Oscar Romero
“I have frequently been threatened with death. As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.” — Archbishop Oscar Romero, two weeks before his assassination on March 24, 1980

In late 1979, Archbishop Romero was visiting an urban slum. It was a sizeable neighborhood of poverty where entire families lived in shelters made from cardboard, tin and whatever other discarded building materials they could salvage. June Carolyn Erlick, a reporter traveling with Archbishop Romero that day, asked: “How do you feel when you see a community like this?” His response was memorable: “I just think of what I have already preached. There shouldn’t be first-class people and second-class people.”

Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the conservative cleric who became a passionate prophet, was born on May 11, 1919, and baptized into the Catholic Church. As a youth, during his free time he often spent time at the town’s two churches, showing an unusual interest in spirituality and religious life.

Oscar enrolled in the seminary in San Salvador and later completed his theological studies at the Gregorian University in Rome where he was ordained a priest on April 4, 1942. He remained there to pursue a doctorate in theology which was cut short when he was called home to El Salvador in 1944. There was a shortage of priests, and he was desperately needed.

His first appointment was as pastor of rural parish, but his innate gifts combined with his international experience, were recognized by Church authorities. He was soon appointed as Executive Secretary of the Episcopal Council for Central America and Panama, as editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, as chaplain of the Church of San Francisco (not then a parish, but at that time the sanctuary of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Peace) and, in 1974, Bishop of Santiago de Maria in Usultan.

Though both traditional and conservative, Bishop Romero was a pastor at heart who visited with and listened to the poor. Little by little and one by one, these impoverished, violated people helped their bishop understand the day-to-day reality that was their world. Important seeds were planted in Romero’s mind and spirit, seeds which would bear fruit three years later.

On Feb. 23, 1977, Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. This appointment was met with delight by the government and the military who saw him as a hesitant, timid, conservative cleric. Priests, however, reacted to Romero’s appointment with dismay, disappointment and even despair. Romero succeeded Luis Chavez y Gonzalez, who had been archbishop of San Salvador for 38 years. Both moderate and tolerant, Chavez did not prohibit his priests from supporting the poor and backing peasant rights to organize and challenge landowners and the government. To follow Chavez, the clergy favored Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, the auxiliary bishop. In Rome, however, the decision was made to appoint Bishop Romero. Here is an account by Francisco Estrada that reveals the deep disappointment in Romero’s appointment:

“We knew that Rome had been in consultation with various groups since late 1976 in the search for a new archbishop, knowing that Chavez had reached the age of retirement. The nuncio proposed Romero as a candidate and consulted with the government, the military, the business sector and the ladies of society. They asked the rich, and the rich gave their complete backing to Romero’s appointment. They felt he was ‘one of theirs.’”

Father Grande’s Assinassation

Yet, three weeks later, an event would take place which would utterly and profoundly transform Archbishop Romero from a hesitant, timid, conservative cleric into a courageous, confident and passionate priest. It would propel him to become the prophet of El Salvador, speaking in support of the oppressed while challenging the wealthy and chastising the government. The event which turned Archbishop Romero upside down was the assassination, on March 12, 1977, of Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and Romero’s personal friend. At that time, the military’s efforts at suppressing the people were supplemented by mercenary death squads. These men who roamed throughout the country, raping, torturing and killing without fear of arrest, were paid a bounty for every person they victimized.

On that fateful March day, Father Grande, whose ministry was among the poor, was traveling the road from Aguilares to El Paisnal. A death squad that was waiting opened fire, killing not only the priest but also Manuel Solorzano, an older man, and Nelson Rutilio Lemus, a teenager. The two were giving Father Grande a ride to the rural church where he was scheduled to celebrate Mass. Upon learning of the killings, Archbishop Romero rushed to the parish house in El Paisnal where the three bodies had been carried. There, he celebrated Mass. Deeply saddened by these deaths, Romero was also equally deeply moved by hearing local sugar cane workers speak highly of Father Grande’s ministry among them.

Two days later, before an immense crowd inside and outside San Salvador Cathedral, the archbishop celebrated a funeral Mass which was concelebrated by 100 priests. The readings for the funeral were personally selected by Archbishop Romero. One was from the Gospel of John: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). The other was from an apostolic exhortation of Pope Paul VI who declared: “The Church cannot be absent from the struggle for liberation.” Referring to Father Grande and his two companions as “coworkers in Christian liberation,” Romero, in this public forum, chastised his country’s leaders saying, “The government should not consider a priest who takes a stand for social justice as a politician, or a subversive element, when he is fulfilling his mission in the politics of the common good.”

Following the funeral, Archbishop Romero decided that the Church needed to respond to the murders. It was an agonizing decision, but he took three steps. First, he wrote the president of El Salvador, Colonel Arturo Armando Molina, informing him that, as archbishop, he was “not willing to participate in any official act of the government as long as the latter did not put all its effort into making justice manifest in regard to this unprecedented sacrilege.” Second, he informed Colonel Molina that the Church had published the excommunication of “the authors of the crime.”

The third decision was momentous. As a show of solidarity and in protest of the murder of Father Grande and his companions, Archbishop Romero urged cancelling all Masses the following Sunday, except for one on the steps of the cathedral. This amounted to a general strike by the Church against the government and military. The decision was not made easily, nor did the archbishop make it alone. He convened with all the priests of the archdiocese, as well as with some women religious. The matter was discussed at length and a vote taken. Seventy-one voted in favor, one against, and one abstained. The nuncio, Rome’s representative, objected and scolded Archbishop Romero, saying he was “irresponsible” and “imprudent.”

Nevertheless Archbishop Romero proceeded to celebrate the Mass. More than 100,000 filled the plaza in front of the cathedral. The archbishop said, “I want to give a public thanks today, here in front of the archdiocese, for the unified support that is being expressed for the Gospel and for these our beloved priests. Many of them are in danger, and like Father Grande, they are risking even the maximum sacrifice. . . .Whoever touches one of my priests is touching me. And they will have to deal with me!” At the mention of Father Rutilio Grande, the crowd broke out in thunderous applause.

‘Voice of the Voiceless’

From that point on, Archbishop Romero increasingly became the “voice of the voiceless,” using the moral authority of his position as archbishop to speak out on behalf of those who could not do so for themselves — the tortured, the imprisoned, the terrorized masses. In a sermon he declared, “The Church is concerned about those who cannot speak, those who suffer, those who are tortured, those who are silenced. This is not getting involved in politics. . . .Let this be clear: when the Church preaches social justice, equality and the dignity of people, defending those who suffer and those who are assaulted, this is not subversion; this is not Marxism. This is the authentic teaching of the Church.”

Romero
A nun kisses the forehead of Archbishop Oscar Romero. CNS photo

In spite of Romero’s public support of the people, the government escalated violence against its citizens. More priests and religious women were killed. Countless numbers of people were arrested, detained, tortured, raped and murdered. Bodies clogged rivers and streams. Every week, tortured and disfigured bodies were left in garbage dumps or simply on the streets of the capital. It is estimated that the civilian death toll began to exceed 3,000 per month with some 75,000 to 80,000 Salvadorans slaughtered. More than 300,000 simply disappeared without a trace, and millions became homeless fugitives fleeing military and police. All of this within a country whose population was 5.5 million.

As opposition was silenced, Archbishop Romero was left alone to speak out against the atrocities and in support of the people. Even the archbishop’s sermons changed. Rather than simply study biblical texts and expound on them, Romero tied Scripture to current events as they unfolded. To prepare for his weekly homily, he did two things. First, he met for several hours with a team of priests and lay people to listen carefully and to discuss and reflect on the situation in the country that week. The second thing was prayer.

An eyewitness to Archbishop Romero’s style of weekly sermon preparation recalls: “The meeting (with advisers) would end, he’d say good-bye to the group, then he’d sit down to organize his ideas and prepare himself. I’m a witness, having seen him on more than one occasion in his room, on his knees, from ten on Saturday night until four in the morning on Sunday, preparing his homily. He would sleep a little while and then be at the cathedral by eight.” Romero was so comfortable with what he would say in church that he stepped into the pulpit with nothing more than a slip of paper with two or three ideas written on it.

In his sermons, Archbishop Romero not only tried to support the victimized but also boldly spoke to those committing the violence, asking them to reconsider, repent and be converted. On March 23, 1980, he addressed soldiers and police officers directly, pleading with them to cease the violence: “I would like to appeal in a special way to the men of the Army, and in particular to the troops of the National Guard, the police and the garrisons. Brothers, you belong to our own people. You kill your own brother peasants; and in the face of an order to kill that is given by a man, the law of God should prevail that says: ‘Do not kill!’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. No one has to comply with an immoral law. . . .Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: ‘Stop the repression!’”

The following day, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was celebrating Mass at the small Hospital of Divine Providence chapel when he was shot and killed. It is widely believed that the assassins were members of notorious Salvadoran death squads. This view was later supported by an official UN report which identified several former El Salvadoran military leaders as involved in the assassination.

With the death of Romero, the many tensions existing in El Salvador exploded. The country erupted into a horrific civil war which lasted 12 years and resulted in 75,000 deaths. Although bullets silenced Oscar Romero, his life has not been forgotten. He is considered by many as the unofficial patron saint of the Americas.

Even outside of Catholicism, Archbishop Romero is honored and respected. He is one of 10 martyrs of the 20th century who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, a Church of England Cathedral in London.

Interestingly, in an interview only two weeks before his assassination, the archbishop referenced the many death threats he had received, saying: “Martyrdom is a great gift from God that I do not believe I have earned. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty and a sign of the hope that will soon become a reality. . . .a bishop will die, but the Church of God — the people — will never die.”

REV. PARACHIN, an ordained minister who served in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Illinois, is now a full-time freelance writer and author of several books. He writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.