“A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador gave his last homily on March 24, 1980, at a friend’s mother’s funeral. Just moments before a sharpshooter felled him, he reflected on the gospel we heard today saying,
“One must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us; those that fend off danger will lose their lives…We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us”.”
“A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Christ had placed in his care the poor of El Salvador; he was their shepherd and he would not run away. The sheep for whom Archbishop Romero would eventually lay down his life were campesinos – subsistence farmers – expelled from their small farms when the wealthy minority took their land to create vast coffee plantations. These displaced peasants became either rural serfs or urban poor.
When the poor began to protest El Salvador became a “security state”, where human rights were suspended and suspected enemies of the state were kidnapped and executed. Over 2500 people just disappeared. Because some parish priests and catechists stood with the poor during the Repression, they were arrested or deported. Political conservatives and the ruling alliance boldly proclaimed in leaflets, “Be a patriot: kill a priest.”
Archbishop Romero, a political and theological conservative, witnessed this but kept silent at first, believing that harsh measures were necessary to curb the disturbances. When Romero was promoted as Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital city, his first task as archbishop was to bury protestors whom soldiers had machine-gunned when they demonstrated against rigged elections. Privately he wrote the president of El Salvador to suspend these harsh tactics. When he received no answer Archbishop Romero asked for international intervention and begged President Jimmy Carter to stop sending military aid to the Salvadoran government. With one exception, all the Salvadoran bishops turned their backs on him, going so far as to send a secret document to Rome accusing him of being “politicized” and of seeking popularity.
Archbishop Romero was a surprise in history. The poor never expected him to take their side, but an event would take place within three weeks of his election that would remind him that, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Father Rutilio Grande, the first priest that Archbishop Romero ordained, was ambushed and killed along with two campesinos. Grande was a target because he defended the peasant’s rights to organize farm cooperatives. The night Romero drove out of the capitol to Paisnal to view Grande’s body and the old man and seven year old boy who were killed with him, marked his change. In a packed country church Romero encountered the silent endurance of peasants who were facing rising terror. Their eyes asked the question only he could answer: Will you stand with us as Fr. Rutilio did? Romero’s “yes” was in deeds. The peasants had asked for a good shepherd and that night they received one. The next day, he excommunicated the murderers and decreed that there would be only one Mass in the capital the following Sunday – a Mass in the Cathedral plaza where the victims would be honored. Thereafter he gave weekly radio addresses trying to give the people hope and encouraging the soldiers to lay down their arms.
Knowing himself to be on the government’s “hit list,” he went to the hills to prepare himself for his death. Days before his murder he told a reporter, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” On May 23 in the Plaza Divino Salvador del Mundo, in El Salvador a Mass will celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death to honor his beatification, the last step before declaring Archbishop Romero a saint.
Christ is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. All those who affirm the worth and protect the safety of the most vulnerable share in the ministry of the Good Shepherd. Those who protect the lives of those waiting to be born and those waiting to die; those who stand up for the right to practice our faith and the faith of others; those who are our friends and those who are making themselves our enemies. When we lay down our lives for them we share in the work of the Good Shepherd.
“One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us; those that fend off danger will lose their lives…We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us”.