Oscar Romero: Beatitude Made Flesh

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Let me invite you to consider with me a challenge to a life worth living. It is the challenge which Jesus of Nazareth gave to a multitude almost two thousand years ago. The challenge is called the Beatitudes. It comes from a famous sermon of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mountain.

Beatitude comes from the Latin word beatitudo, which means blessed, happy, or fortunate. Almost all of us recall the opening line of the passage: "Blessed are the poor in Spirit..." The idea is that if you live the way Jesus lays it out, you will be truly happy, truly fulfilled. But, as you know, the best things in life always demand the best we can be and the greatest effort we can put forth. The life of beatitude to which Jesus invites us demands no less.

Let me take advantage of my native language, Spanish (the language of God and the angels), to get more deeply into the meaning of beatitude. In Spanish the word is translated bienaventuranza, literally "good adventure to you." We all know that adventure means risk, the courage to defy the odds, the refusal to play it safe.

Listen, then, to how the Beatitudes would sound if we turn them into bienaventuranzas and if we paraphrase a bit:

Good adventure to you whose hearts are genuinely with the poor: you are under God's protective rule. Good adventure to you who are without power:
the whole world shall be yours. Good adventure to you who are hungry and thirsty for justice: your cup will be filled. Good adventure to you who look for truth with singleness of heart: you shall see God. Good adventure to you who work for peace: you shall be called children of God. Good adventure to you who are persecuted for the sake of justice. You, too, are already under God's protective rule; rejoice, be very happy, when others say evil things about you falsely because you are mine. God is preparing a great reward for you. Don't be surprised, prophets have always been an endangered species. (Trans. by J.L-B)

The original listeners were greatly taken with the poetry, but being realists, almost all turned down the invitation to that kind of life. The risks were too great. We who know from the record what happened to Jesus for following his own advice, could not blame them. Could we? When you think of it, there have been relatively few people who have accepted Jesus' invitation to the life of beatitude. But if it were not for those few, we would have lost confidence in the human prospect. We would also have lost faith in the God of life.

Let me tell you about one of those few who truly joined Jesus in life's good adventure. His name is Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, the capital of the tiny nation of El Salvador in Central America. He was the archbishop from February of 1977 to March of 1980, I knew him well. I may have been his closest Protestant friend. To illustrate how he embodied in his life and death the Beatitudes, I will recall for us highlights taken from the last weeks of his life. I suspect if you get to know him you will get an idea of what people can do when they join Jesus in his good adventure.

On February 17, 1980, a month before his enemies had him killed, the archbishop wrote to President Carter. With alarm he had learned the United States government was going to resume military assistance to El Salvador. The key line in the archbishop's letter was this: "Please Mr. President, do not send weapons, they will be used for more repression against my people."

As we know, his plea was in vain. US weapons began to arrive in a steady escalation. Within three years, El Salvador, the tiny nation, was to become the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. It held that dubious distinction until 1990. The slaughter caused by this deadly aid is a horror worse than anything Oscar Romero could have ever imagined. When peace finally came early in l992, more than 75 thousand Salvadorians had been killed, the vast majority non­combatants. The massacre had been justified in the name of freedom and democracy. It was a mockery of both.

Five weeks after that letter to President Carter, on Sunday, March 23, 1980, in what was to be his last radio sermon, the archbishop was heard by the whole nation over the powerful Catholic radio station. He was making another plea, this time to the soldiers of the Salvadorian army. This is what he said to them:

Soldiers, do not obey your superiors when they order you to kill. You are killing your brothers and sisters. In the name of God, in name of these suffering people whose laments rise to heaven, each day more tumultuous, I beg of you, I ask of you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression!

The Christian faithful in the cathedral cheered. The Christian generals listening in their clubs were incensed. They denounced him right away as a traitor in the service of international communism.

The next day, Monday, March 24, archbishop Romero officiated a Mass in the late afternoon. It was to be his last. The Mass was a memorial for a Christian woman known to thousands as a model of Christian life. She was Dona Sarita Pinto, the mother of a journalist friend. In spite of persistent threats on his life, the archbishop had allowed the Mass to be announced in the newspapers, on radio and television. The Mass was held in the chapel of the cancer hospital run by the sisters of Divine Providence.

Oscar Romero took for his text the familiar passage from the 12th chapter of John which we often use at funerals and memorial services. It is the passage that talks about the grain of wheat which must die in order to bear fruit. It was very appropriate for this occasion. Dona Sarita had given of herself generously, blessing everyone whom she touched. The parallel with the life of Jesus was obvious. So Archbishop Romero urged everyone to follow her example, and pointing to the bread and the cup, he concluded with a reflection on the sacrament of Holy Communion.

"We receive here," he said, "the body of the Lord who offered himself for the redemption of the world. May his body and blood given for us nourish us in such a way that we, too, may give our body and blood as Christ did, so we may bring justice and peace to our people. That's what Dona Sarita did. Let us, then join ourselves to her in prayer, in the same hope and faith by which she lived."

At that moment the assassin's shot rang out!

Archbishop Romero had been standing behind the altar, facing the people. He collapsed at the foot of a large crucifix behind him. The worshippers were stunned, crouching in the pews. Several women ran to him, defying the possibility of being hit by more bullets. They turned him over on his back. Blood was pouring from his mouth and nose, while he mumbled words of forgiveness.

The bullet had entered close to his heart. His vestments were turning into a sea of red, as friends frantically carried him outside to a panel truck that would take him to the nearest hospital. In the emergency room a nurse probed for a vein to start a transfusion. But the veins had collapsed. In despair, she cried out, "Oh no, his body is broken. His blood is drained. There is no more left!"

Oscar Romero died in her arms. The gentle pastor, the fearless prophet, the preacher of beatitude was no more. Through the tears, his friends began to ask. "How could he die now when we needed him the most?" "If he was not spared, is there hope for any of us who believed in him and his cause?"

After the initial shock, I began to find consolation in the memory of my last visit to him a few weeks before. I had asked him then why he kept on taking so many risks. He told me that he had no appetite for martyrdom, that he had never been so much in love with life, that his three years as archbishop of San Salvador had marked the greatest spiritual revival of the nation. The Christian poor he served had never been more alive with hope and courage, in spite of all the brutality thrown at them by the government and the death squads. What counts, he said to me, is not the length of one's years, but what we do with them. Only a life of love lives on beyond our death, he added. He concluded by recalling the words of Jesus about the cost of true friendship. "Greater love has no one than to lay down his life for one's friends."

I carry that memory with me in the absolute conviction that Oscar Romero truly lived the "good adventure" Jesus talked about, and because he did, thousands of his friends claim that death could not hold him. That is why he is not remembered by sorrowful refrains. Instead we hear in barrios and churches throughout the Americas a moving chant: "Oscar Romero, presente!" "Oscar Romero, presente!"

The chanters chant that way because they have joined him in the good adventure. Like him, they have found a life worth living defending the poor, comforting the mourning, walking with the meek, and struggling for justice for those to whom it has been denied.

God knows, it is still a serious risk to be merciful, to keep one's heart pure, and to make peace with one's enemies. But the much greater risk is to confuse privilege and self­-protection with the good life.

Dear friends, it is never too early or too late to choose the life of beatitude. Should you choose to live that way, I tell you on the authority of Jesus of Nazareth and his friend Oscar Romero it will be the beginning of a good adventure that no calamity or enemy can take away from you, not even death itself.

Why not try it?

Good adventure to you!

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