In my own peacemaking work around the world, I’ve occasionally set out for places that frighten me. Sometimes on the night before heading out, I’ve watched the movie Romero with Raúl Juliá in the title role. I never met Óscar Romero, but I spent a lot of my time in the 1980s resisting U.S. policies in Central America. Romero was a courageous beacon of truth for us. For me as a pastor/activist it was the profound love of Romero’s pastoral heart that drove him out of safety into the risky path of faithful witness. When I need courage, I think of Romero.
El Salvador’s Archbishop Turned Martyr During the Salvadoran Civil War
We can present, along with the blood of teachers, of laborers, of peasants, the blood of our priests. This is communion in love. It would be sad, if in a country where murder is being committed so horribly, we were not to find priests also among the victims. They are the testimony of a church incarnate in the problems of its people.
—Óscar Arnulfo Romero
Tens of thousands of people died in the war in El Salvador in the late 1970s and 1980s. Many religious leaders also lost their lives, mostly to death squads affiliated with the Salvadoran military. In that carnage, two people stand out for the clarity of their witness for justice and peace and for the courage with which they faced their deaths: Rutilio Grande and Óscar Arnulfo Romero. They continue to inspire courage and commitment in peacemakers far from El Salvador.
A Change of Heart and Mind
The murder of Rutilio Grande—a Jesuit priest who spoke out against poverty and oppression—was the first crisis for the newly chosen Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero. Romero had been selected as archbishop in part for his conservative views. He believed, as did the Catholic Church, that it was their duty to protect the status quo and minister only to people’s
spiritual needs. But two things changed Romero in a profound manner as he ascended to the position of archbishop.
Second Vatican Council
First, the Catholic Church had been going through major transitions since the Second Vatican Council, the global gathering of Catholic leaders in the 1960s that opened fresh relationships to the world’s non-Christian faiths and changed the Mass from Latin to local languages universally. For many Catholic clergy around the world, the Second Vatican Council was an earthquake with aftershocks that continued for decades. In Latin America, these rumblings touched off a new commitment to justice for millions of ordinary families. A council of Latin American bishops met at Medellin and issued a call for Catholic leaders to take a
preferential option for the poor in their work throughout the church. This idea was not welcomed by the majority of the Salvadoran bishops who still aligned themselves with the wealthy families and military leaders who ruled El Salvador. But Romero, formerly a conservative himself, took the Catholic’s new vision of justice very seriously. He knew that this was a life-and-death struggle and that he was challenging his colleagues in El Salvador—but he raised a strong and prophetic voice on behalf of the massive poverty he saw all around him.
The Murder of Jesuit Priest Rutilio Grande
The second factor in Romero’s radical change of heart was Grande’s martyrdom. The men had become friends years earlier even though they had many disagreements about applying the Gospel to the realities of their country. Grande’s murder directly confronted Romero, as the shepherd of the church, with the suffering of people close to him. Immediately following Grande’s death, Romero went to Aguilares and led a long, highly emotional Mass. Then he cancelled Mass in churches throughout El Salvador on the day of Grande’s funeral so that people would focus on a single nationwide Mass. More than 100,000 Salvadorans filled the cathedral, the square and surrounding streets for the service. On that day, Romero’s voice seemed changed into the confident, powerful voice of a prophet.
A Call to End Violence
Though Romero made it clear that he was aligning himself with those seeking social change, he called on all sides to turn from violence. He called on popular organizations—and the rebel groups that sprang from them—to turn away from violence and employ nonviolence in their quest for justice. But he held the ruling oligarchy and the military even more responsible for the state into which El Salvador had descended. He saw their violence against union organizers, peasant leaders, teachers and students as direct attacks against the entire Salvadoran people. Furthermore, he saw the church as needing to suffer with the people. He spoke out in defense of murdered priests even when other bishops said they had been
and thus had become legitimate targets of paramilitary violence. Romero also refused to attend state functions that previously had been a regular part of an archbishop’s schedule.
Influence & Support
Romero’s weekly homilies were broadcast on the radio to an eager population throughout the country. He would tell stories of the people killed or
disappeared each week, read their names, and weave the contemporary plight of those who suffered into the themes of Bible readings for the week. At one point the military blew up the radio station, so people came to hear Romero in person from parishes around the country armed with tape recorders to disperse his message to the waiting populace.
Outside El Salvador, Romero’s reputation quickly grew as the violence in the country gained international attention. His courage and convictions resonated with many concerned with the issues of global poverty and the abuse of human rights. He joined many other Latin American bishops at the conference in Puebla, Mexico, that followed up the Medellin conference in trying to redefine how the Catholic Church should address the pressing concerns of the region. But Romero’s international acclaim was not shared by the powerful in his homeland. Though the majority of priests and grassroots congregants loved him with a passion, only one of the other five bishops in El Salvador supported him.
In early 1980 the violence from both the insurgents and the military increased dramatically, spinning into civil war. Romero kept calling for an end to the violence. He received death threats and knew he had been targeted. Still he continued to speak out prophetically against the violence. His final message went on for almost 2 hours, but people were riveted to his words as he dealt in great detail with the interaction of God’s Word, true liberation, and each sector of Salvadoran society. At one point he spoke directly to the enlisted personnel in the Army:
Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin … In the name of God and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!
The next day the military answered his prophetic appeal. He was celebrating Mass at a hospital chapel. He lifted the host and said,
May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and blood to suffering and to pain—like Christ, not for self, but to teach justice and peace to our people. A few moments later a shot fired by a sniper from the rear of the chapel struck him in the chest.
Archbishop Romero was dead, but his words and witness had just begun to grow.
The suffering of El Salvador continued as the national cathedral and surrounding streets were filled with thousands of mourners. In the middle of his funeral, a bomb went off and soldiers started shooting into the crowd. Panicked people fled in all directions including into the cathedral. Romero’s coffin, which had been on the front steps, was hastily pulled inside. Forty people died in the violence. Like his own final Mass, Romero’s funeral Mass was never finished.
Óscar Romero Acknowledged the Possibility of Martydom Before His Death
Because of the threats from death squads and the rising tide of violence in El Salvador, Romero had the opportunity to speak about the possibility of his martyrdom. Two weeks before he was killed he told a Mexican journalist:
If the threats are carried out, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and for the resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality. Let my death, if it is accepted by God, be for my people’s liberation and as a witness of hope in the future. You may say, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon and bless those who do it. A bishop will die, but God’s church, which is the people, will never perish.
Romero was wrong in one respect: His humility allowed him not only to offer a sacrifice for the nation of El Salvador, but also become a prophetic gift to the whole world.