On the night of November 16, 1989, members of the Atlacatl Battalion, an elite corps of the Salvadoran army, invaded the residence of the Jesuit faculty of the Romero Center at the University of Central America (UCA) and slaughtered six teaching scholars, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. Only Fr. Jon Sobrino, who was out of the country at the time, was spared from the massacre.
By that time civil war had raged in El Salvador for nearly a decade. Strongly influenced by a Cold War mentality that viewed as a communist plot any attempt by the poor of Latin America to overthrow oppressive regimes, the U.S. was then funding the Salvadoran military at approximately one million dollars per day. Some of that went to equip the death squads. Much of the rest lined the pockets of corrupt military leaders. Indeed, military officers were fast becoming the new wealthy power in the country, challenging the traditional oligarchy referred to as “the fourteen families.”
In the immediate aftermath of the murders a number of religious leaders known to be outspoken in their support of justice for the poor were persuaded, for the sake of their own safety, to leave El Salvador for a time. At the end of January 1990, twenty-five years ago as I write this, nearly 2,000 religiously motivated peace activists crowded into a Roman Catholic church in downtown Washington, D.C., to pray and sing together and to hear from several of the pastors and priests who had taken temporary refuge among sympathetic communities in the United States. We were encouraged to do all that we could to convince our Congress to stop the military funding. We were also challenged to travel to El Salvador ourselves, for the need for international witnesses was great.
As I learned later that year when I made the first of what would turn out to be five short-term visits to El Salvador, the emphasis on the church of the poor crossed and overrode denominational boundaries. Roman Catholic priests who ministered with campesinos struggling for justice and an end to the conflict which was devastating their land were more akin to Lutheran ministers and Baptist pastors laboring in similar ways than they were to, for example, the Catholic Bishop of San Miguel, who had allied himself with the military and was seen more often in uniform than in his clerical robes.
At the beginning of his ministry in Nazareth Jesus proclaimed that he had come to fulfill what was written by the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) This gospel message had been articulated as the church’s “preferential option for the poor” and applied specifically to the circumstances in many Latin American countries by statements issued at a conference of Roman Catholic bishops held in Medellin, Columbia, in 1968. In turn the statements developed at Medellin became one of the roots of the movement known as Latin American Liberation Theology.
It was this understanding of the gospel on which Archbishop Oscar Romero had drawn in his last public sermon, just one day before he was assassinated while saying mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador. Speaking directly to the military, Romero proclaimed: “I want to make a special appeal to soldiers, national guardsmen, and policemen: each of you is one of us. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s words, ‘thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey a law contrary to the law of God. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you; in the name of God I command you to stop the repression.”
|This portrait of Oscar Romero was attacked with a flame thrower by the assassins during the massacre at the UCA. The "drapery" on either side of the frame is melted glass.|
Those who preach against violence and oppression, and for justice for the poor, are regularly labeled “communist” by the powers who profit from oppression and injustice. Dom Hélder Câmara, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil, from 1964 to 1985, observed, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” The term serves as an all-purpose pejorative to marginalize and demonize both the message and the messenger. Too often, as I have detailed here, it has also provided justification for assassination.
Thus I watch with both admiration and concern the path that Pope Francis is taking. He has been far more outspoken than recent past Catholic Popes in calling to account both the world’s economic systems and abuses within the church he leads. In refusing many of the trappings and luxuries of his office, he models a life of simplicity and solidarity with the poor. He has made strides in cleaning house of corruption in the Vatican bank. And he has been increasingly vocal in criticizing the global financial system.
With the recent publication of a study of Francis’ economic and social teachings titled “Pope Francis: This Economy Kills” by Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi, the voices of critics labeling Francis “Marxist” and “Communist” have become louder and more shrill. In response, Francis has remarked, “Jesus states that we cannot serve two masters, God and wealth…. If I repeated some passages from the homilies of the Church Fathers, in the second or third century, about how we must treat the poor, some would accuse me of giving a Marxist homily.”
Francis can be and is quite properly criticized in areas of injustice where he supports the status quo, but regarding the idolatry of wealth and the destructiveness of economic inequality, his is a clear prophetic voice providing a much-needed corrective both to the gross distortions of the so-called “prosperity gospel” and other popular corruptions of Jesus’ message, and to the increasingly unequal secular society in which we live. As we look back to remember the sacrifices and martyrs of the past, let us also look forward with determination to live the good news that Christ proclaimed, working for a just and equitable world where all, and especially the poor among us, may flourish.
A footnote: Within the past week Francis has declared Oscar Romero to be a martyr. This is a beginning step in the process of officially naming Romero as a saint of the church. The people of El Salvador, of course, have long since acknowledged his sainthood.