Oscar Romero

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Oscar Romero

1917 – 1980

Never shall I forget the energy, zeal, knowledge and joy of the small, slender man with flashing eyes and winsome smile whom I heard speak on the University of Toronto campus in 1977.  Neither could I know that I was face-to-face with someone who had been appointed, like Stephen before him, to see Jesus standing (Acts 7:56 ) as the risen Lord honours yet another martyr.

   Oscar Romero was born in Ciudad Barrios, a small town in El Salvador .  Longing to be a priest, he left home at fourteen as his horse picked its way to San Miguel, seven hours away, where he could begin preparing himself for his vocation.

   Ordained in Rome in 1942, he was appointed in 1967 as Secretary General of the National Bishops’ Conference.  His ecclesiastical career was on track.  In the twenty-five years of his priesthood Vatican II (1962-65), with its plea for aggiornamento (renewal), had not impressed him.  He supported the arrangement whereby the Church kept the masses credulous and docile while the aristocracy exploited them and the military enforced it all.

   Coffee had been planted in El Salvador in 1828.  International demand soon found private interests commandeering vast tracts of arable land while expelling subsistence farmers.  By 1920 the landowning class comprised fourteen families.  Dislocated peasants were now either rural serfs or urban wretched, in any case trying to live on black beans and tortillas.  One-half of one per cent of the population owned 90% of the country’s wealth.

   In 1932, 30,000 people died in the first uprising.  Aboriginals were executed in clumps of sixty.  The Te Deum was sung in the cathedral in gratitude for the suppression of “communism.”  In no time El Salvador was known as yet another “security state”, a totalitarian arrangement that suspended human rights and slew internal “enemies” at will.  Supporting a policy of “peace at any price”, Romero, now editor of the archdiocesan magazine Orientacion, contradicted the previous editor who had cried out against social injustice.  Romero focussed on alcoholism, drug-addiction and pornography.

   Then there occurred the event whose aftershocks are still reverberating through much of the world: the Council of Latin American Bishops in Medellin ( Columbia ), 1968.  The Jesuits had declared their “option for the poor”, and had articulated a cogent theology that voiced their vision.  They believed their theology to arise from confidence in the apostles’ witness that the Kingdom of God has come and needs to be leant visibility.  A teaching order, the Jesuits schooled their students convincingly as Romero equivocated, apparently supporting “liberating education” while declaiming against “demagoguery and Marxism.”

   In 1975 the National Guard raided Tres Calles, a village in Romero’s diocese.  (By now he was bishop of Santiago de Maria.)  The early-morning attack hacked people apart with machetes as it rampaged from house to house, ostensibly searching for concealed weapons.  The event catalyzed Romero.  At the funeral for the victims Romero’s sermon condemned the violation of human rights.  Privately he wrote the president of El Salvador , naively thinking that a major clergyman’s objection would carry weight.

   His “turn” (such an about-face scripture calls “repentance”) accelerated.  Plainly the church was at a crucial point in the history of its relationship to the Salvadoran people.  Would it help move them past an oppressive feudalism or retrench, thereby strengthening the hand of the oppressor?

  When Romero was promoted as Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital city, the ruling alliance intensified its opposition.  Six priests were arrested and deported to Guatemala .  One of them remarked that the church finally was where it was supposed to be: with the people, surrounded by the wolves.  Romero’s first task as archbishop was grim: he had to bury dozens whom soldiers had machine-gunned when 50,000 protesters demonstrated against rigged elections.

   By now Romero had turned all the way “around the corner.”  Summoning priests to his residence (he had moved out of the Episcopal palace and was bunking in a hospital for indigents) he told them he required no further evidence or argumentation: he knew what the gospel required of church leaders in the face of the people’s misery.  All priests were to afford sanctuary to those threatened by government hounds.

   Immediately the “hounds” sent a message to Romero as Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit friend who had struggled to implement Vatican II reforms, was gunned down in his jeep, together with an old man and sixteen year-old boy.  Undeterred, Romero prayed publicly at length beside his friend’s remains, and then buried all three corpses without first securing government permission – a criminal offence.  Next he did the unthinkable: he excommunicated the murderers.  In a dramatic gesture he cancelled all services the following Sunday except for a single mass in front of the cathedral, conducted outdoors before 100,000 people.  When he went to Rome to explain himself, the pope replied, “Coraggio – courage.”  Courage?  Rightwing groups were leafleting the nation, “Be a patriot: kill a priest.”

   Reprisals intensified.  In one village anyone found possessing a bible or hymnbook was arrested, later to be shot or dismembered.  Four foreign Jesuits were tortured, their ravaged bodies dumped in neighbouring Guatemala .  Thousands of people disappeared without trace.  In all of this Romero never backed down: Christ is King just because he brings his Kingdom with him, and in their discernment of this reality Christians must be “fellow workers in the truth”(3rd John 3) in anticipation of “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”(2nd Peter 3:13)

   Romero insisted that he had not warped the gospel into a program of social dismantling, let alone malicious social chaos.  He criticized priests who wanted to reduce the gospel to political protest without remainder.  He deplored protesters’ violence, even as he admitted they were victims of long-standing institutional violence.

   International recognition mounted. 1978, 118 members of Britain’s House of Commons nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize (awarded that year to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.)  The Louvain , a prestigious Roman Catholic university in Belgium , gave him an honorary doctorate.

   Knowing himself to be on the government’s “hit list,” he went to the hills to prepare himself for his final confrontation with evil.  He telephoned his farewell message to Exclesior , Mexico ’s premier newspaper, insisting that like the Good Shepherd, a pastor must give his life for those he loves.

   Romero was shot while conducting mass at the funeral of a friend’s mother.  His assassin escaped in the hubbub and has never been found.  250,000 thronged the Cathedral Square for his funeral.  A bomb exploded.  Panic-stricken people stampeded.  Forty died.  In the next two years 35,000 Salvadorans perished.  Fifteen per cent of the population was driven into exile.  Two thousand simply “disappeared.”

   In 1983 Pope John Paul II prayed at Romero’s grave, and then appointed as national archbishop the only Salvadoran bishop to attend Romero’s funeral.  The message was plain.  The pope had given his imprimatur to all that Romero had exemplified.

   He has been recommended for recognition as a “saint.”  All Christendom awaits his canonization.