Two unfinished Masses are linked to the legacy of Saint Óscar Romero, pointing to his unfinished work to see Christ in and be Christ for the poor, marginalized, and excluded.
Forty years ago, Óscar Romero was murdered while he celebrated Mass in the Divine Providence cancer hospital chapel. The Gospel was from John 12:23-26: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal. Whoever wants to serve me must follow me, so that my servant may be with me where I am.”
In his homily, Romero quoted from Gaudium et spes, asserting that building a “better ordering of human society” is “of vital concern to the kingdom of God … a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love, and peace” (no. 39). He continued:
Dear brothers and sisters, let us all view these matters at this historic moment with hope, that spirit of giving and of sacrifice. Let us all do what we can. We can all do something, at least have a sense of understanding and sympathy … This holy mass, now, this Eucharist, is just such an act of faith. To Christian faith at this moment the voice of diatribe appears changed for the body of the Lord, who offered himself for the redemption of the world, and in this chalice the wine is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation. May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain—like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.
The archbishop proclaimed these words while a car idled outside the chapel and an assassin trained his aim on Romero’s heart. Romero stared at his killer and uttered his last words: “Let us join together, then, intimately in faith and hope at this moment of prayer for Doña Sarita [it was her memorial Mass] and ourselves.”
At that moment—at 6:15pm—an assassin, a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA, fired a single bullet that ripped through Romero’s aorta and by 6:26pm he was declared dead.
A first Mass never finished.
The following Sunday, more than 250,000 Salvadorans gathered in the square outside the cathedral in the capital. It was Palm Sunday, and they were laying to rest their beloved “Monseñor Romero,” whom they recognized as a saint.
After a peaceful procession through the streets and prayerful start to the liturgy, soldiers began shooting into the crowd. Bombs interrupted the homily and people began to flee. It’s unclear how many people were killed, but eye witnesses report that more than 80 Salvadorans lost their lives.
A second Mass never finished.
Last week I was in El Salvador and got to spend time with Lolo Guardado, who was baptized by Romero and who was still a boy when Romero was murdered. In Spanish, Lolo told us that even though he is shy and still trying to heal from the wounds of El Salvador’s civil war, he tries to live up to the legacy of Romero’s courage. Lolo recounted stories of Romero as a “friend and good shepherd.”
Lolo, who survived a massacre that killed hundreds of women and children and wiped out more than sixty percent of his family, told us how Romero inspires him to discover his voice, tell his story, and speak the truth of the brutal effects of so many years of fear, hatred, and violence in El Salvador. In moments of uncertainty, Lolo told us, he can hear Romero urging him onward: “Adelante!” Lolo acknowledged, “If I do not speak up, it is not as though the rocks will speak for me. I must speak for myself.”
Lolo insists that Romero is alive in his commitment to sentir con la iglesia (to feel with the church), especially the unfinished work to draw near the poor, the vulnerable, the nonpersons. The ones made to feel invisible, the ones without security, voice, or agency.
Lolo described Romero’s bravery and cool-headedness during a late-night standoff in May 1979 at the Church of the Rosary. He brokered a peaceful exit that soldiers betrayed, firing bullets through the glass and metal doors (the bullet holes remain visible today), killing dozens who are buried in a mass grave in the floor of the church. My students and I were moved by the bullet-pierced tabernacle, which still hangs on the back wall of the church.
Thomas Merton referred to the church as a “body of broken bones” but in El Salvador, bullet holes and embodied wounds direct our gaze to the “crucified people” past and present. A Salvadoran woman named Anita shared her work to honor the legacy of Romero and so many other Salvadoran martyrs. She assured us, “Where there is a wound, there is God.” Romero is so beloved because he was so attentive and responsive to the wounds of his people.
As we remember Romero on the 40th anniversary of his martyrdom, there may be a temptation to domesticate his legacy. It’s important to honor his words and actions, verifying the record of what inspired and sustained him.
Romero’s unfinished work is a call to grow ever deeper in faith, hope, and love by sharing our life with those who suffer, people who question if they count, matter, or belong. In 1977, Romero insisted, “A church that is fulfilling its duty cannot live without being persecuted.” We cannot run from difference or discomfort; we cannot be afraid to disagree or convince ourselves that the kind thing to do is remain silent, to avoid rocking the boat. Less than a year before he was killed, Romero claimed, “The Gospel that the Church preaches will always provoke conflicts.” Jesus promised as much (Matthew 10:16-36). This is not a challenge to a select few; it is part of our shared call as disciples, a responsibility on all our shoulders. It comes with being church together, a reason for us to support each other and hold one another lovingly accountable to a Gospel that requires we never become complacent with an unjust status quo.
Romero’s unfinished work is to live out a faith filled with courage, compassion, and solidarity. To become a church that is genuinely of and for the poor. To have our hearts moved by those whose humanity is questioned, whose dignity is undermined, whose freedoms are constrained. And to work for a world that rights wrongs, heals wounds, and creates the conditions for each and all to freely and fully flourish in right-relationships.
In a digital age, it’s easy to give our attention to a person or cause and then swipe or scroll on to something completely different. Screens can become portals for distraction, escape, and entertainment, tempting us to ignore, deny, or even erase suffering – whether our own or others’.
Romero’s legacy is a challenge to be present to those pushed to the peripheries, to listen and learn from them. To help them discover their voice and develop it so they can speak their own truth and be heard. To build relationships rooted in mutual respect and responsibility such that the lines that distinguish “us” from “them” are erased by the bonds of cariño (tender affection), confianza (sacred trust), and conjunto (togetherness).
40 years removed from his last breath, it will grow easier to put Romero up on a pedestal, to light a candle in his honor, and to remember him for saintly piety and the selfless sacrifice of his life as a witness to his love for Jesus Christ and the people of El Salvador. But we cannot dilute or whitewash Romero as if he were predestined to sainthood, wholly set apart from the rest of us. He experienced struggle, doubt, and fear. He could have chosen to be silent or to sidestep his prophetic words to denounce injustice and violence. But he didn’t. Telling the truth came with a price. To continue the unfinished work of Saint Óscar Romero is to follow his example by telling the truth of reality, analyzing the root causes of injustice, mining sources of moral wisdom from Scripture, tradition, logic, and human experience, and working for justice on the personal, social, and structural levels.
Jon Sobrino, SJ, insists that while the Church honors Romero by recognizing him as a saint, “It is not the Church that graces Monseñor, but Monseñor who graces the Church and elevates it.” Romero calls us to an ever deeper love of God and neighbor, a love of God expressed by loving our neighbor, especially the one in greatest need. As the words of his prophetic homilies continue to echo from the past to the present, he urges us onward: “Adelante!”
Romero’s legacy—including but not limited to the two unfinished Masses in March 1980—reminds us: “Each one of you has to be a microphone for God” knowing that “no one can kill the voice of justice.”