This day, this Holy Thursday, is the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus, the meal where Jesus instituted that breaking of the bread and that sharing of the cup that became the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox, the Communion of the Protestants, and the Mass of the Catholics. And it was at Mass, 25 years ago today on March 24, 1980, that an assassin murdered Oscar Romero at precisely that moment in the liturgy where the priest presented his gifts, the bread, the wine, and unexpectedly, himself, to God as he prepared to recite the Eucharistic Prayer.
When the bishops of El Salvador recommended that this sober scholar, this evident nebbish, this "pastor to his paperwork," become a bishop, they had no expectation of the ferocious voice they would unleash against the crisis that engulfed El Salvador. Indeed, for years after that appointment, his fellow bishops heard nothing from their brother more threatening than the turning pages of his breviary.
In February 1977, Romero became the Archbishop of San Salvador. Shortly afterwards, his friend, the first priest Romero had ordained, was murdered at the government's hands, assassinated for his service of the poor. A crowd of 100,000 drew together in a square in shock and horror to mourn the death of Romero's friend, the dead priest servant of the poor. To the crowd, Romero gave a vow.
A swelling wave of approval echoed in the applause that rolled through the crowd, and the magnitude of the injustice against his people fired Romero's imagination. As one who was there observed, "Thousands of people were applauding him, and you could see him grow stronger. It was then that he crossed the threshold. He went through the door. Because, you know, there is baptism by water, and there is baptism by blood. But there is also baptism by the people."
The lamb did start to roar.
The shadow on the wall became Amos in the court of the king, a voice of radical unfettered self-forgetting concern for the lot of the least, the despised, the disdained, the rejected.
That the government found his voice a taunt, a nuisance, and a scourge was not lost on Romero.
On March 23, 1980, Romero in a broadcast heard across the nation appealed to the men of El Salvador's armed forces to mutiny:
The next day, Oscar Romero was dead. A 1992 United Nations Commission that investigated his murder observed about that day 25 year ago today, "On Monday, 24 March 1980, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez, was celebrating mass in the Chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia when he was killed by a professional assassin who fired a single .22 or .223 calibre bullet from a red, four door Volkswagen vehicle. The bullet hit its mark, causing the Archbishop's death from severe bleeding." Yet the bullet that killed Romero did not silence his voice.
As a consequence of his death, El Salvador's civil war commenced.
His people to this day labor to recover from the horrors they endured. The sister of someone I know currently serves as a Catholic lay worker in El Salvador. I spoke to this friend a few nights ago. She told me that her sister recently observed Romero's continuing presence among the people.
There is a certain mass grave these days the people are digging up to remove the massacred to proper places of burial. The horror in that mass grave has unleashed an immense pathos; as an expression of their grief, the people painted a mural on a wall above the grave. At the center of that mural stands the image of Oscar Romero, his enormous arms reaching out, bending around, enfolding in an embrace the murdered of that grave, who have lain these years anonymously in that place.