This week our saint is modern. He died only 30 years ago. His story is a story of great bravery that came not from a desire to be brave, but because he saw deep sadness and immeasurable pain and knew he had to speak.
Bishop Oscar was not born to be anyone great. His father decided he should be a carpenter, and when, he was 13 he sent to learn the trade. However Oscar wanted to be a priest. He talked his father into breaking his commitment to the carpenter he was studying under and left his town and went to the big city to study to be a priest. He was Roman Catholic, so after studying in the big city he went to Rome. After that, he returned to his country.
He was a priest there for 25 years. He was bookish and thoughtful. He didn’t do anything noteworthy. He just served his middle class families. His life began to change when he was appointed as a bishop in a very, very poor and backward area that included his home town. But in the midst of poverty, he did not do anything to challenge the powerful land owners who kept people as share croppers – one step above slavery. Many of his flock were malnourished, had diseases that were easily curable, and had lost children due to the unsanitary conditions in which their families lived. He saw this, but he was still interested in his books and writing. He was interested in matter of faith.
But God used this; just like Thomas Becket 900 years earlier, Oscar was chosen to be an Archbishop because powerful people thought he would keep things the way they were. And Oscar didn’t intend to change. So, he became Archbishop and got about preaching, confirming, and ordaining – the things Archbishops do.
However, the very first priest Oscar ordained was killed because he said that the big landowner in his town was feeding his dogs better than the children of his farm workers. He dared to say that the farm workers should have better conditions. That night that priest and a father and child were all killed. Deeply disturbed, Oscar got into his car and drove to the priest’s funeral. There he saw exactly what he hadn’t noticed before. He saw the hunger and the fear. He saw the dirt and the poverty. He realized that the words that the dead priest had said were true. He thought about how the prophets in the Old Testament spoke out against kings and powerful people. He thought that this priest was like one of the Old Testament prophets
God used this experience to change Oscar. Little by little he began to speak out against the land owners and the government who enforced their rule. He also spoke out against the church’s lack of action to change the way the poor lived. He pleaded with foreign governments to stop giving money to the government because they were using that money to kill people who wanted to feed, educate, and give their children a better life. He preached: “If we are worth anything, it is not because we have more money or more talent, or more human qualities.
Insofar as we are worth anything, it is because we are grafted on to Christ’s life, his cross and resurrection. That is a person’s measure.”
The government told Oscar to be quiet. Bishops tried to convince him to stop talking about how the poor were treated. That Christmas he said that we should look for Jesus not in the manger, but rather we should seek Jesus among the children going to bed hungry and without a home. It was obvious he was not going to be quiet. The government was very angry with Oscar’s unwillingness to go back to his books and his writing.
Still, Oscar was an Archbishop and had access to preach on the radio without the government censoring him. He preached every Saturday on the radio. On March 23, 1980 he preached and during his sermon he addressed soldiers directly. They were being asked to kill thousands of their countrymen who were asking for better wages. This hurt Oscar. So, he told them that should not kill their countrymen.
That was the last straw.
Oscar went to a hospital chapel the next day to preach and celebrate communion. As he stood to begin the communion portion of the service, a gunshot rang out. A sharp shooter killed Oscar. Oscar believed that what the book of James taught – faith without works is dead – is really true. Unless we act for the widow and the orphan and seek their betterment, we are not living out the love of Jesus.