a reflection on the life and witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero
Isaiah 58:6-9 and Mark 8:34-38
Archbishop Oscar Romero’s life on this earth ended abruptly on March 24, 1980, when a perfectly-aimed assassin’s bullet ripped through the archbishop’s heart as he was standing behind the altar in his church preparing to serve Holy Communion. He died fairly quickly, his blood flowing out of his body on the floor right there in front of the congregation, which consisted that day in the chapel of Hospital the Divine Providence, San Salvador, of a handful of nuns and a few other worshippers. Most people might expect an archbishop to be presiding at a large, grand cathedral, but Oscar Romero, in his humble and foolish fashion, was most often found those days presiding at that small hospital chapel. In fact, that’s not just where he led worship. It’s where he lived, going about with the very people he was called to serve, even though he held the most powerful Roman Catholic office in the country.
As with all martyrs, Oscar Romero’s death becomes the defining point of his life. There is much to say about him. Even though he only served as Archbishop for three years, his influence on the country of El Salvador was (and is) enormous. Nevertheless, there is no other way to speak of his contributions as human being, much less as a fool in Christ, without beginning with the way in which he died.
A martyr is someone who is killed because of his or her faith. Jesus mentions that this is a possibility multiple times to his disciples, telling them that if anyone wants to be his follower they must be prepared to be hated and reviled and be ready to lose their lives. Whatever placed Oscar Romero behind that altar that day, whatever caused him to raise the cup of the Lord in thanksgiving, is also the reason he was placed in the path of that bullet. The person who fired the gun was never formally identified, but it was known relatively quickly that it was a planned attack by right-wing forces aligned with the government.
So, what got Oscar Romero to that moment? What placed him behind that altar was a life humbly dedicated to public ministry of the Church. Born into a rather large Salvadoran family, Oscar finished school through the use of a private tutor and began an apprenticeship with his carpenter father. Although he showed promise in this field, as early as thirteen years old felt called to attend seminary. The first part of his theological education was completed in El Salvador, but he finished it in Rome, where he must have been a good student because he had to wait a year after graduation in order to meet the age requirement for ordination as a priest. He eventually stayed in order to receive a doctoral degree in theology (it was World War II and difficult to travel) but then was called home to El Salvador to serve as a priest.
Once back in El Salvador, Romero began a relatively humble but productive 20-year assignment as a priest first in a rural area and then at the seminary in the capital San Salvador. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking or eyebrow-raising about his service there, but he was a go-getter, helping construct the cathedral in San Miguel and starting various community groups including an Alcoholics Anonymous group.
Whether he liked it or not, Romero was eventually swept up in that upheaval after he was consecrated a bishop in 1970. Relatively quiet and dutiful, he served in several positions before finally being enthroned as archbishop in the capital of San Salvador in 1977. This put him close to the levers of political power, although part of what made him an attractive choice to those in office and to the aristocratic class was that he did not seem to desire much of a political voice. Romero was still an intensely devout and personal man and because of his socially conservative views many figured he would remain quiet even as repression from the government increased.
However, that began to change as El Salvador inched closer to civil war right after he assumed that role. El Salvador was a very poor country, dependent on basic agricultural crops like coffee with one of the western hemisphere’s worst distribution of wealth. In the 1970s, 77% of the farmable land was owned by 0.01% of the population. For decades, the ruling elite had ruthlessly quashed peasant rebellions and intentionally disenfranchised the poor so that they could not participate in elections. The Spanish word for these landless poor is campesinos, and there were millions of them Many lived in slums and lacked access to basic things like access to running water, health care, and education. These places of abject poverty became ripe areas for left-wing Marxist groups to recruit new members.
Right as Romero became Archbishop, government-supported military groups began to escalate their tactics of inciting fear and obedience among the masses campesinos. For example, armed guards would show up in the middle of the night and kidnap people who often would never be seen again unless a group or children happened to come across their body in a garbage dump at the edge of the slums. People, including priests were arrested and tortured. Whenever local demonstrations were held, often military caravans would mysteriously show up and open fire, killing hundreds indiscriminately.
For a person of faith to live justly in such complicated and violent times must be difficult, but Romero was able to maintain his level of trust and personal code of morals in the eyes of both sides. The turning point for Oscar Romero seemed to come, however, when one of his close friends and colleagues, Father Rutilio Grande, was massacred with a poor family as he was driving them into town. At this point Romero began to speak out against the government and its abuses of human rights. He tried to influence his contacts in the halls of power, but typically was ignored.
Because he was archbishop, he had a weekly radio broadcast that he would typically use to address the country and preach sermons. He started using that platform each week to list the government’s atrocities, listing by name each week’s kidnappings and cases of torture. There were no reliable forms of national media accessible to the poor, and the government censored most of what was said. Romero’s radio addresses had an overwhelming effect on the people of his country, especially the poor, for it validated their pain and suffering. It is estimated that 73% of the rural population and 37% of the urban population tuned in.
Naturally, those on the left, including some priests who had begun to vocally support the left-wing militia groups, tried to influence Romero to their side, especially as the attacks on the peasants intensified. But Romero renounced them just as strongly. For the archbishop, the unity of Christ’s body was more important than and more sacred than a particular ideology or party.
There is one scene in the movie made about Oscar Romero (Romero, 1989) where the wife of one of the president’s cabinet members asks the archbishop to baptize her new baby. Romero says he’ll be happy to do that, but when it becomes clear that she wants a private baptism in a ceremony after worship one day in the cathedral, which had been the former practice, he tells her that’s not possible. He has instituted a policy that requires all baptisms to be performed during worship with everyone there. That clearly disgusts her because it means she will have to worship with all of the campesinos who attend who were often unbathed and smelled bad. Romero tells her that they are her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and furthermore members of her same country. The movie does not show how that particular scenario is resolved, but that was one moment where Romero clearly seemed foolish in the eyes of many.
This devotion to his faith and to the cries of the poor was part of a movement that arose among Roman Catholics in Latin America in the 20th century called “Liberation Theology.” Liberation theology focused on the importance of bringing real freedom from poverty and oppression to the masses. Church leaders who emphasized liberation theology would tell you that living the gospel of Jesus did not just come so that we could achieving personal holiness and peace in whatever situation you were in so that you could one day experience fulfillment in heaven. Rather, the gospel compelled us to “break the bonds of injustice,” as Isaiah says, to do what was needed to liberate people from the prison of horrible living conditions by addressing the sins of society. At one point Romero writes, “It is sad to read that in El Salvador the two main causes of death are: first diarrhea, and second murder.” Both of those, he could see, were caused either directly or indirectly by the oppression of the ruling powers, and liberation theology sought to resolve them.
Ultimately liberation theology was controversial because of how it ended up, in many cases, getting lived out. Romero tended to distance himself from many of those who promoted the more strident forms of liberation theology, seeing that it often led to an unhelpful division in the church. And yet he sympathized with its belief that while God loves all, God does have a preferential option for the poor and marginalized.
As a result, Archbishop Romero was seen as foolish by both the right and the left. He was seen as foolish because criticized both for what he called their “mysticism of violence,” the belief that guns and weapons had some sort of ultimate power to resolve any given situation. This particular criticism of the mysticism of violence bears special importance on a day when thousands of school children are walking out in to protest our own country’s mysticism of violence, gun culture, and lack of school safety.
He was seen as foolish by both because he held strictly to the belief that God’s kingdom is not beyond our efforts, even though it is beyond our vision. Neither left nor right was trying to build a future in line with Jesus’. Once he wrote in a meditation: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace and enter and do the rest…We are prophets of a future not our own.”
But mostly he came across foolish because he believed the poor had a voice, and that the Church had a responsibility to listen to it, and to realize there is blessing in being near to the poor, the hungry, the mourning. As he said, “There are many things than can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Just as his radio voice crackled and popped into the dusty, damp shantytown living rooms across his shackled country, echoing their sorrows, the church has a responsibility to put its ear to those who don’t often get heard.
Our baptism is a death, a handing over of the self-centered person we are born. And we rise from the waters, called to a life following Jesus in anticipation of our own resurrection. This places us, too, both behind an altar of holiness, claimed by a kingdom that is not of this world, but also in the crosshairs of sinful forces in this world. Any follower of Christ should feel the tension of that foolish but holy situation. Perhaps it’s at school, when we listen to the ones who are bullied or befriend them. Perhaps it’s here in our own city when we listen to debates about memorials to the Confederacy. Any congregation should feel the call to participate in God’s liberation of God’s people so that, as Isaiah says, “healing may spring up quickly.”
After the one worship service one of our members who volunteers for HHOPE told of a conversation he had with a guest where he offered to come to their home and help them with something. She respectfully told him “no” because she didn’t want him to come to a place so unsafe. This is just a few miles from our church.
The day before he was shot Archbishop Romero gave a sermon where he pleaded with the scrawny, often starving government soldiers to defy orders and not shoot their own campesino brothers and sisters. And in the sermon minutes before he was shot that following day, he had said, “Those who surrender to the poor through love of Christ, will live like a grain of wheat that dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies.”
His funeral, held a few days later, drew a crowd of 250,000 people in San Salvador’s main square. It is still considered to be one of the largest public demonstrations in all of Latin America’s history, a whole harvest of hope for a world crying out for Christ’s kingdom.
Last week, the Pope in Rome announced that Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, fool in Christ who now is liberated fully in God’s promises of new life, will be declared a saint. Millions of campesinos already knew he was one.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr
 From a meditation attributed to Archbishop Romero, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own.”