As Catholics, we believe that our Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. For many, the shortcomings and failure of our Church leaders to protect the most vulnerable in our communities have undermined that bedrock belief. Yet, in the midst of this chaos, the Holy Spirit has made His presence evident through the timely canonization of Saint Oscar Romero. With Romero’s canonization, the Holy Spirit is lifting for the entire Church a model of Christian leadership that is needed in our Church today.
Most people are familiar with the narrative of Romero’s life. A conservative priest then bishop who had a powerful transformation that led him to become a voice for the poor and marginalized in El Salvador. That transformation is often attributed to the assassination of Romero’s good friend, Father Rutilio Grande. While the event had a significant effect on the new archbishop, Romero’s transformation was rooted in his experience as Bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de María. This diocese, a poor and rural region, brought Romero in direct contact with the suffering people of El Salvador.
It was in Santa María where Oscar Romero encountered Christ in the suffering and persecuted people to whom he ministered. It was here where he came into contact with the repression and violation of human rights experienced by the farmers under his pastoral care. This closeness with the suffering of his parishioners made him sensitive to the day-to-day needs of the people in El Salvador. Here he learned to listen with the heart and to speak without fear. He learned to accompany the abandoned, the despised, the vulnerable. It was his ability to do these things that made Oscar Romero the archbishop that the people of El Salvador needed.
Today, we are in need of such leaders. Our Church needs leaders who take the time to encounter Christ in those who are suffering, those who are hurting, and those who have been regarded as disposable. Romero, through this encounter, was moved to speak and act on behalf of those on the margins. It was this experience of accompaniment that also fed him the prophetic words that touched the souls of those living through the repression.
Our situation here at home is in no way comparable to the dire situation of El Salvador in the 1980s. However, today we have communities that live in fear. Families that are being separated at our southern border. People fearing for their lives can no longer see the U.S. as a place where they can “breathe free.” In this environment, prophetic voices are needed. These prophetic voices won’t be elevated until all of us–clergy and lay leaders—immerse ourselves in the lives of our brothers and sisters on the margins. Only by going to the margins will we be able to acquire the language of love that can move others to action.
Young people who have come to distrust most institutions are looking for the modern-day Romeros. They want to be inspired by the holiness of this man, and they will only be convinced if you and I decide to imitate Romero. The Holy Spirit has lifted up a saint we desperately need in our Church and world today.
Pray with St. Oscar Romero and discern how you can work for justice in your community. Looking for some ways to get involved? Check out these tools and resources that will help in your advocacy with our brothers and sisters on the margins.
Javier W. Bustamante, Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement, is responsible for implementing, coordinating and supporting a comprehensive program of social, cultural, intellectual, spiritual, governance and community service programs that complement the academic mission of The Catholic University of America.