Oscar Romero served as the archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980. He was appointed during a time that found much of Latin America in violent political upheaval. In El Salvador a popular nationalist slogan was “Be a patriot, Kill a priest.” Needless to say, the Church was under great pressure. On one hand, wealthy aristocrats expected the Church to leave themselves out of the political tensions. On the other hand, the poor of the country needed the Church to speak up on their behalf.
Oscar Romero was selected to be Archbishop of San Salvador because the aristocracy had endorsed him as one to keep to himself. He was supposed to be quiet as they built their own political and economic power. During Romero’s tenure as archbishop, 6 priests were killed and many more were threatened or injured. One priest’s death, Rutilio Grande, led Romero to look at the problems of his country in a new way. Rutilio Grande was a friend of Oscar Romero’s who worked with many of the poor in the villages surrounding San Salvador. Because of what he preached, Rutilio Grande was assassinated by the Salvadoran military. It was this death that first awakened Romero to his own personal need for change.
Through 3 years of deep pastoral ministry with the poor and exploited people of El Salvador he preached the Gospel. He sought to reconcile the deep division in his country. He used his voice to speak on behalf of those in his country who could not be heard.
On March 23rd, 1980 while offering a mass in a small hospital chapel he was assassinated.
Pope Francis beautifully described Romero’s life and role in the church in a recent letter:
In that beautiful Central American land, bathed by the Pacific Ocean, the Lord granted his Church a zealous Bishop who, loving God and serving the brothers and sisters, converted into an image of Christ the Good Shepherd. In times of difficult coexistence, Archbishop Romero knew how to lead, defend and protect his flock, remaining faithful to the Gospel and in communion with the whole Church. His ministry was distinguished by a particular attention to the most poor and marginalized. And in the moment of his death, while he celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of love and reconciliation, he received the grace to identify himself fully with He who gave his life for his sheep[i].
Since Romero’s death much has been done to keep his life and witness alive. His small simple house, across the street from the Chapel where he died has been converted into a museum of his personal affects. In the museum you can see his bed, his typewriter, some books from his personal library, those iconic glasses, a razor blade, all the stuff of normal human life.
In one large glass case you can see the vestments he wore during his last mass. On the front right side you can see the hole where the bullet tore through his chest – the fabric stained dark with his precious blood. You can see the mark of his death, like the wounds in the hands, feet, and side of Christ they are very real.
On the outside of the house turned museum there is a sign on the wall: Monsignor Romero, Prophet and Martyr: So say the people of El Salvador without the approval of the Church.
If Romero was just a priest living and preaching the Gospel, why did that bullet find its way into his Chest? Remember Romero is pastor in a country that would kill priests for the political consequences of their preaching. It should not be difficult to see the connection. It is the Gospel after all that convicts Romero to saying something like:
No one can serve two lords. There is only one God, and that God will either be the true one, who asks us to give things up when they become sin, or it will be the god of money, who makes us turn or back on Christianity’s God.
And to saying something like:
I am glad, brothers and sisters, that our church is persecuted precisely for its preferential option for the poor and for trying to become incarnate in the interests of the poor and for saying to all the people, to rulers, to the rich and powerful: unless you become poor, unless you have a concern for the poverty of our people as though they were your own family, you will not be able to save society.
Please understand that Romero is paraphrasing and contextualizing the Gospel message for his people, who are in the midst of civil war. As Pope Francis pointed out, in truly professing the Gospel Romero aligns himself with the path of Jesus.
This thought leads us to ask: “Who was Jesus?” An itinerant Jew? A rebellious zealot? A religious iconoclast?
Dorothy Sayers, a British writer and Christian Humanist, has a beautiful description of Jesus that helps us draw the connection between the living Gospel and Romero’s life:
He assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the Temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humor that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But he had “a daily beauty in his life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.
In February of this year Pope Francis declared Romero a Martyr of the Church. And on Saturday May 23rd Romero was beatified, the final step on the path to sainthood. Now that Romero is an official Martyr and is on the fast track to Sainthood the story of his life is recalled as one truly in synch with Jesus’. For 35 years he was a murdered victim in a cold political war, just another assassinated priest caught up in the warring ideologies. Or so the Church was cautious to say.
The workers can pull the letters down off the sign outside or Romero’s house. For the Church now declares the Truth of what the people of El Salvador have been telling us all along: they saw the Gospel in their midst through Romero. And the story ended just the same: not in death but in the peaceful hope of the resurrection.
Now that we have nearly got a Saint on our hands history looks a bit different. Looking back Romero will always be a martyr. He is eternally marked by the memory of the whole Church. Romero’s Martyrdom is a part of all our heritage. History is not redacted; it has finally been corrected. He was a Martyr from the start.
As Pope Francis has prayed let us also pray:
May those who have Archbishop Romero as a friend of faith, those who invoke him as protector and intercessor, those who admire his image, find in him the strength and courage to build the Kingdom of God, to commit to a more equal and dignified social order[ii].
Blessed Oscar Romero! Pray for Us.
[i] Pope Francis sends letter for the beatification of Óscar Romero – http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-sends-letter-for-the-beatification-of (accessed 6/1/2015)
Patrick Cashio is the Executive Director of Romero Center Ministries.