Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, was gunned down on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass. Over the next few days, his body lay in state in the cathedral where he had so often preached. Thousands of mourners filed past his coffin, many of them campesinos, landless peasants and field workers, who had traveled miles to be there.
They hadn’t come just to pay their respects to a Church dignitary, although that was certainly part of it. They came because they loved Romero. During the three years he served as their archbishop, they knew him as a father who stood between them and a death-dealing government. Now that he was gone, they not only felt orphaned, they were terrified.
Pleading flyers pasted on the cathedral walls said it all: “Archbishop, talk to God for El Salvador!” Thanks in large part to the biopic Romero released by the Paulist Fathers in 1989, many people know something about the extraordinary journey of this pastor, prophet, and martyr canonized by Pope Francis in October 2018. He has become a symbol for our time of a Christian hero who dared all, risked all, and sacrificed all—but a sacrifice of victory, not defeat—for the sake of love.
No one but God could have seen that Romero, a timid, introverted, and very traditional priest would evolve into the heroic saint he became. His origins were humble and his performance as a seminary student unremarkable. For the first twenty-five years of his ordained life, he was a conscientious pastor and diocesan administrator. But nothing extraordinary stands out. His understanding of his priestly calling was solidly traditional: celebrate Mass, administer sacraments, organize catechism classes, collaborate with Catholic relief agencies, and offer spiritual counsel and consolation to the people he shepherded.
Nothing particularly heroic.
Over the next seven years of his life, Romero served primarily as a diocesan bureaucrat with few pastoral duties and became an auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. During this period, he gained an unsavory reputation as a lackey of the right-wing politicians and wealthy landowners who used the nation as their own personal estate. He became involved in one acrimonious feud after another with progressive clergy, especially Jesuits, whom he believed had gone off the rails.
The source of the conflict was Romero’s resistance to the liberation theology agenda that emerged from a groundbreaking 1968 conference of Latin American bishops at Medellín, Colombia. Liberation theology offered a fresh way of reading the Gospels and a new focus for evangelization that emphasized material as well as spiritual salvation and sought to empower victims of poverty and injustice. In El Salvador, these were the campesinos who drudged under miserable conditions for barely subsistent wages. Romero pitied their plight, but worried that advocates of liberation theology, zealous as they were to redress injustice, fixated on political and economic activism at the expense of dedication to Christ. During these years, he never missed an opportunity to assail them, often intemperately, in speech and writing.
Not much evidence of saintliness here.
And yet the Spirit blows where it will, moving each heart in unfathomable ways. Even as Romero fulminated against the “Red” priests of El Salvador, the oppressiveness of his nation’s political and economic structure and the uptick in violence became increasingly apparent to him and burdensome to his conscience. Gradually, over his last five years of life, and especially following the 1977 government-sanctioned murder of his friend Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit who lived and worked with campesinos, something that had been stirring in Romero finally clicked.
He realized that fidelity to Christ required more than he had hitherto given, that the Church and her priests are called to care for society’s most vulnerable members even if that means defying unjust legal, economic, and social structures that oppress them. He perceived that this was not a politicized repudiation of the Gospels or of Christ, but a return to both by a Salvadoran Church that historically had lost its way by aligning itself with the powerful against the powerless. Romero came to see that salvación integral, the total salvation of body and soul advocated by liberation theologians, was entirely consistent with the teachings of the Lord.
The human progress that Christ wants to promote is that of whole persons in their transcendent dimension and their historical dimension, in their spiritual dimension and their bodily dimension. Whole persons must be saved, persons in their social relationships.… This is the integral human salvation that the Church wants to bring about—a hard mission!… [This is] the revolution of Christ’s love.
Romero’s newly embraced prophetic ministry was dismissed by critics then and now as political ideology masquerading as piety. He was accused of being a Communist, an agitator, a Soviet stooge, a gullible fool, imprudent, unintelligent, and a bad priest. The calumny hurled at him soured his relations with the Vatican, leading to humiliating curial scolding during his lifetime and stonewalling on his canonization after his death. But Romero was clear in his own mind and conscience that he was doing Christ’s work, not playing power politics.
In a homily delivered in November 1979, he insisted, as he would numerous times, that calling out injustice is an “incarnation” of God’s Word in the suffering of the people, not an exercise in political partisanship or demagoguery. We not only read the Bible, we analyze it, we celebrate it, we incarnate it in our reality, we want to make it our life. [Our goal is] to incarnate the Word of God in our people. This is not politics. When we point out the political, social, and economic sins in the homily, this is the Word of God incarnate in our reality, a reality that often does not reflect the reign of God but rather sin. We proclaim the Gospel to point out to people the paths of redemption.
The story of Romero’s heroic journey seems to end anticlimactically for the obvious reason that he was killed—not the symbolic dying to self which is one of the stages of the hero’s journey, but an actual snuffing out of his life by an assassin’s bullet. Moreover, twelve brutal years of civil war erupted in El Salvador immediately after his death. Doesn’t this suggest that Romero’s journey ended in failure? Doesn’t his martyrdom reveal him to be a vanquished hero and silenced prophet?
No. The priest’s task is to bring the people to God, and the prophet’s to bring God to the people. The martyr’s unique role is to display a devotion to God and the Kingdom so boundlessly loving that it reignites in the rest of us a faith that may have grown tepid or even cold. We look to the martyrs to remind us that some things are worth sacrificing our lives for, but that the love which motivates us to make those sacrifices is more powerful than death itself. This is the great truth embodied in the resurrection, and every individual martyrdom, including Romero’s, is a reflection of it. Martyrdom is a victory, not a defeat, a loud proclamation of God’s glory, not a silencing of God’s Word, an affirmation, albeit a bittersweet one, that human wickedness can never win in the end.
Therefore, St. Oscar Romero, priest, prophet, and martyr, lives on. Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino once described him as a living Gospel, a piece of Good News to the world’s poor that continues to sustain all who suffer from oppression or who struggle, sometimes against heartbreaking odds, for justice. Romero also sustains us through his heavenly intercessions for peace and justice in the world’s nations. This, too, is part of his heroic journey, for a hero, remember, works to save those he leaves behind.
In being martyred, Romero rose again. His name and what he stood for are now familiar to people around the globe. Sobrino notes that everywhere he goes in the world, Latin America, Europe, Canada, Asia, or the United States, people want him to speak about St. Oscar. “In Tokyo, New Delhi, and in so many other places, I have been struck by how much Archbishop Romero means to Christians, Marxists, Buddhists, and Hindus. ‘I have some bad news for you,’ a European told me one day. ‘Archbishop Romero does not belong just to Salvadorans any more. He belongs to the world now.’”
Indeed, he does.