The miracle of Oscar Romero

As attested to in the Scriptures, prophets do not arrive very often.

Not too many people outside ecclesial circles can name Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero’s predecessors in El Salvador. Just as few probably know any of the archbishops who succeeded Blessed Romero after he was gunned down while celebrating Mass nearly 40 years ago.

“Because he so faithfully lived out the Gospel, there is no example closer to Jesus that I can think of in recent history,” said Richard Jones, a youth and migration advisor in Latin America and the Caribbean for Catholic Relief Services.

Jones, who is based in El Salvador — a violent Central American country that is still roiled by extreme poverty and gang violence — and those who knew Blessed Romero told Our Sunday Visitor that the late archbishop, who is set to be canonized on Oct. 14 at the Vatican, remains an icon of hope for the people of El Salvador.

A man transformed

“He did everything with apostolic courage, even though he was actually a somewhat shy and self-effacing man,” said Julian Filochowski, the founder trustee and chairman of the Archbishop Oscar Romero Trust, a London-based nonprofit.

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Blessed Oscar Romero  CNS file photo

Filochowski, who knew Blessed Romero well and worked alongside him in the 1970s while serving in a Catholic human rights organization, told Our Sunday Visitor that the apostolic courage Blessed Romero cultivated during his three years as the archbishop of San Salvador was one of several miracles in the archbishop’s life.

“When he got into the pulpit, he was a man transformed,” Filochowski said.

Just as miraculous could be Blessed Romero’s evolution from a soft-spoken conventional diocesan priest ordained in the pre-conciliar era to an outspoken cleric who embodied the ecclesiology of Vatican II and who often spent time with the poor and marginalized, and spoke out against the injustices and brutality of the country’s right-wing military regime.

“It’s easy to love the poor. Everybody loves the poor. But to defend the poor, that’s much more courageous, because that really requires you to defend them against those who are impoverishing them, those who are exploiting them and those who are making them suffer. That’s when you make enemies,” Filochowski said.

Blessed Romero made enemies in the episcopate and among El Salvador’s ruling class. In the years before and decades since Blessed Romero’s assassination on March 24, 1980, his enemies and critics have accused him of championing liberation theology — a Marxist-tinged reading on Catholic social teaching — and aligning himself with armed leftist guerillas. Some even accused him of hiding firearms under his cassock.

“Romero was not a revolutionary. If anything, at that particular time, he was too conservative for me,” said Francisco Rico-Martinez, who was a student leader at the University of El Salvador in the 1970s and twice met with Blessed Romero to inform him about people who were being kidnapped and killed by government-sponsored death squads.

“I don’t know what I wanted at the time. But when he was killed, everything was put into perspective. In my opinion, he was one of the most committed persons I ever met in my life,” said Rico-Martinez, 60, who today lives in Toronto and works with refugees and immigrants in Canada.

While many in El Salvador’s upper classes remain ambivalent or somewhat hostile to Blessed Romero, the poor are as devoted as ever to “Monseñor Romero.” Huge celebrations are being planned in advance of Blessed Romero’s canonization.

“That won’t be the end of the line,” said Carlos Colorado, a lawyer in California who grew up in El Salvador when Blessed Romero was the archbishop. Colorado operates a blog, “Super Martyrio,” that has chronicled the cause for Blessed Romero’s sainthood.

“Some of us have greater aspirations for our saint,” Colorado said. “Namely, that one day, he will be declared a Doctor of the Church.”

Priestly journey

Filochowski describes three stages of Blessed Romero’s priesthood. In his first 25 years as a priest (1942-67), Father Romero was a traditional priest — “the very best of that old vintage,” Filochowski said — in the rural Diocese of San Miguel. There, he promoted various apostolic groups and became guardian of the national shrine of Our Lady Queen of Peace in San Miguel.

“The people absolutely loved him,” Filochowski said.

In 1967, Filochowski said the second phase of Blessed Romero’s priesthood — “the blue years” — began when Father Romero moved to the capital city, San Salvador, and became secretary of the Bishops Conference of El Salvador.

“When he got to the capital, he was like a fish out of water,” Filochowski said. “He lost all his contact with pastoral work and he had very few friends there.”

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Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador is seen in an undated photo working in an improvised radio studio in the Salvadoran capital. CNS photo via Octavio Duran

In 1970, Blessed Romero was appointed an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Salvador. Four years later, he was named bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de Maria, which was located in a poor rural region. In that role, he reconnected with his pastoral roots.

“He saw the exploitation of the farms, the bad way the coffee workers were being treated,” said Filochowski, who added that in that time, the government massacred several people that it said were guerillas. Filochowski said then-Bishop Romero later discovered those who were slain had been catechists.

On Feb. 23, 1977, Blessed Romero was named the archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Salvador. His appointment was seen as a victory for the government and the country’s ruling class. As a priest and bishop, Blessed Romero had shown little interest in social activism. He was conventional by temperament and in his views.

“The people who knew him best describe the changes he went through as more of an evolution,” said Jones, who added that Blessed Romero, as a bishop, early on demonstrated concern for the poor and oppressed.

“In the 1970s, he opened up the doors of his church to the coffee farmers, who were sleeping in a park because they had nowhere else to stay during the coffee harvests,” Jones said.

Many attribute the beginning of Archbishop Romero’s transformation into a bold, prophetic figure to when his close friend, Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, was assassinated in 1977 along with two Salvadorans. Father Grande’s murder prompted Archbishop Romero to strike a more confrontational posture with the government.

“Anyone who attacks one of my priests, attacks me,” Blessed Romero said in his homily at Father Grande’s funeral Mass. He added that it was wrong for the government to consider a priest who took 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.”

Violent period

Portending the country’s 12-year civil war that would begin in 1980, El Salvador descended into a cycle of horrific violence. Bodies turned up daily in roadside ditches and in the streets. Blessed Romero often accompanied his flock in retrieving the bodies of their loved ones.

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Archbishop Oscar Romero is pictured inside the church at San Antonio Los Ranchos in Chalatenango, El Salvador, in 1979. “It was the first time that I saw Archbishop Romero shivering with fear,” said Franciscan Brother Octavio Duran, who accompanied the archbishop to the town and recalled how the military intimidated them. CNS photo via Octavio Duran

“He was only archbishop for three years,” Filochowski said. “Yet in that time, he was facing extreme poverty, the murders of civilian leaders by paramilitary people, the massacres of peasants in the countryside, the firing on unarmed urban demonstrators, the deaths of his priests and catechists, the occupation of his churches, guerillas killing government ministers and businessmen, the bombings of radio stations and printing presses.”

Said Filochowski, “There were huge attacks and calumnies on him in the newspapers and paid advertisements attacking him. There was also the torture, the expulsion of foreign clergy, the smashing of tabernacles in the churches, culminating in death rights from the Right and Left. All this in three years’ time.”

With the media controlled by the government, few people in El Salvador heard the truth regarding the ongoing murders of student leaders, activists, union members and rural peasants. One source of reliable news and information the nation had were the Sunday homilies that Blessed Romero delivered weekly from his cathedral pulpit.

“His homilies, which often lasted an hour or more, were a time when people heard the truth of what was going on,” Filochowski said.

“It was unbelievable to see the standing ovations in the cathedral during the middle of his homilies,” Rico-Martinez said. “He was saying these profound things about the violence and profound denunciations against the people in power. I had never seen that before in my country. I’ve never seen anything like it since.”

Colorado, who was about 10 years old when he heard Blessed Romero preach in the cathedral and preside over public religious gatherings, said for awhile he thought about becoming a priest because of the archbishop’s example.

“He was like a spiritual father to me,” Colorado said.

In Blessed Romero’s view, the Church would betray its love for God and its fidelity to the Gospel if it stopped being a voice for the voiceless and a defender of the rights of the poor. In a pastoral letter, he wrote that responsibility demanded that the Church have a greater presence among the poor. The Church “ought to be in solidarity with them, running the risks they run, enduring the persecution that is their fate, ready to give the greatest possible testimony to its love by defending and promoting those who were first in Jesus’ love,” Blessed Romero wrote.

His witness on the side of poor and downtrodden garnered him respect and admiration, but also criticism, suspicion and hostility from the government, the military, the ruling class, leftist agitators and even among some of his fellow bishops.

“He was a polarizing figure at that time,” Jones said. “In some ways, I think it’s taken the Church a long time to fully recognize him because what he represents is such a radical commitment to the Gospel.”

At times, Blessed Romero wondered if he was to blame for the hostility.

“I told him, ‘Father, it’s not you. This is happening all over Latin America. The bishops in Brazil are being called communists every few minutes,” said Filochowski, whose work had taken him all over Latin America, where he had seen firsthand the region’s volatile politics.

Turmoil of El Salvador
Almost 40 years since an unknown assassin killed Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero and 26 years after the country’s civil war ended, El Salvador remains one of the most violent countries in the world.

Martyrdom

In the view of the government and the death squads that did its bidding, Blessed Romero’s homily on March 23, 1980, may have been the final straw.

In that sermon, the archbishop pleaded with the military of El Salvador to refuse to follow any orders that broke God’s laws and would have them kill their own people.

“In the name of God, in the name of the suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression,” Blessed Romero said.

“In a context where the military is massacring people, committing political assassinations, killing priests and nuns, saying, ‘Thou shall not kill’ directly to the military becomes enormously potent,” Jones said.

The next day, a sniper shot Blessed Romero through the heart while the archbishop was celebrating Mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital. Blessed Romero was only 62. His assassin has never been brought to justice.

“I was very impacted when he was assassinated,” said Colorado, who began his blog in 2006 to unravel the reasons for why Blessed Romero was killed, to document his legacy and chronicle his cause for canonization.

“There’s no denying that he had become politically inexpedient to those in power,” Colorado said. “There was the question as to whether he was killed out of hatred for the Faith or because he got in the way of someone’s drive to gain absolute power. I think the Church was able to resolve that.”

In 1997, Pope St. John Paul II declared the late Salvadoran archbishop to be a Servant of God. The cause for his beatification and canonization was opened but languished for years until Pope Benedict XVI effectively unblocked the case in December 2012. A few months later, Pope Francis ascended to the papacy and ordered the cause to proceed.

“When I listen to Pope Francis, I can almost hear Romero speaking,” Filochowski said.

In January 2015, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted unanimously to recognize Archbishop Romero as a martyr, killed out of hatred for the Faith. Through Blessed Romero, the forces that killed him “wanted to strike the Church that flowed from the Second Vatican Council,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of the archbishop’s sainthood cause, told reporters in February 2015. The recognition of Blessed Romero as a martyr for the Faith paved the way for his beatification in El Salvador on May 23, 2015.

“It was huge in El Salvador when he was beatified,” Jones said. “Thousands of people came out for the Mass.”

“I always thought that the Church’s approval of the martyrdom was the most significant thing that has happened, even more significant than his actual beatification,” said Colorado. “Because once you accept that he’s a martyr, then you’ve overcome the greatest impediment to his eventual canonization,” Colorado said. “After the beatification, we knew things would move fast.”

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Pope Francis looks at a portrait of Salvadoran Blessed Oscar Romero during a meeting with pilgrims from El Salvador in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican in 2015. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano, handout

Universal brotherhood

According to various published reports, within six months of the beatification, three reported miracles attributed to Blessed Romero’s intercession were sent from El Salvador to the Vatican to analyze.

On April 20, 2018, Archbishop Paglia announced that Pope Francis had authorized the Congregation for the Doctrine of Saints to promulgate a decree that a miracle had been certified, clearing the way for Blessed Romero’s canonization. A newspaper in El Salvador reported earlier this year that a 35-year-old woman, who had a life-threatening illness and slipped into a coma after giving birth, miraculously recovered in September 2015 after her husband prayed for Blessed Romero’s intercession.

“In my opinion, he deserves to be declared a saint. The El Salvadoran people have called him a saint for a long time,” said Rico-Martinez, who described the upcoming canonization as “a beautiful gesture for the El Salvadoran people and for humanity.”

“For me, he resonates for a very specific reason,” Rico-Martinez said. “He would repeat the commandment against killing one’s brothers and sisters, and he would often recite the parable of the Good Samaritan. From all that he formed this beautiful theology.”

Filochowski referred to Blessed Romero’s teaching as a “theology of the Beatitudes.”

“He believed the Beatitudes were there and they had to be put into practice. And putting the Beatitudes into practice is what he did,” Filochowski said, adding that bishops and lay people in Africa, Asia, Europe and around the world have deep devotions to Blessed Romero.

“He’s a saint for the Universal Church,” Filochowski said.

Brian Fraga is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.

Romero and Paul VI
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When he is raised to the altars, Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero will be joined by his friend and mentor who supported him through extremely difficult circumstances in the El Salvador of the late 1970s.