Saturday, March 16, 2013

Oscar Romero

On the 24th March, which this year is Palm Sunday, the Church of England’s calendar of instructs us to remember a martyr.  Nothing particularly out of the ordinary, perhaps, except that this martyr was the Archbishop of San Salvador who was martyred only in 1980.  Oscar Romero is commemorated in the Church of England’s calendar, and stands together with other twentieth century Christian martyrs, on the west front of Westminster Abbey. In El Salvador, Romero is known as San Romero (Saint Romero).  But Romero is not formally commemorated by his own Roman Catholic Church.

Oscar Arnulfo Romero was born on 15th August 1917 in Ciudad Barrios, a mountain town in eastern El Salvador accessible only on foot or by animal. The second of seven children, his family grew some crops and his father worked at the local telegraph office.  After the maximum three years at state school, he had a tutor and was also apprenticed to learn carpentry.  As a child he loved to play at processions, and pretending to be a priest.  So it was not too much of a surprise that at the age of 13 he entered the seminary, despite his father’s objections.  He studied there and later in Rome and was ordained in Rome in 1942.  Because of the war, his parents and family could not be there to witness his ordination.  Returning home, via a Cuban internment camp (since he had been in Mussolini’s Italy), Romero became a parish priest.  After only a few months, however, he became secretary to the diocese.  This was a post in which his fantastic energy could be harnessed.  Romero completed the construction of the cathedral, built a reputation as a preacher, and was often heard on the radio. He visited in the countryside and prisons, organized catechism classes and first communions, and set up a huge number of groups  - the Legion of Mary, the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, Alcoholics Anonymous, Catholic Action, the Cursillos de Cristiandad, the Apostleship of Prayer, the Guardians of the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Rosary Association, the Third Order of St Francis, and a diocesan branch of Caritas.  I list these, both to show Romero’s energy and also to show how traditional a Catholic he was.  Romero held the post of Secretary to the Diocese for 23 years. 

Marked for promotion within the hierarchy of the church, Romero first became Rector of the seminary then secretary to the Bishops’ Conference.  Finally in 1970 he was consecrated bishop, first as an auxiliary or assistant bishop and then in 1975 Bishop of Santiago de Maria.  On 23rd February 1977 he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, the leading bishop of El Salvador.  This appointment was welcomed by the government, but met with dismay among many priests in El Salvador.  “Damn, we’re ruined” was the cry of seminarians.  “Now we’ll have to go back to the days of the catacombs” was another reaction.  Some of the most significant lay leaders, who taught the faith and led prayers in the absence of a priest, said of Romero’s appointment “This is really going to mess things up for us”.  Another lay woman described Romero as “just one more in a long line of sell outs”.[1]

To understand why Romero’s appointment was so controversial we need to know a little more about El Salvador and the Catholic Church there in the 1970s.  El Salvador was a deeply divided country.  Thirteen families owned nearly 40% of the land.  The extremes of wealth were held at the expense of extremes of poverty.  When Salvatore Allende was elected president of Chile the poor and the peasantry felt they had some hope of reform, but this was killed when in 1970 Pinochet’s coup overthrew Allende and installed a brutal military rule.  A similar pattern could be found all over Latin America.  In El Salvador the army ruled, and assassination, torture and destruction were regular tools used by the regime.  In June 1975, soldiers raided a hamlet called Tres Calles, hacking five peasants to death and ransacking houses.  Oppression and naked violence were common place.

Alongside this, the Catholic Church was changing.  Vatican II had urged an openness to learning from the social sciences and had deepened the social teaching of the church to include more structural approaches to poverty and suffering.  In Latin America, and in El Salvador, the church was doing pastoral work among the rural poor, and developing what were known as ‘Base Communities’, places where people would come together above all to read and reflect on the Bible.  The combination of the teaching of Vatican II and the use of Marxism as a social science to interpret the way in which oppression worked sparked a whole theological approach, often called liberation theology.

Liberation theology begins from a commitment to living and acting in the world as people of faith.  It is a committed theology, not just a series of propositions and arguments.  Liberation theology begins by being with the poor, living and working with them.  It then starts to ask why people are poor, using all the insights of the social sciences.  To this question it brings the insights of the Bible and Christian faith.  Liberation theology speaks of the Bible’s ‘preferential option for the poor’.  God is not indifferent, waiting quietly while people die.  Rather God himself is committed to the freedom of the oppressed and to care for the poor.  Finally, liberation theology issues in action – the point is not to write a book or to make a clever argument.  Rather the point is to act in a way that changes the situation, bringing freedom, liberation and life (all of which, the liberation theologians would be keen to point out, are theological and Biblical terms).

There is a powerful and attractive simplicity about liberation theology.  Its grounding in commitment to the poor, its willingness to ask questions about the causes of oppression and poverty, its use above all of the Bible as something that speaks powerfully to the world in which we live, and its end in transformative action make it an easily comprehended and used method of theological and pastoral practice.  Beneath that simplicity lie more complex insights.  The most profound of these is that all theology is rooted in commitments, they may be commitments to tackling poverty, or commitments to maintaining a comfortable statues quo.  The claim of neutrality is too often a cover for a commitment to the way things are.  For me, liberation theology is not about a particular branch or method of theology. It has a far more ambitious claim, which is that all thinking about God must be in the context of where we are, who we are with; and that all thinking about God should result in transformative action.  Theology, thinking and talking about God, should make a difference.  I have learnt that from liberation theology.  But I first learned it from evangelical Bible study!

What I cannot stress strongly enough is how controversial liberation theology was.  Anything which spoke positively of Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s, when the cold war was at its height, could be nothing else.  In fact, in Latin America the war was hot rather than cold.  American money, arms and even troops propped up repressive regimes, in El Salvador and elsewhere.  Resistance was often from Marxists, themselves funded by the USSR.  Somewhere in all of that the injustices and the poverty of the majority were lost.  The Vatican itself reacted fiercely against liberation theology.  Pope John Paul II, coming from oppression by Marxism in Poland, was understandably suspicious of Marxism being used by theologians elsewhere.

Oscar Romero was a theological and political conservative.  As secretary to the Bishops conference, he became close to Opus Dei – a very conservative and secretive Catholic organization – and was frequently critical of the politicization of the clergy.  He accused the Jesuit high school of Marxism and demagogy.  But Romero was not a simple conservative reactionary.  He had lamented that plantation owners, whom he thought of as good people, paid less that the legal minimum wage.  He was critical of individual acts of violence.  But he regarded these as blips on an otherwise basically sound society and government.  That was why his appointment was greeted with such dismay by those influenced by liberation theology and working for the liberation of the poor of El Salvador.

But Romero changed, and some have spoken of this as a conversion.  Only a few weeks after he had become Archbishop, a priest well known to Romero, Father Rutilio Grande was shot as he said mass.  The Salvadorean Jesuit and liberation theologian said that ‘as Archbishop Romero stood gazing at the mortal remains of Rutilio Grande the scales fell from his eyes’.[2] Romero cancelled all of the services in the Archdiocese on the Sunday after Rutilio Grande’s funeral and made a very public statement of his support for all the priests of his diocese: ‘Whoever touches one of my priests, touches me’.  The applause that followed showed that Romero was connected to both his clergy and his people.

Romero established a distinctive pattern of work as archbishop.  He spent much of his time visiting rural and poor areas of the diocese.  His office in San Salvador usually had a queue of people outside it waiting to speak with him.  Romero began to use his sermons, always broadcast on the radio, to defend human rights, to denounce those who committed acts of violence and to commit himself and the church to the poor of El Salvador.  He used the Diocesean newspaper to report on human rights, alongside the news of the church.  Romero’s eight o’clock mass became obligatory for foreign journalists, not because of the sacrament but because Romero’s homily was one of the very few places to learn of the reality of El Salvador without government censorship.  A church commission investigated a conflict to the north of the capital and published a report which contradicted the government report in many ways.  Preaching and pastoring, connecting and informing, that was the stuff of Romero’s ministry as Archbishop.

Meanwhile the violence in El Salvador continued and intensified. In one month alone, December 1979, there were 281 deaths.  A military coup brought a new government.  To the displeasure of the left, Romero argued that the new regime should be given a chance to prove itself, by halting the violence and accounting for the 275 people who had disappeared.    By January 1980, the civilians in the regime resigned, convinced that they were merely window dressing for a more repressive military government.  Romero regretted but understood their decision.  He continued to denounce violence from all sides, and continued to insist that the church did not support any one party.  Romero received death threats, to which he responded by refusing any protection, ‘why don’t you use those armoured cars and security guards for the family members of people who have disappeared, been killed or put in prison?’ he said to an army colonel who offered him protection.[3]  Although he employed a driver, Romero began to drive his own car to avoid putting another life in danger.  On 24th March 1980, Romero was leading mass in the chapel of the hospital where he lived.  As he was placing the bread and wine on the altar, and about to begin the Eucharistic prayer, Romero was shot in the heart.  He fell onto the altar, and was rushed to an emergency room where he died. No serious investigation was made into his murder, and three days later an attempt was made to assassinate the judge to whom the case would be assigned.  He fled the country.  Over the next few years many of the clergy of El Salvador were killed or forced to flee the country.  Romero was buried in his cathedral and images of him are to be found in many homes in the country.  

In the little time remaining to me, I want to look at three themes that are worth drawing from Romero’s life and death.  The first is about the Gospel.  Romero saw himself as a pastor and preacher of the Gospel. And his homilies are full, not of Marxism or great social theories, but of the Bible.  Romero retained his ability to speak critically about the left as well as the right because he held to a very traditional theology.  A homily in January 1979 says that ‘I wish to affirm that my preaching is not political. It naturally touches on the political and touches the people’s real lives – but in order to illuminate those realities and to tell people what it is that God wants and what it is that he does not want.’[4] Romero was rooted in the Bible and in living a Christian life.  That has political consequences, not because God is to be found on the left or the right of human politics, but because God is concerned with human beings and their flourishing.

Secondly, Romero’s ministry was based on the Gospel, and lived in commitment.  His commitment to God and to the poor was what gave Romero his distinctive ministry.  It is not enough to get the theology right.  It must be lived. 

Finally, there is the nature of Romero’s martyrdom.  Romero was not killed for defending any article of faith, of for confessing the faith of Jesus. He was killed as he went about his ministry as a Christian priest.  Romero himself saw the image of Christ in those who were killed by the death squads, ‘where someone can finger you and you die. This is how Christ died.’  The likeness of Christ and his death can also be seen in Romero’s life and death.  As we approach our remembrance of the passion of Jesus, we do well to remember those others who die after betrayal, condemnation by the jealous and the threatened, and for the expedience of systems and the powerful.  All of that we see in Oscar Romero.  All of that we see in Jesus.

The last words should be Romero’s:

I have frequently been threatened with death. I ought to say that as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador. I am not boasting, I say it with the greatest humility.  I am bound, as a pastor, by a divine command to give my life for those whom I live, and that is all Salvadoreans, even those who are going to kill me. If they manage to carry out their threats, from this moment I offer my blood or the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador.  Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve.  But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality. Let my death, if it is accepted by god, be for my people’s freedom and a witness of hope.  You may say, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon and bless those who do it. Would, indeed, they might be convinced not to waste their time. A bishop will die, but God’s Church, which is the people, will never perish.[5]

Given as part of a series on 'A History of Christianity in 30 Characters' at Derby Cathedral, 10.3.13.

[1] All these and further negative reactions to Romero’s appointment can be found in María López Vigil, Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic.  Trans. Kathy Ogle, (CAFOD and DLT, 2000), pp. 82-84.
[2] Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections (Orbis, 1990).
[3] Vigil, Oscar Romero, p. 395.
[4] Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Compiled and transl. James R. Brockman, S.J. (Collins, 1988), p. 146.
[5] From an interview with Excelsior magazine in Mexico given two weeks before his death.  In Oscar Romero and Jon Sobrino, Romero: Martyr for Liberation. The last two homilies of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador with an analysis of this life and work by Jon Sobrino S.J. (Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1982), p. 76.


Anonymous said...

"Theology, thinking and talking about God, should make a difference". Well said, and thank you for a well-balanced and informative piece. I remember at the time of his death there was a fair bit of foaming-at-the-mouth, perhaps a clearer view of the truth is now possible. Whatever that is!

gentsold said...

On this 34th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, you might be interested in the music video we have produced to honor his legacy. You may view the video at Feel free to post, embed or review the video. For more information go to