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India 'needs' likes of Oscar Romero, who fought injustice, divisiveness, xenophobia

By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*
Forty years ago, on March 24, 2020, Archbishop Oscar Romero was brutally gunned down, whilst he celebrated the Eucharist in his native El Salvador. As the world remembers and celebrates the memory of this great Saint of our times, one is reminded of the three Ps that epitomised him: Prayer, Presence, Prophet.
Romero was a man of prayer. Throughout his life he radiated God’s compassion and mercy. He consistently communicated to his people, his closeness and deep-rootedness to God. On October 14, 2018, during the canonization ceremony of Oscar Romero, Pope Francis in his homily lauded Romero for leaving "the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to live his life according to the Gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters".
He went on to add, "Let us ask for the grace always to leave things behind for love of the Lord: to leave behind wealth, the yearning for status and power, structures that are no longer adequate for proclaiming the Gospel, those weights that slow down our mission, the strings that tie us to the world".
Romero was a man of deep faith which enabled him to transcend the narrowness of rituals and religiosity. His spirituality was contextual: the ability to read and respond to the signs of the times; the grace to take people to God and bring God to his people.
Romero believed in presence: being in the midst of his suffering people. He lived in a very tangible way what Pope Francis reminds us of today, “to smell of the sheep.” As a young priest and later as a Bishop, Romero was known for his conservative thinking and for wanting to maintain the ‘status quo’.
He had however, a long-standing friendship with Jesuit Fr Rutilio Grande. The poor and exploited of the country were Grande’s major concern. He left no stone unturned to highlight their plight and make their struggles his own. Unlike Romero, Grande did not hesitate to take up cudgels against the powerful. Grande was killed on March 12, 1977.
Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador just three weeks before this dastardly deed. Grande’s death came as a great shock to Romero. At his funeral Mass, Romero said in his homily: “The government should not consider a priest who takes a stand for social justice as a politician or a subversive element when he is fulfilling his mission in the politics of the common good.”He also said openly and emphatically: “Anyone who attacks one of my priests, attacks me. If they killed Rutilio for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”. From that day onwards, he immersed himself totally in defending the rights of the poor and oppressed of his country. He never looked back!
Above all, Romero was a prophet! He has convinced that he had to announce ‘the good news’ and that he could never do, so before first denouncing all that was evil in his society. He was an outspoken critic of his Government, the military and of the other right-wing elements of his country, for their continued oppression and exploitation of the poor.
He never minced words in condemning their heinous crimes. The day before his assassination, Romero delivered his now-famous Sunday homily ordering soldiers to stop killing their own countrymen: “It is time to regain your conscience. In the name of God and the name of the suffering people, I implore you, I beg you, I order you, stop the repression!” 
Romero was an outspoken critic of government, military and right-wing elements, spoke out against their continued oppression and exploitation of the poor
There has never been any doubt about who was responsible for his murder. A few days earlier, Romero stated, “As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall rise in the Salvadoran people.” His words are still chanted today, “They can kill me, but they will never kill justice.” He was truly a prophet of his time and for all times.
On December 21, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly, in a fitting annual tribute to Oscar Romero proclaimed March 24 as the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. The purpose of this day is:
  • to honour the memory of victims of gross and systematic human rights violations and promote the importance of the right to truth and justice;
  • to pay tribute to those who have devoted their lives to, and lost their lives in the struggle to promote and protect human rights for all;
  • to recognise, in particular, the important work and values of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated on 24 March 24,1980, after denouncing violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable populations and defending the principles of protecting lives, promoting human dignity and opposition to all forms of violence.
Today, India and the world at large, yearn for the likes of Oscar Romero. Untruth and injustice, divisiveness and discrimination, xenophobia and exploitation seem to rule the roost everywhere. The so-called leaders from across the political, religious and social spectrum are afraid of taking a visible and vocal stand against the powers that crush others.
Several political, corporate and even ‘religious’ leaders use hate and jingoism to nurture their lust for power and greed for wealth. People are kept divided and on the fringes of society for whimsical reasons.
Truth and justice are conveniently sacrificed for petty political gains; those whose primary duty is to propagate and protect these essentials, like the judiciary or the ‘holy’ folk, just abdicate their responsibility; they feel either too embarrassed or very frightened to take a stand or they just succumb to the diktats of their masters!
Scant attention is paid to the victims of crime and violence, particularly the institutionalized ones. The poor and the other vulnerable, continue to be the victims of unjust structures everywhere. Romero was never afraid to highlight these realities!
As we observe yet another day dedicated to this great Saint of our times, let us do our best to mainstream the dimensions of prayer, presence and prophet in our lives. May we allow ourselves to be challenged and inspired by Romero’s words:
“I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally”.
Saint Oscar Romero we remember you today: intercede for us from above!
---
*Human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com

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