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Who Was Oscar Romero?

Carolyn Kurtz

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This article is the introduction to The Scandal of Redemption by Oscar Romero.

Oscar Romero spent just three years as Archbishop of San Salvador, but by the time he was murdered in 1980 he had become a shepherd to the people of El Salvador and the outspoken advocate of its oppressed peasants. In those three years, he built an inspiring and challenging legacy for all those who seek to follow Christ today.

Romero’s deep faith in God and his love for and trust in the church as a people committed to Christ still ring through his homilies. These weekly sermons preserve the record of atrocities committed against his people during the beginning of the Civil War in El Salvador; more importantly, they record Romero’s response to the violence in his country. Over and over, he challenged those in power to care for their countrymen; he encouraged the campesinos to pray, to counter hatred with love; he pleaded with the people to live more truly by the vision of the New Testament; and he reminded his entire audience of how Jesus came to earth in poverty, enduring the pain and humiliation of the cross before the triumph of his resurrection. Because Christ knows all the suffering on earth, Romero says, we can believe in and work for his kingdom on earth.

Born in 1917, Romero was no child of privilege. With his five brothers and sisters, he slept on the floor of the small family home. The local school only offered three years of education, and though he displayed an aptitude for learning, his father began to train him as a carpenter. But when Romero was thirteen, he told his parents he wanted to study for the priesthood. He entered seminary when he was fourteen, completing his studies in Rome. In 1942, at the age of twenty-five, he was ordained as a priest, and from 1943 to 1967 he served as pastor of the cathedral parish of San Miguel, El Salvador.

It was, in many ways, a conventional story. But the times were not conventional. In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council to address the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to the modern world. The council closed three years later, having enacted sweeping reforms. The council emphasized that the church is God’s people, not a human institution, and that it is God’s means to serve the world by bringing Christ’s salvation into it.

The Gospel is not only a message of personal salvation from sin, but also the transformation of injustice in the present.

Three years later, in 1968, the bishops of Latin America met at Medellín, Colombia, to consider how the reforms of Vatican II should be applied to their own countries. The church, affirmed the bishops, must serve society. To do so, it must understand how power is used and abused – how people are subject to systematic economic and political exploitation. And the church must bring the gospel of Jesus into these concrete realities. This Gospel is not only a message of personal salvation from sin and entrance into the eternal kingdom of God, but also the transformation of injustice in the present. The kingdom, the bishops believed, could come on earth as it is in heaven, and it was part of the proper work of the church to help bring it to reality.

Three hundred million people under these bishops’ care in Latin America were living in poverty and experiencing the daily injustice of political oppression. Therefore, shepherding these people must include not just exhorting them to holiness and extending Christ’s offer of forgiveness, but also improving their circumstances. The extreme poverty of many in a society where a few lived in luxury was a situation that cried out for redress. And so the church must cry out too, taking what came to be called the “preferential option for the poor.”

“Peace is not found,” wrote the Medellín bishops, “it is built. The Christian is the artisan of peace. This task … has a special character in our continent; thus, the people of God in Latin America, following the example of Christ, must resist personal and collective injustice with unselfish courage and fearlessness.”footnote

This recognition became the seed of liberation theology. Romero never aligned himself explicitly with the movement, but he embraced many of its radical critiques of the existing order, and certainly believed that the gospel called him to speak up for the least powerful.

The people of God in Latin America, following the example of Christ, must resist injustice with unselfish courage and fearlessness.

While some liberation theologians defended the use of armed force in their efforts to achieve structural change, Romero did not. He simply told the truth about what following Jesus would look like for the ruling class of El Salvador, and for the people. This was a radical message. The bishops were saying that the call of the gospel would not let them leave unjust social arrangements alone: that love for both the poor and the oligarchs demanded change. In El Salvador, and elsewhere in Latin America, many church leaders had allied themselves with the upper class. But by the 1970s, some parish priests had begun to emphasize social justice and economic reform, reflecting Christ’s concern for the poor and his call to share wealth. Some priests were also encouraging the formation of “base ecclesial communities” in which believers gathered to read and discuss Christian teaching on their own. Priests were often only irregularly available, so these communities provided spiritual encouragement for the peasants.

The teaching discussed in these base communities often focused on the church’s social doctrine, and peasants began to talk boldly about the injustice they saw in their society. Many landowners feared these new groups, denouncing them as communist. Tensions grew as the priests carried out the recommendations of Vatican II and Medellín, giving the government excuse to expel foreign priests, who they claimed were stirring up trouble.

Throughout this stormy history, Oscar Romero had been at work. During his time as pastor of San Miguel, his parishioners had appreciated his lively preaching and the many parish activities he organized. When, in 1966, he took over as editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, they read what he had to say. But he was by no means one of the radical priests who were making so much trouble. Ordained a bishop in 1970, he was assigned to San Salvador, the capital city. Many churchmen there, including the elderly Archbishop Luis Chávez y González, had embraced the radical message of the Medellín meeting. Bishop Romero was not part of this contingent. Though increasingly troubled by what he saw, he was still attempting to walk a line. When the police massacred five peasants in his district, he protested strongly in a letter to the president but kept his public comments to a minimum.

When the time came for a new archbishop to be appointed, those who backed Romero were the elites of San Salvador. They considered him “safe.” With their support, in 1977 Romero was appointed by the Vatican to be Archbishop of San Salvador – effectively responsible for shepherding the Catholic Church in all of El Salvador.

The installation of the new archbishop was not the only change in leadership going on in El Salvador that February. A presidential election had been held two days before Romero took up his new role. Thanks to massive voter fraud, including assaults and intimidation at the polls, the government party candidate, a darling of the oligarchs, was named the winner. A massive crowd, as many as sixty thousand people, flocked to the city’s central square – to celebrate Mass, and to protest the election results: one purpose bled into the other. After the Mass, the police called for the gathered people to disperse. Most did – but the police opened fire on the two thousand or so who remained. The protesters ran to seek sanctuary in San Rosario, the church that bordered the square, and were besieged until the former archbishop, Chávez y González, arranged a truce.

Protests continued and two days later troops once again fired on the crowd in the square. Somewhere between forty and three hundred people were killed. The violence was not confined to the city: the National Guard had arrested and tortured a parish priest in a rural district who was considered one of the troublemakers; other priests were being expelled.

Then, three weeks after Romero’s appointment, one of those troublesome priests, Rutilio Grande, was shot down by gunmen. Everyone suspected that the government and the clique of oligarchs were responsible: Father Grande had been one of the most outspoken of those who were critical of the regime, defending the peasants, and had been active in helping to organize base communities. He had also been Archbishop Romero’s dear friend.

Romero traveled to the rural church where Grande’s body had been taken, and spent that day praying and listening to stories of violence and exploitation from the peasants whom Grande had served, and stories of his care for them. At the homily for the funeral Mass, Romero called Grande’s death what it was: an assassination. He said what everyone knew: Father Grande had been killed precisely for speaking up on behalf of the peasants.

“We have asked the legal authorities to shed light on this criminal act,” Romero said, “for they have in their hands the instruments of this nation’s justice and they must clarify this situation. We are not accusing anyone nor are we making judgments before we have all the facts. We hope to hear the voice of an impartial justice since the cause of love cannot be separated from justice. There can be no true peace or love that is based on injustice or violence or intrigue.”footnote

His meaning was unmistakable. It was the violence and intrigue in the government-supported military itself that he had in his sights. But even in this, he refused to compromise the gospel:

Who knows if those responsible for this criminal act and who have been excommunicated are listening to the radio in their hideout and hearing these words? My dear criminals, we want to tell you that we love you and we ask God to pour forth repentance into your hearts.

Romero returned to San Salvador, where he met with the bishops and priests who served under him. And then he acted. He closed all the country’s Catholic schools for three days of mourning. The following Sunday, he had every priest in El Salvador refrain from saying Mass. Instead, he held a single Mass outside San Salvador Cathedral. The crowds were larger even than those at the Mass and protest two weeks earlier. Romero showed his people that he would not be distancing himself from the kind of work that Grande had been doing. Grande had, he said, given his life in the proclamation of the gospel, and Romero publicly thanked the other priests who were doing the same kind of work. After the homily, he demanded that the government investigate the events surrounding the assassination of Grande, saying that he would not participate in any formal governmental event until the assassins had been brought to justice.

Romero had declared himself. And from that moment, he would not back down, and he would not be quiet. For the following three years, in his ­homilies – which were broadcast over the radio – and in the archdiocesan newspaper, Archbishop Romero spoke to the people, to the oligarchs, and to the government, and he spoke truth.

His homilies called his listeners to Christ’s message of love and radical forgiveness, and to the need for justice. He called those in power to take care lest they violate that justice. He called all to Christ, teaching the message of the gospel and the hope of eternal life in Christ’s kingdom even as he also taught the campesinos who listened to him that the love and justice of this kingdom was something that they could and should hope for, pray for, and work for now, in El Salvador, in their lives. He warned them away from the guerrilla warfare to which some, in desperation, were turning; the way of Christ pointed to a better response. But this response was not passivity or acquiescence:

We have never preached violence, except the violence of the love that led Christ to be nailed to a cross. We preach only the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome selfishness and to eliminate the cruel inequalities among us. This is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love and fraternity, the violence that chooses to beat weapons into sickles for work.footnote

All conversion, all change, began with the heart; with God drawing people to him to shape them into a community of love. And this community could and must include those who had formerly been enemies; Romero extended Christ’s forgiveness to the government’s killers as well.

“We have never preached violence, except the violence of the love that led Christ to be nailed to a cross.”

There is no justice without truth. Murders of peasants and attacks on priests were common in El Salvador, and would become more so in the years to follow. But they were under-reported, the news often distorted. The press was in the pocket of the wealthy. The Jesuit seminary had been bombed six times the previous year, and opposition leaders and those who spoke up were regularly “disappeared,” but El Salvador’s newspapers were reluctant to investigate these government crimes.

Each of Archbishop Romero’s homilies included a summary of the events of the week: he gathered reports of as many of the disappearances, murders, and attacks as he could, quoting eyewitness testimony and pointing out the frequent falsity of the official version of events as reported by the compromised news media. He was not reckless in accusation, but he also did not hesitate to use his homilies to present evidence showing the complicity of the national security forces in various assassinations. He spoke these homilies to an audience that eventually included half of El Salvador’s city-dwellers and three quarters of the campesinos – except when the Salvadoran military succeeded in jamming the signal that came out of the cathedral in downtown San Salvador. Twice, the radio station was damaged by bombs; twice, Romero rebuilt it. His listeners included peasants in distant villages and urban workers, members of the government and of the army, anti-government guerillas in their camps and not a few of the oligarchs themselves, in their living rooms in San Salvador.

Never for a moment, however, did Romero lose track of the central purpose of these homilies: not to report the news of the day but to proclaim the gospel. “I want to reaffirm that my sermons are not political,” he said. “Naturally, they touch on politics, and they touch on the reality of the people, but their aim is to shed light and to tell you what it is that God wants.”footnote

During the three years of Romero’s leadership, pressures only increased. There were moments of hope – a military coup installed a new government, and he continued to try to work with the country’s political leaders, who sought both his support and his silence. He offered his support in whatever he felt was beneficial for the people, but was never silent in the face of ongoing repression. During this time, Romero also faced a growing rift in the church hierarchy: many opposed him, believing that he was only stirring up trouble, afraid of repercussions. Particularly hard was the opposition of all but one of his fellow bishops: this lack of unity, he saw, contributed to the escalating repression and violence inflicted on the suffering people.

He met with leaders of the leftist revolutionary groups who periodically occupied church buildings. He offered the hospitality of the church to those who needed sanctuary from the vengeance of the military, but refused to condone the violence or the kidnappings that were the tactics of the guerilla groups. For his willingness to speak with members of these groups, and for his condemnation of the violence of the military, he was called a communist, accused of abandoning or politicizing the gospel.

In spite of this severe opposition, Romero sought every week to lead his flock to faith, hope, and love through following Christ. He sensed that his time was short. In the years he served as archbishop, dozens of priests who spoke out against the violence of the regime and the economic inequalities of the country were imprisoned, tortured, or expelled. Five were murdered. He realized that in all probability, his own turn was coming. In late February of 1980, he wrote:

I express my consecration to the heart of Jesus…. I place under his loving providence all my life, and I accept with faith in him my death, however hard it be…. For me to be happy and confident, it is sufficient to know with assurance that in him is my life and my death, that in spite of my sins I have placed my trust in him and shall not be disappointed, and others will carry on with greater wisdom and holiness the works of the church and the nation.footnote

Several days later, in an interview, he told the reporter, “You can tell them, if they succeed in killing me, then I pardon them, and I bless those who may carry out the killing. But I wish that they could realize that they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God – the people – will never perish.”footnote

On March 23, in his homily, he spoke directly to the army:

Brothers, you are a part of our own people. You are killing your own brother and sister campesinos, and against any order a man may give to kill, God’s law must prevail: “You shall not kill!” (Exod. 20:13). No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to observe an immoral law. It is time now for you to reclaim your conscience and obey your conscience rather than the command to sin…. In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise up each day more tumultuously toward heaven, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!footnote

Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot to death the next day, on March 24, 1980, as he held a memorial Mass for a friend’s mother.

Romero’s assassination was only one of an estimated seventy-five thousand deaths during what became a full-fledged civil war in El Salvador. But through his death his witness has only grown. Romero was entrusted with teaching and leading Christ’s flock in a particular place and time, and that is what he did. He followed his Lord. He called wrong wrong. He spoke on behalf of the poor, called for faith in God, and enjoined all to obey Christ’s teachings. He pointed men and women of every position towards the hope of the gospel and pleaded for unity among believers.

The selections in The Scandal of Redemption come from Romero’s radio homilies and from the diary he kept for the last several years of his life (1977–1980). Originally addressed to his own people, to inspire and encourage them as they sought God’s kingdom in the midst of unimaginable hardship, his words now speak across time and across all historical and cultural contexts to anyone who seeks God’s justice and redemption today. Romero’s signal, despite all opposition, has gotten through.


From The Scandal of Redemption: When God Liberates the Poor, Saves Sinners, and Heals Nations by Oscar Romero

black and white photo of Oscar Romero laughing

Footnotes

  1. Bishops of Latin America, Peace, The Medellin Documents, Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, Medellin, Colombia, September 6, 1968.
  2. Oscar Romero, A Prophetic Bishop Speaks to his People: The Complete Homilies of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, vol. 1. Translated by Joseph Owens, SJ (Miami: Convivium Press, 2015, 2017), 62.
  3. Ibid., vol. 2, 53.
  4. Ibid., vol. 4, 190.
  5. Irene B. Hodgson, Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Shepherd’s Diary (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1993), 11.
  6. Michael J. Walsh, Voice of the Voiceless (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 50–51.
  7. Kevin Clarke, Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 21.
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