On March 24, 1980, Salvadoran Archbishop, Oscar Romero, was assassinated as he celebrated the Eucharist. A recent film, Romero (Paulist Films – Cineplex Odeon), excellently depicts the interplay of forces both within El Salvador and within Romero himself that culminate in this assassination. From Romero, the man and the film, there is much to learn. The film ends with his assassination, but it begins with other things.

Initially, when Romero is chosen as archbishop, he is judged to be weak. Rome picks him because it feels he won’t ruffle feathers; the rich applaud his installation because they feel he will keep the church in the sanctuary, away from justice issues; and the poor accept his appointment with more resignation than hope. He is judged by all, and not without reason, to be very “safe” and mediocre. At first, he is just that, safe and mediocre. Even more, he is somewhat of a bumpkin, an absent-minded evasive intellectual lost in the face of practical issues. The rich try to use him. The poor ignore him. Those in the front lines of the justice struggle are irritated by him.

For many of us this comes as a shock. Romero, the martyr, slow to take a stand, fuzzy of vision, weak in courage, reticent, sneered at by those working for justice, ignored by the poor. But Romero changes, changes as he begins to deal more directly with the poor. His simple honesty and his refusal to distort the truth he sees leads him to see how the struggle for justice and the struggle for the Gospel are inextricably linked. As his vision clarified, his courage grew. However, his conversion is not, as many suppose, a conversion to ideology, or violence, or anger, or to any one-sided compassion.

He continues to love all, poor and rich. When he is accused by the rich of being overly concerned for the poor he protests by saying he is painfully concerned for everyone. He condemns violence, by the poor as much as by the rich. At one stage, he confronts one of his priests who has taken to carrying a machine gun and suggests that, by carrying a weapon, he is putting himself on the same level as the oppressors. The priest counters by suggesting that Romero’s non-violence, while idealistic, is ineffective.

Romero then asks the priest: “Do you still pray?”

“Yes, I do,” was the reply.

“Then why,” questions Romero, “are you carrying a gun?”

As Romero understood more the need to struggle for justice he understood, in a way that the machine gun carrying priest never did, how Good Friday and Easter Sunday, not terrorism and gun fire, are the paths to justice and the kingdom. Sister Mary Jo Leddy recently commented that, in any situation dominated by fear, you need people who have died before they die, people who, before death, already live the resurrection. In this is fear, timidity, overcome.

Too often, however, we just want to survive. Then we choose not to die, but that, as she points out, is not the same thing as choosing to live. We need to die before we die to live in the freedom of the resurrection already now.

Romero’s real witness consisted in precisely that, long before an assassin’s bullet ended his life, he had already died. The great courage he had during his last months came from this, as a dead man, he had nothing left to lose.

It was a dead man that he could write…

“I have often been threatened with death. Nevertheless, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise in the Salvadoran people. I say so without meaning to boast, with the greatest humility. As a pastor I am obliged by divine mandate to give my life for those I love – for all Salvadorans, even those who may be going to kill me. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and for the resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom, and the sign that hope will soon be a reality….You may say, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon and bless those who do it. Would that thus they may be convinced that they will waste their time.”

Martin Luther King used to tell the story of a young boy, a black, who, during the height of the segregation era in Alabama, was caught trespassing in a white man’s toilet. He was beaten up and, just before being kicked out, had his face pushed into a urinal. King comments: This boy has two choices: The first is to bide his time, nurture and intensify his wound and hatred, and when, if ever, he has the strength and resources, strike back. Or…

There’s another, a more difficult choice. The true revelation of love asks that boy to get up and recognize in the smell of that filth, the filth of humanity, the smell of Christ’s blood, defiled with spittle on the way to Calvary. Romero, like King, tried to give his people that message. In the film, just before the credits appear at the end, the screen flashes the words: “Romero lived and died for non-violence. 60,000 people have died in El Salvador in the 10 years since his death. His message has not been heard.”

Maybe it’s not too late for us to hear.