Today marks the 34th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s martyrdom. Romero was the preeminent voice of peace and justice during his three-year archbishopric of El Salvador (1977-1980). But how did he arrive in this position? How did Romero, who promoted the status quo and traditional Catholic doctrine, evolve into a world-renowned activist for the Salvadoran campesinos?1 Providing some insights to Romero’s paradigm shift (or conversion as Jon Sobrino cautiously refers to it) is part of my interest.2 However, I must also say that a major reason I wish to give thanks for Romero’s life and martyrdom is because Catholics have, within the past few years, received unfair criticism for the evil acts of “leaders” who have used their power to harm and exploit the innocent. Unlike these individuals, Romero (like Christ in Phil 2) accurately demonstrates that to be a leader means emptying oneself of any power for the sake of God’s children—even if the end result is death.
The Grande Miracle
Romero had, for the majority of his life, been fixated on piety and Catholic orthodoxy. His personality garnered him praise from his superiors but his peers often felt alienated or intimidated by his scrupulosity.3 Upon Romero becoming an auxiliary bishop (June 21st 1970), he took as his motto Sentir con la Iglesia (to be of one mind with the church). During the early stages of his bishopric, to be “of one mind with the church” insinuated an obsessive orthodoxy. The new “theologies of liberation” that had come to the fore in the face of military and aristocratic oppression by the Salvadoran government made Romero uncomfortable. They seemed to focus too much on social criticism from the Marxist perspective. Romero’s traditionalist mentality pleased the conservative oligarchs and opponents of liberation theology.4 This was undoubtedly a factor in Romero being elected Archbishop of El Salvador on February 22, 1977.
Three weeks after Romero had been elected archbishop (March 12th, 1977), Romero’s close friend and colleague, Fr. Rutilio Grande, was assassinated by the Salvadoran government because of encouraging the campesinos to pursue the social aspects of the gospel. Grande’s death set Romero on a path that he walked “to the end without ever looking back”.5 As a way to protest the government’s repressive tactics, Romero decided to hold a single Mass the coming week in the San Salvador cathedral (March 20th, 1977).6 This meant that if the oligarchs or other Salvadoran aristocrats desired to attend Mass, they would have to stand shoulder to shoulder with the campesinos. In lieu of Grande’s death, Romero realized that compassion for the reviled and dispossessed was no longer acceptable. Systemic change needed to occur.
Opting for the Poor
Romero used the Catholic documents, Medellin and Vatican II, to criticize the powerful and bring encouragement to the lowly. Prophetically, Romero remarked,
The Church is in the world… to bring into being the liberating love of God manifested in Christ. It therefore understands Christ’s preference for the poor, because the poor are, as Medellín explains, those who ‘place before the Latin American Church a challenge and a mission that it cannot sidestep and to which it must respond with a speed and boldness adequate to the urgency of the time.’ 7
Solidarity and alliance with the poor, kidnaped, tortured and murdered were indicative of the Christian life as far as Romero was concerned. Romero proclaimed,
If Christ, the God of majesty, became a lowly human and lived with the poor and even died on a cross like a slave, our Christian faith should also be lived in the same way. The Christian who does not want to live this commitment of solidarity with the poor is not worthy to be called a Christian.8
While Romero’s words were an encouragement to the campesinos, they were a scourge to the rich and powerful. To be one with the church no longer insinuated an obsessive orthodoxy but a committed orthopraxy grounded in the liberation of the poor. Romero’s prophetic talk would prove to be his undoing.
Conclusion: One with the Church, One with the Poor
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a homily Romero gave on February 17, 1980 where he criticized U.S. President Jimmy Carter for sending military aid to El Salvador for “security” purposes. Despite the aristocracy beginning to feel the pressure of the people, many were still being kidnapped, tortured and murdered (James R. Brockman, Romero: a life. 228-229, 231).9 In a bold act, Romero commanded “in the name of God” for the Army, National Guard, police and the garrisons to “Stop the repression!”10 Romero had known for the past three years that his days were numbered. He had, on occasion, even expressed anxiety about the possibility of being assassinated.11 Nonetheless, Romero placed his life under Christ’s “loving providence” and accepted his death “however hard it be” in expectation that Christ would use his martyrdom as a way to denounce repression and promote peace.12
In the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was martyred while celebrating the Eucharist. It is no coincidence Romero was martyred while giving thanks for the Paschal Sacrifice as one considers the immense emphases Romero placed on Christ’s body and the redemptive power of the cross. Romero’s martyrdom is not simply an obligatory sacrifice for the “common good” or even “human rights.” Rather, Romero’s martyrdom is an archetypical example of the life of a disciple.13
In the Christian tradition, the temple curtain being torn in two symbolizes YHWH’s radical availability to all persons via the atonement (Mt. 27:50-51; Mk 15:37-38; Lk. 23:45-46, Heb. 6:18-20). Seen through Christ’s incarnation, YHWH condemns human boundaries and barriers once and for all. In comparison, Romero’s ministry was one dedicated to opening wide the doors of the church to the despised and reviled of society in an effort to remind Christians that YHWH is a God who makes hope available to all. Especially the poor and disowned.
The modern church, specifically the church in the United States, has a way of forgetting to offer this hope to a despairing world. For too long Christians have embraced escapist mentalities that trivialize efforts for earthly restoration in favor for eschatologies that show no interest in reality. These “eschatologies” seems to be motivated by apathy and political positions instead of the bible. The people of God are to be an eschatological people who work to bring God’s future promises into our current reality (Rom. 8:17-25; II Cor. 5:17-6:2; Col. 1:27; Rev. 5:9).14 Hopeful Christians ache, moan, dream and act in ways that contradict the dreary, unjust, boundary-making ways of the world.15
Appropriately, Romero also speaks of an unveiling regarding YHWH’s concrete gift of hope,
‘Here on this mountain I will tear off the veil that enshrouds all peoples, the cloth that covers all nations. Here the Lord will annihilate death forever. Here God will wipe away the tears from every face, and his people’s shame will depart from all the land.’ Let us sing a song of hope and be filled with cheerful spirits knowing that this Christian life, which came to us with Christ through the Virgin Mary and takes on flesh in all believers, is the presence of God, who makes us a promise…Let us be filled with this hope.16
Indeed, hope is and will be the final word. . .
1. Campesino is a rural farmer or poor person
2. Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero: memories and reflections. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1990).
3. Damian Zynda, Archbishop Oscar Romero: a disciple who revealed the glory of God. (Scranton [Pa.]: University of Scranton Press, 2010), 10-11.
4. Ibid., 15-25.
5. Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero: memories and reflections, 13.
6. Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints: A Biography. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010) 46.
7. Ibid., 64.
8. Ibid., 120.
9. James R. Brockman, Romero: a life. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1989), 228-229, 231.
10. Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the communion of the saints: a biography, 130
11. Damian Zynda, Archbishop Oscar Romero: a disciple who revealed the glory of God. 46-49.
12. Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the communion of the saints: a biography, 124.
13. Ibid., 131-134.
14. N.T. Wright, Paul and the faithfulness of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 550-561.
15. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of hope; on the ground and the implications of a Christian eschatology.(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 15-36.
16. Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the communion of the saints: a biography, 80-81.