishop Romero, to make him a plaster saint safely locked away in school books. But it is the ordinary people of El Salvador, for whom he was the voice of the voiceless, who will not let this happen.
We face a similar challenge in South Africa. We can let the sacrifices of Mandela or Biko or Hurley or so many others remain a pious memory that we venerate; or we can allow their witness to be a challenge that, very uncomfortably, we try to emulate.
And we don’t even need the paintings all over the walls of our towns and villages as they do in El Salvador. We have an image in our pockets that can prick our consciences. So next time you take out a bank note, notice the face of Nelson Mandela and, as you spend the money, pause to ask yourself: Does the spirit of his struggle and the struggle of so many others, live on in my actions today?
Raymond Perrier is the director of the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban.