After Pope Francis’ formal recognition last month that Oscar Romero died as a martyr for the Catholic Faith, the announcement came March 11 that the slain archbishop will be beatified May 23 in San Salvador, El Salvador.
In a news conference, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of the archbishop's sainthood cause, said the event will be held in San Salvador's Plaza Divino Salvador del Mundo and that Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, would celebrate the beatification Mass.
"Romero, from heaven, wants every Salvadoran to walk the path of peace and justice," Archbishop Paglia said at the news conference.
The announcement confirms what many people, particularly in his homeland, have known for decades. It also rejects the suggestion, made often by critics for 35 years now, that Archbishop Romero’s death was more about politics than faith.
The archbishop was killed — gunned down while celebrating the Eucharist — on March 24, 1980. His death was the capstone of a courageous and passionate ministry of criticizing the injustices and violence that plagued his country, and of working for peaceful resolutions to the mayhem.
A zealous pastor
Archbishop Romero grew up in a tiny Salvadoran village. After preliminary studies for priesthood at El Salvador’s national seminary, he was sent by his bishop to Rome’s Gregorian University. Ordained in 1942, he returned to his homeland, where he served for short time in a village parish before being given diocesan administrative responsibilities.
|Archbishop Oscar Romero poses for a photo with women and
children in this undated photo from El Salvador. CNS photo
Archbishop Romero’s ministry was fueled by an intense pastoral zeal and a strong work ethic. He became known for his excellent preaching, and he soon led a popular weekly radio program. For more than two decades, he simultaneously served as a diocesan administrator, pastor of a large parish and editor of the archdiocesan newspaper.
In 1967, Archbishop Romero was appointed secretary general of the Salvadoran bishops’ conference and three years later was named auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. His friend, Father Rutilio Grande (see sidebar), whose death would mark a major turning point in his life several years later, served as master of ceremonies at his episcopal ordination Mass. The episcopal motto that Archbishop Romero chose for himself was “sentire cum ecclesia” (“to think with the Church”).
Archbishop Romero was traditional by temperament and conviction. He was uncomfortable with statements or actions that questioned the status quo, wary of progressive positions on theological or social issues.
But he also lived a simple lifestyle and was known to be attentive to the poor. When some well-meaning women of his parish in San Miguel, during a time when he was away, redecorated his room in the rectory, bringing in a new bed, linens and curtains, he was angry when he saw it and gave everything away to people passing in the street.
In 1974, he was named bishop of the rural diocese of Santiago de María, then in 1977, he was named archbishop of San Salvador, the nation’s capital. It was a time of deep social unrest (see sidebar), and the move was seen as a victory for El Salvador’s ruling class, because as a priest and bishop, Romero had shown no interest in supporting leftist activism, and he maintained good relations with the rich. But Archbishop Romero’s disposition, especially toward the difficulties that roiled Salvadoran society, was soon to change. The catalyst of the change would be the murder of his friend, Father Grande.
|Who was Father Rutilio Grande?
“It is impossible to understand Archbishop Oscar Romero without Father Rutilio Grande.” These are the words of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, postulator of Romero’s beatification, which were offered at the same January 2015 news conference in which Archbishop Paglia announced Pope’s Francis formal approval of the Church’s recognition of Romero as a martyr and — unexpectedly — that Father Grande’s beatification cause had officially been opened.
Born July 5, 1928, in El Paisnal, El Salvador, Father Grande was the youngest of six children whose parents soon divorced. As a result, he was raised by his older brother and grandmother. As a young priest, he became friends with Oscar Romero. They were both shy, though Father Grande’s somewhat radical politics made Romero uncomfortable.
“I think they became friends as Rutilio reached out and brought the somewhat ‘bookish’ and traditional Romero into his confidence,” comments Thomas Kelly, professor of theology at Creighton University and author of “When the Gospel Grows Feet: Rutilio Grande, SJ, and the Church of El Salvador” (Liturgical Press, $29.95). “Romero watched what Rutilio was doing among the poor, and I think it inspired him.”
In his pastoral work, Father Grande was active in promoting Scripture study, advocating for land reform and worker unions, establishing literacy programs and organizing local communities to have a greater voice in their own lives.
“Everything he did was specifically called for by the Latin American bishops. All of this threatened the status quo, especially for large landowners who took an abundant and cheap labor force for granted for so many years,” Kelly said.
Months before his death, he told a New York Times reporter, “We have to hope that the cassock protects us. They have never killed a priest.” He was the first of many priests and religious killed by Salvadoran death squads. “Rutilio lived out an option for the poor inspired by the example of Jesus — and he was killed specifically for those actions,” Kelly said.
‘Picking up bodies’
On March 12, 1977 — 20 days after Romero’s installation as archbishop — a car Father Grande was driving was riddled with bullets by gunmen hidden in the bushes on both sides of the road, killing him and two passengers. Archbishop Romero went immediately to the scene, sat with the bodies, led an impromptu late-night Mass for the community, and sought the input of those gathered there about how the Church ought to respond to the murder of Father Grande.
At Father Grande’s funeral Mass, Archbishop Romero said in his homily, “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.” He also said plainly, “Anyone who attacks one of my priests, attacks me.”
He closed all the Catholic schools and colleges in the country for three days of prayer and reflection on the crisis playing out. Despite objections, Archbishop Romero also announced that on March 20, a “single Mass” would be celebrated in El Salvador, at the cathedral, as a demonstration of the unity of the people and the Church.
On May 11, another Salvadoran priest was gunned down; and on May 19, the army occupied the town of Aguilares, taking over the church building as their barracks and firing machine guns into the tabernacle. When Archbishop Romero went to the town, he was refused entry by the soldiers. When the siege ended more than a month later, Archbishop Romero went to celebrate Mass there and give comfort to the people. He told them in his homily, “I bring you the word that Jesus commands me to share with you: a word of solidarity, a word of encouragement, a word of orientation and, finally, a word of conversion.”
Throughout the country, people disappeared by the thousands. Bodies were found daily thrown into street gutters and roadside ditches. Archbishop Romero was frequently called to accompany loved ones in retrieving bodies. “It seems that my vocation is to go around picking up bodies.” Poor campesinos came to his office from all over to visit him, receive his encouragement and tell him of their missing relatives.
Following the murder of still another priest, Archbishop Romero preached at the funeral, “How sad it would be if, in a country where such horrible murders are being committed, we were not to find priests among the victims. They are a testimony of a church incarnated in the problems of her people.”
Advocate for the poor
His Sunday homilies, which were quite long, included both reflection on the Scriptures of the day and reporting on the events of the past week, especially the violence and human rights abuses that the government would not allow to be reported in the traditional news media. They were broadcast live, and people all over the country tuned in to listen. (The radio station that aired the homilies was bombed several times.)
In a pastoral letter, he wrote: “The Church would betray its own love for God and its fidelity to the Gospel if it stopped being the voice of the voiceless, a defender of the rights of the poor. ... This demands of the Church a greater presence among the poor. It 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.”
But Archbishop Romero was not one-sided about the criticism he doled out. He clearly rejected Marxism and the violence of leftists who opposed the government, too. When revolutionary forces kidnapped a government official, he tried to mediate for his release and said in his Sunday homily, “This is what we preach: No to vengeance! No to the class struggle! No to violence!” At the homily of one slain priest, he preached, “We, as priests, live with a hope. We cannot be communists because they have mutilated this hope in the life hereafter.” And in March 1979, he met secretly with a leftist guerilla group and tried to persuade them to follow a path of Christian nonviolence.
|A mural depicting Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is seen in 2005 outside the San Salvador hospital where he was killed while celebrating Mass, March 24, 1980. CNS photo
‘Stop the repression!’
On February 1980, Romero read aloud in his Sunday homily a letter he had sent to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who had proposed sending significant military aid to El Salvador to help the government prevent the spread of communism. The archbishop asked that no support be sent, saying the government would “only use it to kill my people.” (This aid was temporarily suspended after the 1980 murder of four American church women in El Salvador, but later restored then greatly increased under Ronald Reagan.)
|People carry a banner of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador, El Salvador, on March 22, 2014. CNS photo
The final straw, though, was his homily of March 23, 1980, insisting that members of the armed forces refuse any order that was contrary to the law of God. He pleaded directly with soldiers to keep in mind that they were killing their own people, and he concluded dramatically: “In the name of God, in the name of this 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.”
He was assassinated the next day — shot through the heart at long range — while he celebrated Mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital. No killer has ever been brought to justice for the crime. The name most often associated with leading the attack is army Major Roberto D’Aubuisson. It is widely known that D’Aubuisson was also responsible for many other politically-motivated kidnappings and murders around El Salvador during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He even earned the nickname “Blowtorch Bob” for his interrogation tactics. He died of cancer in 1992.
Romero knew his life was in danger. Several of his priests had been killed and many more tortured. He received death threats, and once an unexploded bomb was found beneath the pulpit in a church where he celebrated Mass the previous day. He rejected the offer of military bodyguards, saying, “I don’t want protection as long as my people are not given protection. With them, I want to run all the risks that my vocation demands of me.”
In one conversation with a newspaper reporter, he said, “Can you tell them, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon and bless those who do it? But I wish that they could realize that they are wasting their time. A bishop may die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never die.”
Barry Hudock is the author of “Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II” (Liturgical Press, $19.95).
Interested in learning more about Archbishop Oscar Romero? Here are some great places to begin.
“Romero” (1989), feature film directed by John Duigan
|Controversy over sainthood cause
There are many reasons for the Church’s delay in recognizing Archbishop Oscar Romero as a martyr that have been cited over the past 35 years. These includes claims such as:
◗ He was martyr for a political cause, and not for his Christian faith
◗ He was “adopted” as a sort of mascot after his death by left-wing, sometimes violent, Marxist forces in El Salvador and elsewhere, and official recognition as a martyr would support their cause
◗ He was often associated with liberation theology, a brand of theology that was under close Vatican scrutiny throughout the 1980s for what some claimed to be doctrinal errors
◗ Some bishops in El Salvador and elsewhere were staunchly opposed to the way he dealt with the circumstances he faced, and they objected to the possibility of beatification
Despite all this, many within the Church held Archbishop Romero’s memory in great esteem. The priest who served as his vicar general once called him “a martyr for the magisterium as well as for the poor, because Romero would never have been so bold had he not believed the teaching of the Church demanded of him.” The beloved Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who served as archbishop of Milan from 1980 to 2002 said of him, “He was not made a cardinal by title, but by the crimson of the blood he shed.”
Pope St. John Paul II made a dramatic visit to Romero’s tomb during a pastoral visit to El Salvador in 1983, against objections of El Salvador’s national government. In 2005, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concluded a study of Romero’s writings and teachings with the determination that it included no doctrinal errors. And Pope Benedict XVI said in 2007 that Romero was “certainly a great witness of the faith” who “merits beatification."
|Politics at play in Archbishop Romero's Assassination
Name almost any Christian martyr killed with the involvement of a government — Perpetua and Felicity in the early third century, Thomas Becket in the 12th or Miguel Pro in the 20th — and you will find a story that includes strong political elements. What makes them martyrs is that their Christian faith was their primary motivator and a powerful factor that led someone in government to seek their deaths.
|Archbishop Oscar Romero receives a sack of beans from
parishioners following Mass in El Salvador in 1979. CNS photo
Archbishop Oscar Romero, too, faced a challenging set of circumstances in which to live his faith, and politics was a potent part of the mix.
By the 1970s, El Salvador had been led for generations by an elite group of family dynasties known the los catorce — “the 14” families. With the national economy dependent on coffee farming, members of these families owned a huge majority of the farmable land and had become incredibly rich. Most other Salvadorans, meanwhile, lived in desperate poverty.
Half a century earlier, in 1932, a band of indigenous farmers and laborers had revolted against this system, supported by the nation’s Communist party. They took control of several towns and disrupted supply lines, killing several dozen people in the process. But their revolt was squelched within three days by the army. To discourage further attempts, the army, National Guard, police and private plantation owners went on a campaign of terror throughout the countryside, killing tens of thousands of peasants over several weeks, often based on whether or not they looked indigenous. In some towns, they killed all males over age 12.
As a result of the bloodshed, for two generations, no one in El Salvador dared question the system. But the ruling class lived in the shadow of perpetual threat of revolt. Among them, the events of 1932 were remembered not as a massacre, but as a necessary means of tamping down forces of chaos and anarchy. And since then, the position of president of El Salvador had always been held by a military officer.
When some Salvadorans began calling in the 1970s for land reform — a reorganization of the way land was allocated among the population — they were immediately branded as subversive threats to society. The Salvadoran government responded brutally. Citizens were detained without cause, kidnapped and tortured. Some among the leftist agitators inevitably responded to all of this with more violence, and the spiral continued.
The Catholic Church found itself in the middle because many of its teachings — about human rights, social justice and a preferential option for the poor — lent support to the cause of the leftists. Priests, sisters and lay catechists who led Scripture study, literacy or nutrition programs, or conversations about social structures that supported the widespread poverty were perceived as threats to the system.
The result was the killing of dozens of clergy, religious and lay leaders. Father Rutilio Grande was one of them. Archbishop Oscar Romero was another. Several others such victims, such as the American women — Jean Donovan and Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford — and several Jesuit priests of Central American University are also well-known. Today, as the passing of time gives us better perspective, we more easily recognize them not simply as political agitators but as luminous witnesses of faith, justice and love.