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Mercy Moments: Season Two, Episode Four

Y por eso los grandes
amores de muchos
colores me gustan a mí.

– DE COLORES, TRADITIONAL SPANISH FOLK SONG

It was “De Colores” day.  I heard the movie playing in the classroom next to our Campus Ministry office.  I knew the scene all too well.  A group of sisters is sitting around a small kitchen table singing the popular Mexican folk song with Archbishop Oscar Romero.  The sophomore theology curriculum had long included a unit on the life and ministry of the now Saint Oscar Romero.  Over a period of several days, the students would watch the movie which documents Romero’s final years of ministry and untimely martyrdom.  The last viewing day was deemed the “stop the repression day”.  Quite the juxtaposition to the “De Colores” day.  We’d go from a man laughing and singing with nuns about rainbows and chickens, to a man fully aware that he was risking his life with every word he preached on behalf of the poor and oppressed. 

In his final Sunday homily broadcast by the Catholic radio station throughout El Salvador just one day before his death, Romero made a direct plea to the military saying, “I want to make a special appeal to soldiers, national guardsmen, and policemen: each of you is one of us. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters… In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you; in the name of God I command you to stop the repression.”  We’d warn each other in the office, “It’s ‘stop the repression’ day” preparing to be interrupted by the dramatic music and Romero’s intense shouting, eight periods in a row. 

Romero – a John Duigan film from 1989, captures the story of the conversion of a timid, conservative priest who reluctantly climbs the ranks of the church hierarchy, not wishing to ruffle any feathers, until a dear friend, Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, is assassinated for defending the rights of the campesinos.  After his friend’s death, things are different for the archbishop.  He can’t unlearn the reasons his friend was gunned down in cold blood.  Romero is changed.  His focus.  His ministry.  His preaching.  His interactions with authorities.  His interactions with the community – poor farm workers whose livelihoods and very lives are threatened daily by those in command.  His very identity as archbishop for these people is completely transformed.  He takes on their pain and struggles as his own. 

Years earlier, I watched this film in preparation for an alternative spring break college immersion trip to El Salvador.  We stayed at a retreat center in San Salvador and visited the living quarters Romero had chosen as archbishop, foregoing the archiepiscopal palace for a tiny room in the house of Carmelite nuns who served at the cancer hospital next door.  The chapel where Romero was shot while celebrating Mass is adjacent to the hospital.  We toured the Carmelite compound, listening to stories that went beyond those of the film, acting as yet more witnesses to the saint’s life in service of those who were poor and oppressed.  A decade later, on the day Romero was officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, my pastor who had served in El Salvador during its civil war, noted that “The Church is just catching up to affirm what we already knew.  Romero is a saint!”

A few days after our Romero tour in San Salvador, the lead campus minister for our group, Carrie, received a phone call during our lunch break.  After lunch, our group was preparing for an excursion to the campo where we would visit and learn from coffee farmers.  Touching up with sunscreen and bug spray, Carrie and I were the final two in the women’s wing, when Carrie said she needed to tell me something difficult as she began to cry.  Now sitting next to her on a cot and unable to imagine what it could be, I insisted she could tell me anything and it would be okay.  As I did my best to assure her, she shared that the phone call had been news about my grandpa.  He had passed away that day.  Plans were already in the works for me to catch the first flight out the following morning to return to the U.S., prematurely ending my immersion trip.

MY grandpa?!”  I began to cry with Carrie.  I had been so ready to comfort her, so ready to empathize with someone else’s pain or struggles; that it hadn’t occurred to me that the news could possibly affect me directly. 

This should not have come as such a surprise.  My grandpa was in his mid-80’s. His health had been declining for quite some time.  In fact, I had gone on a retreat months earlier and had intentionally kept my phone close at hand fully expecting to get the call that Carrie received.  My family had known the end was near for my mom’s father. 

But at that moment, I was prepared to listen compassionately to another person’s story of suffering.  I was not remotely ready for my own bad news.

This, of course, is natural.  A death in my own family affects me differently than a loss in another family.  But this isn’t how Romero saw it.  Romero took on the suffering of other people, of other families, of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans as his own.  It wasn’t enough to empathize.  He was compelled to action knowing this meant putting his very life on the line.

During our Lenten journeys, if we examine our work and relationships, we might easily acknowledge with gratitude our “de colores” moments – the joy that comes from recognizing God’s gifts of family, community, and meaningful work. 

But we might also be invited this Lent to pay attention to what could be our “stop the repression” moments.  We probably won’t have a haunting soundtrack foreshadowing this invitation, but God still might be inviting us into a deeper awareness of how we are called to share in the lives of those who are poor and oppressed.

St. Oscar Romero, pray for us.


The lives of St. Oscar Romero and St. Rutillo Grande: a beautiful expression of Catholic Social Teachings

St. Oscar Romero (center) and his dear friend St. Rutillo Grande (right). Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Catholic Social Teaching is like the “best kept secret” of the Catholic Church, and as our own Director of Mission Integration has phrased it to the staff at Catholic Charities, these teachings are more often “caught” than “taught”.

This week, we invite you and challenge you to learn more about the social teachings that express the church’s charitable mission. You can click here to visit the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop (USCCB)’s page holding the seven teachings with brief explanations and links to learn more included throughout.

Let us answer the call in the ways available to us this Lent, to walk and live in solidarity with others in our own communities and throughout the world.