REFLECTION: Archbishop Oscar Romero – If they kill me, I will arise in the Salvadoran people

by Scott Wright
Pax Christi Metro D.C.-Baltimore

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“When the Lord restored the captives of Zion, we thought we were dreaming. Then our mouths were filled with laughter; our tongues sang for joy.” – Psalm 126, responsorial psalm at the beatification

On May 23, Archbishop Oscar Romero was officially recognized as “blessed” by the church in a ceremony in San Salvador 35 years after the beloved pastor, prophet and martyr was assassinated while celebrating Mass at the altar, March 24, 1980.

Why was he killed? As many poor Salvadorans say, “because he spoke the truth … because he defended the poor.” These words, often remembered by Jon Sobrino, SJ, are at the heart of what it means to say that Archbishop Romero was “a martyr for justice.”

“In truth, Monseñor Romero is for all of us,” a recent editorial of the Jesuit University (UCA) affirmed. “But one cannot hide the fact that he was martyred out of hatred of the faith and, because of that, as Pope Francis has noted, he became and is a martyr for justice. He was martyred because he faithfully followed, without fail, in the steps of Jesus in choosing decisively to side with the victims of injustice and violence. This is why he is a saint.”

The day before he was murdered, in a homily broadcast to the nation that sealed his fate, Romero called on the Salvadoran government to end the slaughter of its people: “In the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: ‘Stop the repression!’”

Now, 35 years later, El Salvador is still a land of lights and shadows, of a past that remains to be healed and a future still uncertain, but on this day of the beatification, it is a present full of joy.

Not since the United Nations Peace Accords in 1992 and the conclusion of a twelve-year civil war that cost the lives of 75,000 people, and several million more displaced or in exile, had so many people gathered in San Salvador. On that day, too, people came to give thanks for the end of the war and the first day of peace, “as in a dream,” their hearts “filled with joy.”

Today, in a celebration that drew more than 250,000 people, and perhaps as many as 350,000, Pope Francis sent a message of “great joy,” marking the beatification on the eve of the feast of Pentecost, the birth of the church:  “Archbishop Romero, who built peace with the strength of love, gave witness to the faith with his life, given to the extreme.”

Comparing Romero to Moses, the pope added: “The Lord never abandons his people in difficulties…. He sees oppression, He hears the cry of pain of His children, and comes to their aid to free them from oppression and bring them to a new land, fertile and spacious, that ‘flows with milk and honey’…. In times of difficult coexistence, Archbishop Romero knew how to lead, defend and protect his flock, remaining faithful to the Gospel and in communion with the whole church.”

For those who lived through those turbulent years, however, they remembered how Romero was bitterly attacked and labeled both as a communist and as a terrorist by the wealthy, by the military, and by many conservatives sectors of the church.

Still, as Cardinal Angelo Amato, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes and presider at the ceremony, reminded the crowd gathered to commemorate Romero as a martyr:

“Oscar Romero is a light for the nations and salt of the earth. While his persecutors have disappeared in the shadow of forgetfulness and death, Romero’s memory instead continues alive and gives consolation to the poor and marginalized of the earth.”

He added: “His preference for the poor was not ideological but evangelical. His charity extended also to the persecutors to whom he preached conversion.”

“A Martyr for Justice” in “A Poor Church of the Poor”

“The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them…. They shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy.” – Wisdom 3:1-9, first reading at the beatification

For many, Pope Francis’ beatification of Oscar Romero is a sign of the kind of church that the pope desires: “a poor church of the poor.”

At the very moment of the ceremony Archbishop Romero was declared “Blessed,” bells rang out and the eyes of the crowd turned upward to witness a rare and beautiful rainbow halo around the midday sun. It seemed a fitting recognition, or providential “sign,” and validation of the sacrifice of the Salvadoran people who suffered during 12 years of war, a people who had already declared Romero a “saint” and a “martyr” 35 years before.

Romero’s martyrdom had long been celebrated in popular culture, as well. “They can kill the prophet, but not the voice of justice,” read the words of one of the many songs popularized by the Christian base communities following Romero’s assassination. The chorus concludes, “They will impose silence, but history will not be silent.”

By the sheer number of people present at the beatification, and their enthusiastic applause, there was little doubt that Romero has, in words attributed to Romero before his death “risen in his people.” Families from rural communities in Chalatenango and Morazán, Cuscatlán and Usulután, many survivors of massacres by army battalions trained by the U.S. at the School of the Americas, all came to celebrate the official recognition of Romero’s martyrdom.

Young and old, those who remembered the suffering and violence of the war as though it were yesterday, and those – perhaps the majority who were born after the war – who had only heard stories of those years from parents and grandparents, all gathered from the furthest corners of El Salvador, Latin America and around the world to commemorate this day, fulfilling by their very presence the words of the psalm read during the celebration:

“Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy. Those who go forth weeping carrying sacks of seed, will return with cries of joy, carrying their bundled sheaves.” – Psalm 126

The Church Proclaims Blessed Oscar Romero a Martyr of the Faith

Just months before, on February 3, 2015, Pope Francis officially declared Archbishop Oscar Romero a martyr of the Church, assassinated in odium fidae or “hatred of the faith.” His beatification ceremony was set for May 23, in San Salvador. Presumably, the canonization to sainthood will take place at a later date, perhaps in Rome, presided over by the pope.

Throughout San Salvador, church bells rang to mark the occasion. Thirty-five years had passed since Romero was killed at the altar while celebrating Mass, his death planned by the military and death squads, and financed by wealthy Salvadoran families.

The commission of cardinals and the commission of theologians in Rome were unanimous: “His death was not only politically motivated, but due also to hatred of the faith that, combined with charity, would not stay silent when faced with the injustice that implacably and cruelly afflicted the poor and their defenders.”

Even the secular press found the news of Romero’s beatification newsworthy. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times carried headlines of the announcement: “Pope Honors Salvadoran Archbishop as Martyr.”

In Rome, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of the cause for his beatification, held a press conference: “It is an extraordinary gift for all of the Church at the beginning of this millennium to see rise to the altar a pastor who gave his life for his people; and this is true for all Christians,” he said.

“The martyrdom of Romero has given meaning and strength to many Salvadoran families who lost relatives and friends during the civil war. His memory immediately became the memory of the victims.”

This was clearly evident in the activities, processions, marches and Masses celebrated on the 35th anniversary of his martyrdom, March 24, 2015, in San Salvador, as well as at his beatification, two months later on May 23.

Monsignor Ricardo Urioste, Romero’s closest confidante and one who worked tirelessly to promote the legacy of the martyred archbishop, had waited a very long time to see this day. Now 89, he could say, like the biblical figure Simeon when the baby Jesus was presented to him in the temple:

“Lord, now you may let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32).

“A Church of the Beatitudes” in the Midst of “A Cloud of Witnesses”

romero“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that does not unsettle, a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that does not touch the real sin of society in which it is being proclaimed – what gospel is that?” – Archbishop Romero, April 16, 1978

Who was Archbishop Oscar Romero? Thirty-five years after his martyrdom and in the midst of a joyful celebration of his beatification as a martyr “for hatred of the faith,” many forget how brutal was the violence that condemned the poor and those who defended them to a cruel fate.

For Romero suffered a prophet’s fate, denouncing grave injustices and cruel violence, and announcing paths that led to greater justice and defended the life of the poor. For that he was bitterly attacked by those whose misuse of wealth and power he condemned, both in society and in the church. Like the prophets of old, Archbishop Romero was “a sign of contradiction.”

Now, more than ever, with the beatification of Archbishop Romero, it is important to ask, “Who was Oscar Romero? To truly honor his memory, we must remember him as he was, and remember the conflictive moment in history in which he lived. In the words of the Salvadoran Jesuits:

“Romero spoke out against the suffering of the people and pointed out those who were responsible. He exhorted the rich to share what they had with the poor in society. He roundly condemned the violence … and encouraged people to turn to social justice to avoid further bloodbaths. In the name of God, he demanded that the orders and commands of the military and police to kill innocent people be disobeyed.”

In preparation for the beatification, Jon Sobrino links the true meaning of “blessed” in “Blessed Oscar Romero” to the meaning of “blessed” in the Beatitudes in the Gospels[1]:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…. those who mourn…. the meek…. those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…. the merciful…. the pure in heart…. the peacemakers…. those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:1-10).

Those who, like Archbishop Romero, bear witness to and incarnate in their lives the spirit of the Beatitudes are blessed. They are, as he was, “salt of the earth” and “light of the world,” they are those who “work for peace” and, in the final resort, “lay down their lives out of love for their friends.”

But it is always important to remember the real conflict that surrounded Archbishop Romero, when he proclaimed the Gospel and defended the poor against injustice and violence; to remember that the Beatitudes also pronounced judgment against those who oppressed the poor:

“Woe to you who are rich…. To you who are full now…. To you who are laughing now…. To you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:20-26).

To answer the question that Jesus puts to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” is to take sides either with the poor or the rich, to defend either life or death, to believe either in a God of life or the idols of death, to follow either the example of the saints or to pay lip service to their lives.

For Sobrino, Romero is somebody who embodied the spirit and practice of the Beatitudes, surrounded as he was by “a cloud of witnesses,” those victims and martyrs whose names are engraved on the memorial wall in San Salvador. Blessed are the poor!

Nothing Is So Important as Human Life

“Nothing is so important to the church as human life, as the human person, above all, the person of the poor and the oppressed, who, besides being human beings, are also divine beings, since Jesus said that whatever is done to them he takes as done to him. That bloodshed, those deaths, are beyond all politics. They touch the very heart of God.” – Archbishop Romero, March 16, 1980

Today, 35 years after Romero’s assassination, and 23 years after the conclusion of a brutal civil war, the root causes of the conflict continue to manifest themselves in the same divisions that Romero denounced during his brief three years as archbishop due to “structural injustice, institutionalized violence, social sin.”

El Salvador continues to be one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, and one in which the land and environment are at great risk. While transnational mining companies try to extract the mineral wealth from the country, local communities organize to protect the earth and water, and some have paid with their lives for doing so.

Added to enduring poverty and social violence, massive migration has emptied the country of nearly a third of the population. The U.S., which trained and supported the Salvadoran military with $6 billion during the war, now spends $18 billion on immigration enforcement, building walls on the U.S. – Mexico border and imprisoning women and children in immigration detention centers as they cross the border to flee from gang and drug violence in their country.

Impunity reigns, as the perpetrators of the violence go free, a violence that cost 75,000 lives, including Archbishop Romero (March 24, 1980), six priests while Romero was still alive, four churchwomen from the United States (December 2, 1980), and six Jesuits and their two coworkers (November 16, 1989).

We forget too often how our government backed a repressive military regime which was, according to the United Nations Truth Commission, responsible for more than 85 percent of the murders committed during the war in El Salvador.

Archbishop Romero, however, was a fervent defender of human rights, and of the cause of the poor for justice:

“It is the role of the church to gather into itself all that is human in the people’s cause and struggle, above all, in the cause of the poor. The church identifies with the poor when they demand their legitimate rights. In our country the right they are demanding is hardly more than the right to survive, to escape from misery….

“Whether they call themselves Christian or not, whether they are protected by the government, legally or in practice, or whether they are independent of it and opposed to it: if the aim of the struggle is just, the Church will support it with all the power of the Gospel.” – Archbishop Romero, Third Pastoral Letter, “The Church and Popular Political Organizations, August 6, 1978

Looking Toward the Future: The Legacy of Archbishop Romero

There is put before the faith of the church … the most fundamental choice: to be in favor of life or to be in favor of death. We see, with great clarity, that here neutrality is impossible. Either we serve the life of Salvadorans, or we are accomplices in their death. And here what is most fundamental about the faith is given expression in history: either we believe in a God of life, or we serve the idols of death.” – Archbishop Romero, February 2, 1980

Brazilian bishop Pedro Casaldáliga once referred to Romero’s martyrdom as “his greatest homily,” and added “Woe to that people that forgets its martyrs!” What does it mean to remember the martyrs? What does it mean for us to remember Archbishop Romero?

One obvious answer might be, to follow his example. But for people in the United States, it is not so easy. We must first acknowledge the truth about our past history with El Salvador, before we can truly establish a just relationship with the people, ask their pardon, and follow the example of Archbishop Romero.

No official apology has ever been made by a U.S. president for our complicity in the violence that produced 75,000 victims. Such a solemn gesture, however, was made two years ago by prisoners of conscience from the School of Americas Watch (SOAW), before the historic memorial wall in San Salvador that bears the names of the 75,000 people killed, including Archbishop Romero.

By taking their words to heart, we may begin our journey, following the path trod by Archbishop Romero, and the thousands of victims and martyrs who form now “a crucified” and “risen” people:

“Today we stand on Holy Ground, before this historic memorial to the victims and martyrs of the war, to humbly ask pardon for the complicity of our nation in bringing so much sorrow, so much destruction, so much death to your people….

“We will continue to struggle, to hope, to cross borders, and to tear down walls – like the military bases and the U.S. – Mexico wall – that divide us and that have no right to exist because they only oppress, and exclude, and bring suffering and death to the poor. We will not be silent, we will resist nonviolently, we will stand in solidarity with the people of El Salvador….

“In a few days you will be commemorating the martyrdom of your beloved prophet-martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed at the altar because he dared to call on your military and our President, ‘In the name of God, in the name of the suffering people, stop the repression!’

“We close by saying thank you. Thank you for receiving our words of pardon. Thank you for welcoming us to your country. Thank you for your courage and dignity and humanity. We are sincere in saying that our lives have been forever changed and enriched because of your lives. You have shown us, and show the world, what it means to give your lives out of love for others, and to struggle unceasingly but with joy for another world founded on justice and solidarity.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero and Pope Francis: A New Pentecost for the Church[2]

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God.” – Romans 8:31-39, second reading at the beatification

What do Archbishop Romero and Pope Francis have in common? Martin Maier, a German Jesuit who worked many years in El Salvador attempted to answer that question.

For one, they share the continent of Latin America, marked as it has been by grave inequalities, past military dictatorships, revolutionary movements, a persecuted church, and a land soaked in the blood of the martyrs.

Yet there is real joy in the people, and hope! Romero commented often on the joy of his people and added: “I have to listen to the Spirit who speaks to me through his people. . . . The people is my prophet. . . . With this people it is not difficult to be a good shepherd.” While Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation, says: “I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to.” (EG 7)

The option for the poor was “the heart of Oscar Romero’s spirituality and pastoral action.” This is most evident in his Sunday homilies, where his voice became the voice of the voiceless, proclaiming the suffering and hope of his people. The same can be said of Pope Francis: “This is why I want a poor Church for the poor. We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor.”

Such an option has consequences, but that is what the Gospel calls us to. For Romero, “If the Church is faithful to her mission of denouncing the sin that brings misery to many, and if she proclaims her hope for a more just, humane world, then she is persecuted and calumniated, she is branded as subversive and communist.” But this is precisely the vision Pope Francis has for the Church:

“The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after the battle . . . to heal wounds. . . . I prefer a Church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

At the heart of both Archbishop Romero’s and Pope Francis’ vision of the Gospel is “a civilization of love linked to justice. “A civilization of love is not sentimentality,” Romero cautions, “it is justice and truth. . . . Because of this, it is only a caricature of love when we try to patch up with charity what is owed in justice, when we cover with an appearance of benevolence what we are failing in social justice. True love means demanding what is just.” Pope Francis concurs:

“The planet belongs to all mankind and is meant for all; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity. . . . It is important for the whole Church that welcoming the poor and promoting justice . . . be a focus of all pastoral care.”

Romero: Martyr for Justice and Martyr for the Option for the Poor[3]

“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:9-17, Gospel reading at the beatification

Archbishop Oscar Romero was one of many prophetic bishops in Latin America, most of whom have passed on. Some, like Bishop Enrique Angelleli in Argentina and Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala, were assassinated by the military. Others, like Dom Helder Cámara in Brazil and Bishop Leonidas Proaño in Ecuador, were threatened and denounced by the military during their lifetime.

One of the last prophetic bishops in Latin America, who presided at the 30th anniversary mass of Romero’s martyrdom in 2010, was Bishop Samuel Ruíz from Mexico. His words are important, because they remind us that Romero was above all “a martyr for justice and for the option for the poor.”

Bishop Ruíz recalled a declaration that he and a group of Latin American bishops signed at Romero’s funeral in 1980. In part it declared:

“We admire and give thanks for three things. First, Archbishop Romero announced the faith and was master of the truth; second, he was a zealous defender of justice, and three, he was friend, brother and defender of the poor and oppressed, of peasants and workers, of those who live in the marginal communities. He was an exemplary bishop because he was a bishop of the poor in a continent that is cruelly marked by the poverty of the great majority; he made his place among the poor, defended their cause, and suffered the same fate as them: persecution and martyrdom.”

“His death was not isolated, but formed part of the witness of a Church which, since Medellin and Puebla, opted from a Gospel stance for the poor and oppressed. For that reason we understand better the death by hunger and sickness, the permanent reality of our peoples; as well as the numerous martyrdoms and crosses which has been borne by our continent in these years. These deaths are like that of Jesus: the fruit of injustice and the seed of resurrection.”

In a similar fashion, at this year’s anniversary celebration in San Salvador, Bishop Raúl Vera from Mexico, a close friend of Bishop Ruíz’s, proclaimed the hope of Romero’s legacy in his homily at Divine Providence Hospital chapel:

“Archbishop Romero has been resurrected, not only in El Salvador, but throughout the whole world. But there is no resurrection without the cross. The cross signifies speaking the truth and defending the life of the people. The only power the church has is the power of love. This was the vision that Romero had, a compassion that arose from deep inside. The Gospel was the life-force that coursed through the veins of his people. This is the great legacy that he left us, his love for this land and his love for the poor. He proclaimed that another world is possible.”

In conclusion, the beatification of Archbishop Romero is not the end, but the beginning of a journey of sanctification, but also of “a poor church of the poor” that is born anew, as it was on the day of Pentecost, of the blood of the martyrs.

In death as in life, Romero embodied the witness of a church committed to mercy and to justice, to the liberation of the poor from everything that stands in the way of a dignified life, and to a love that knows no limits in its zeal to protect and defend the poor.

And so with confidence, as the people of the Americas proclaim with regard to their beloved martyrs, affirming that life not death will have the last word, we too can say: “Blessed Oscar Romero, San Romero de las Américas: Presente!”

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[1][1] Jon Sobrino, “Monseñor Romero, dichoso,” in Carta a las Iglesias, No. 661, del 1 a 31 de mayo, 2015.

[2] See Martin Maier, SJ, “The Last Shall Be First: Oscar Romero and the Joy of the Gospel,” 2014.

[3] See Bishop Samuel Ruiz, “Monsenor Oscar Arnulfo Romero: Martir de la Justicia y de la Opcion por los Pobres,” Homilia pronunciada en el XXX aniversario del martirio de Monsenor Romero, Cripta de Catedral, 24 de marzo, 2010.

One response to “REFLECTION: Archbishop Oscar Romero – If they kill me, I will arise in the Salvadoran people

  1. Rita Queimadelos da Silva

    Beautiful reflection of God’s angel