Martyr for Faith and Justice
PATRICK P ROWAN recalls the life and death of martyr Oscar Romero
There were two priests who were very much alike in outlook when they began their ministry. Both were considered ‘conservative’ in their thinking. One lived in Central America, while the other ministered in South America. Both were very highly regarded as priests and eventually became archbishops. By this time, each had changed his outlook regarding the priorities of his ministry so that now standing up for the poor and deprived was of primary concern.
One of these archbishops is now Pope Francis, and he continues to plead for the poor and the underprivileged. The other archbishop – Oscar Romero, while celebrating Mass, was shot dead to stop him speaking out about the mistreatment of the poor. On 23 May this year, he was beatified and declared a martyr for his faith.
Oscar Romero was born in Cuidad Barrios , a town in the eastern part of El Salvador on 15 August 1917. He had five brothers and two sisters. When he was a child, his father began training him to become a carpenter, since he believed this would be a suitable occupation for him. At the age of thirteen, the boy entered a minor seminary. From there, he went to the national seminary. He was then sent to Rome to study at the Gregorian University. He was ordained in Rome on 4 April 1942 and remained in Italy to acquire a doctorate in theology. He was the summoned home by his bishop. World War II was in progress so, in travelling home, he passed though Cuba. The Cubans didn’t take kindly to anyone coming from ‘Fascist’ Italy, so Romero and his other priestly companion, were interned before being released a few months later.
Having arrived back in El Salvador, Fr Romero was given a parish to oversee. He would spend the next twenty years there, before being appointed rector of a seminary in San Salvador. In 1974, he was appointed Bishop of Santiago de Mare, a rural area. Here, he came face-to-face with extreme poverty among the landless peasants and this made him wonder what he could do to relieve the misery.
Six years earlier, in 1968, the Latin American bishops had met in conference at Medellin and decided to support the poor in their struggle for social justice. This decision was to divide the clergy and laity. Conservatives did not feel happy with the proposals, while some in the more liberal section adopted a more extreme communist approach to the problem. The whole idea of Liberation Theology gained momentum in this context, causing problems for Church authorities. Tack then, Saint Pope John Paul II was aware of the danger of the spread of Communism from his experience of it in his native Poland, so he spoke out strongly against Liberation Theology.
Oscar Romero was conservative as far as Liberation Theology was concerned. So, in February 1977, when he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, his arrival was not welcomed by many. A month later, in March, an event took place that had a great effect on Romero’s thinking. Fr Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit and great friend of Oscar, was assassinated. He had been promoting self-reliance groups among the poor. The government refused to have the death of the priest investigated. Romero commented at the time, ‘I too have to walk the same path.’
From the time of the Jesuit’s death, Romero was a changed man. He began to speak out publicly against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. In 1979, the Revolutionary Government came into power in El Salvador, aided by the United States Government. There was a great increase in human rights abuse. Priests and nuns were attacked. Those who tried to help the poor were sought out. Six priests and several nuns were murdered. Romero appealed to the US Government to try to improve the situation, without success. The war in El Salvador was to last from 1979 to 1992 and leave 70,000 dead.
Romero came to agree with the type of Liberation Theology as laid down by Pope Paul VI, but not with that held by the Marxists. Each Sunday, he broadcast sermons on a very popular radio station and listed ‘disappearances’, torture cases and murders. His weekly diocesan paper also listed torture cases. His disclosures were embarrassing to the government and to the right wing opponents of his form of Liberation Theology.
On 24 March 1980, Archbishop Romero spent most of the day at a meeting with other priests where they met every month to study aspects of the priesthood. In the evening, he began celebrating Mass in the small chapel in a hospital, when a single assassin fired the fatal bullet at him. No one has ever been convicted of his murder. The previous day, he had called upon the Salvadorian soldiers to act as Christians and discontinue enforcing the government’s repressive orders.
A quarter of a million people attended the funeral of the archbishop. His body was laid to rest in a crypt beneath the sanctuary of the San Salvador Metropolitan Cathedral. During the ceremony, smoke bombs were released in the adjoining streets and gunfire resulted in a number of deaths. Romero’s murder was condemned by many international figures. In Ireland, the late Brian Lenihan, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs quickly condemned it. In Britain, a large number of Members of Parliament nominated Romero for the Nobel Prize for Peace. When Saint Pope John Paul II visited San Salvador in 1983, he prayed at Romero’s tomb.
Many Salvadorans were in favour of Dr Romero being beatified, although there were also those who opposed it. The matter was finally decided when the Pope declared that he had died a martyr’s death. In the case of martyrs, elevation to the altars can proceed without the requirement of an approved miracle. His beatification took place in San Salvador on 23 May 2015. Cardinal Angelo Amato presided on behalf of Pope Francis.
Once again, a quarter of a million people attended the ceremony. Archbishop Oscar Romero is remembered in many ways throughout the world. Songs and several films feature his extraordinary life and death. Schools are named in his honour. He was highly regarded by other Christian denominations and, in the Anglican Westminster Abbey in London, there is a statue of him.