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
Oscar Romero was born in Ciudad Barrios, a small town in
Coffee had been planted in
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
Then there occurred the event whose aftershocks are still reverberating
through much of the world: the Council of Latin American Bishops in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.