The least among us
In a touching moment, Bishop Enemésio Lazzaris, president of the Pastoral Land Commission of the Brazilian National Bishops’ Conference, gently leaned over and kissed a bronze statue of Blessed Óscar Romero, one of his heroes.
“Thank you for your courage, your faith and your advocacy for the dignity of all people, especially the least among us,” said University of Dayton President Eric Spina when he bestowed the statue — the Blessed Óscar Romero Human Rights Award — on the Pastoral Land Commission in a ceremony in the Kennedy Union ballroom on March 28.
For more than four decades, the group has worked to defend the rights of Brazil’s landless poor, abolish modern-day slavery and fight against the destruction of the Amazon. Dayton native Sister Dorothy Stang, S.N.D., murdered in 2005 for standing up for the rights of Brazil’s landless peasants, worked for the Pastoral Land Commission.
“In solidarity with men and women of goodwill, we will continue fighting and resisting for the earth to be the earth of all,” Lazzaris said in Portuguese when he accepted the international honor.
The true Christian, he said, “commits himself with all strength to make the world or rather, the land, more habitable, defending the rights, especially the rights of the poor.”
The award, bestowed through the Human Rights Center, honors the ministry and martyrdom of Romero, a Salvadoran archbishop slain while officiating at a 1980 Mass because of his vocal defense of the rights of the poor and disenfranchised.
Kelly Johnson, associate professor of religious studies, called Romero “the patron saint for those engaged in conflict” as she offered reflections on his life.
“After a lifetime of struggle with his temper, in the crucible of his years as archbishop, when the long-standing structural violence of El Salvador was breaking out into open violence against anyone who stood with the people, including the church, he did conflict well, very well,” observed Johnson, who was part of a group of scholars who visited Brazil in 2013 to learn about the Pastoral Land Commission’s work to end forced labor.
“For the Pastoral Land Commission, for Dorothy Stang, for those in Brazil struggling to ensure a right to land to live on, a roof over their heads, and decent work, standing for justice means entering conflict, getting into the fight, and staying in it,” she said.
Mark Ensalaco, director of human rights research, founded the award in 2000 to “signify the University’s commitment to peace, social justice and the common good.”
Today, 37 years after Romero’s death, the promotion of the dignity of all people and the alleviation of human suffering continues: “We know that every effort to improve society is an effort that God wants, God demands,” he said.