Oscar Romero: More Than a Saint

I still remember the first time I watched the movie “Romero.” It opened my eyes to the realities of people living in conditions I could hardly imagine, growing up in the Midwest. I was moved by Romero’s compassion for his fellow Salvadorans, inspired by his faith, and awed by his courage in speaking out against the government and its violent, repressive regime.

The film paints Romero as a conservative priest and bishop who mostly sides with the religious and political elites until his friend, the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, is murdered by paramilitary soldiers—along with two of the three passengers in his car—in broad daylight. Raul Julia’s Romero undergoes a conversion at this moment, defining his three years as Archbishop of San Salvador with a bold vision for preaching the Gospel, denouncing injustice, and maintaining a firm perseverance, willing to accept the cost, even if it means death.

This version of Romero makes for a compelling plot-twist and gives hope to those of us who may more readily identify with the pre-conversion Romero characterized more by piety, kindness, and conformity to the status quo than by the powerful words and heroic actions that precipitate Romero’s murder in March 1980. Yet this version stands in stark relief to the man revealed by his own words and the testimony of those who knew him.

It wasn’t until graduate school in theology that I had the chance to read his reflections and homilies, pastoral letters and radio addresses. There I discovered a richer, fuller version of Romero who long had a heart for the poor. I discovered that Óscar had learned the trade of his father, becoming a skilled carpenter. He studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, trained with and by Jesuits, and was ordained a priest in Rome in the middle of World War II. He was profoundly affected by Vatican II and felt a special devotion to Pope Paul VI. He took seriously the call to “read the signs of the times” and was sensitive to the needs of his people, including starting an Alcoholics Anonymous group in his parish in San Miguel, where he served for 20 years. In 1974 he was appointed Bishop of Santiago de Maria, a poor, rural part of southeastern El Salvador. These experiences enlarged his heart and he was remembered fondly by people who felt deeply loved by him. Indeed, “Monseñor Romero,” as he is often called in El Salvador, is a term almost more of affection than respect.

I came to an even deeper understanding of Óscar Romero this month, spending 12 days in El Salvador, listening to stories from those who knew him, visiting the places where he lived and died, reading his words, and contemplating his pictures. Here, Romero came alive.

An exhibit at the Museo de la Palabra y Imagen displays Romero’s personal photographs, which he gave to a woman who saved them for 30 years until they were made public in 2010. I saw Romero the tourist, wearing a suit and tie and standing in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Reclining on the verdant banks of a river in Mexico. Posing in front of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Watching the sun rise over Rome from atop St. Peter’s Basilica.

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I came to know Romero the person. A son to his parents, Santos and Guadalupe. A brother to 7 siblings. A man with a deep devotion to Jesus Christ and a desire to grow in holiness and serve the people of God in a world marked by violence, poverty, and the consolidation of resources, wealth, and power into the hands of a few. A priest who ministered to men in San Miguel prison, delighted in children, and learned from women’s experiences and welcomed their role in the Church.

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It is fitting, then, to recall that his bishop’s mitre read, “Sentir con la Iglesia” (Feel with the Church). Romero’s heart was truly with the whole church. He loved and served the Body of Christ with everything he had to give, and his position as Archbishop made it possible to widen the scope of his concern, commitment, and impact.

After Rutilio Grande was murdered in March 1977, Romero lauded his friend’s work to organize the poor in Aguilares, called for the justice denied to poor Salvadorans, and denounced the government’s institutional use of violence against its own people. To demonstrate the sincerity of these words, Romero cancelled all Masses in the country for the next week, except for a single Mass in the cathedral in San Salvador. As the pace of state-sponsored arrests, torture, disappearances, murders and massacres rose, Romero continued to denounce the use of violence. In the face of critics who called for him to keep out politics, Romero argued in a 1978 pastoral letter,

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. This solidarity with just aims is not restricted to particular organizations. Whether they call themselves Christians or not, whether they are protected by the government, legally or in practice, or whether they are independent of it and opposed to it, the church is interested in only one thing: if the aim of the struggle is just, the church will support it with all the power of the gospel. In the same way it will denounce, with bold impartiality, all injustice in any organization, wherever it is found.

Earlier in 1978, the day after Easter, Romero opened the seminary in San Salvador for victims of violence, turning it into a shelter and sanctuary for hundreds of hungry, displaced, and depleted people. He delayed construction on the new cathedral in San Salvador, explaining that the funds would better serve the church if it went to feeding, housing, and educating the people.

That same year, Romero moved from his tiny bedroom adjoining the sacristy in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital to a home built for him by the Carmelite Sisters who served the cancer patients treated in the hospital. The sisters shrewdly had the patients present this humble 3-room house to Romero on his 61st birthday (a prudent decision on the sisters’ part because they knew that if it hadn’t been presented to him by the people, he would have politely declined the gift). One of my favorite pictures of Romero still hangs on the wall in his house: a picture of the archbishop sitting on the ground, enjoying a picnic lunch with a handful of men and women on the side of the road. I saw that picture and did a double-take: an archbishop sitting on the grass, eating and drinking with his people. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a scene like that, and yet it sounds exactly like the kind of priest and bishop Pope Francis has been calling for, shepherds in the midst of their flock, who “smell like sheep.” In this way, Romero didn’t just “feel with the church” in a hypothetical sense; he ate and drank with the people, talked and listened with them. In sharing life together, he fostered more than understanding and empathy; he cultivated solidarity in faith, hope, and love. He was building the kind of church that Vatican II insists the church is called to be: “land to be cultivated” in which each member is called to participate in the mutually-reinforcing work of communion and mission.   Romero firmly believed in the universal call to holiness and was committed to helping lay Salvadorans live out that call, even while their government trained soldiers and ordered death squads to intimidate, torture, maim, rape, and kill its own people.

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Looking back on the life of Romero through the lens of history, it is easy to take his assassination for granted, especially taking into account the murder of the four U.S. churchwomen (Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Maura Clark) in December 1980 and the six Jesuit priests (Ignacio Ellacuria, Juan Ramon Moreno, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Amando Lopez, Segundo Montes, and Ignacio Martin-Baro – as well as their housekeeper, Elba Ramos and her daughter Celina Ramos) in November 1989. This was an era when the Salvadoran government acted with complete impunity (there was no official recognition of the state’s role in Romero’s death until after the left-wing FMLN ended the right-wing ARENA party’s 20-year-rule in 2009), propped up by $6 billion in aid by the U.S. government between 1980-1992 (in addition to training soldiers and paramilitaries at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia).

In a context so rife with state-sponsored violence, it is no surprise that Romero anticipated he would be killed. As death threats piled up, he relieved his chauffeur of his duties and drove his Toyota Corona himself. But underneath this vague threat of death and behind the scenes of the bold homilies and radio addresses, Romero feared death, something he confided to friends and the Carmelite Sisters who helped care for him. In fact, one night Romero woke up the sisters and insisted on leaving his home because he could hear the soldiers stomping on his roof, plotting an attack. In the morning, the concerned sisters sent the gardener up a ladder to look for evidence, and then showed Romero the culprits: the avocados that had fallen from the tree in the front yard.

Living with this fear, Romero’s faith remained undaunted. Two weeks before Easter in 1980, he unleashed his boldest homily

“I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. 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, the law of God 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 recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

This homily served as his own death sentence. The very next evening, while celebrating a memorial mass for a friend who had passed away the previous year, Romero stood near the altar in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital, just a stone’s throw from his home. He read from the Gospel of John: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (12:23-26). He offered a brief homily about the need to give our lives for others as Jesus Christ did. He began to prepare the gifts for consecration, and as he did, he was shot in the aorta and died in minutes. Earlier this week, I stood in Romero’s home and heard the recording of this mass, hearing his steady voice interrupted by the gunshot blast and screams of those in attendance.   I stood behind the altar in the chapel, placing myself where Romero offered himself for his people. I gazed down the short aisle of the chapel, knowing the front doors of the church were open that night, so Romero had been staring right at his assassin while he trained his aim on the archbishop from an idling car right outside the chapel doors. I cannot fathom the faith and courage it took to stand there and give his life for others just as Jesus Christ did.

It took no time for the Salvadoran people to recognize Romero as a martyr and saint. 250,000 people showed up for his funeral mass on Palm Sunday, interrupted by bullets and smoke bombs that killed dozens. But the Vatican has not been so quick to recognize Romero in this way. In fact, I was dismayed to learn a few years ago that Pope John Paul II had decided to remove Romero as archbishop and had actually signed the order the morning Romero was killed. Pope John Paul II visited Romero’s tomb in 1983 and 1996 and included him in a list of American martyrs in a ceremony at the Coliseum in Rome in 2000, but Romero didn’t pass the CDF’s theological scrutiny until early 2005 and his official recognition by Rome was halted by the death of John Paul II in April 2005. It wasn’t until Pope Francis’ efforts last year that the Vatican officially recognized what has been clear to so many Christians for 35 years: Óscar Romero died a martyr and saint.

Interestingly, according to church tradition, martyrdom cannot be declared unless the victim was targeted out of hatred for the church and refused to renounce his or her faith. (Adhering to this would seem problematic for other martyrs, like Maximilian Kolbe.) Yet the publicity for Romero’s beatification uses the slogan, “martir por amor” (martyred for love). Surely, Romero’s life was marked by deep love for Christ, the church, and “su pueblo” (the people). But he wasn’t killed for love. He was killed because the Salvadoran oligarchs hated his faith and the implications of making his faith public. Romero pulled back the curtain on those responsible for violence and oppression in the name of fighting the threat of communism. He stood up for human dignity and the rights of all people without exception. He demanded justice for the poor and vulnerable living in El Salvador. And he didn’t just make bold pronouncements; he visited with Salvadorans to hear about the torture, rape, and killings inflicted by soldiers; he drove to village garbage dumps and searched through the trash to find the disfigured bodies left behind. He was a symbol of hope for those that managed to survive the reign of terror.

One of the greatest signs of hope I discovered this past week was seeing the scores of Catholic school students learning about Romero in churches, at the Museo de la Palabra y Imagen, and in the house and chapel at Divine Providence Hospital.   I was told that just a few years ago, Catholic schools would not have even brought up Romero’s name in the classroom, much less brought their students to see where Romero lived and died.

My hope is that in these days of celebrating Romero’s beatification, Christians all over the world will come to know Óscar Romero far beyond the labels of “martyr” or “saint.” Dorothy Day famously rejected being called a saint. “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily,” she insisted. Of course we’re all called to be saints—that’s the point of the universal call of holiness—and yet it can be tempting to think of saints like Óscar or Dorothy as extraordinarily pious, perseverant, and rare. In truth, these saints are meant to remind all of us to draw on the strength of the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) to respond to the call to participate in the “communion of saints” (or, as Martin Luther King might say, the “beloved community”). Romero’s example should be more than celebrated; it should be replicated—not ­­­­­­ in terms of strict imitation, but in personal appropriation. Romero’s faith is a model for our own; his compassion for the poor and suffering and commitment to their liberation for the fullness of life should inspire our own; his courage—even in the face of political and religious persecution (promised by Jesus in the gospels) and death—holds us accountable. The word “martyr” comes from the word “witness,” and Romero, in his life and death, is a witness to the demands of being faithful to the Gospel.

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Romero is a reminder of what life can look like when we confront the forces of sin, refuse to kowtow to the rich and powerful and maintain the status quo, and in the spirit of Pope Paul VI, work for justice in the desire for peace. Romero is a witness to faith, hope, and love at work in the world today.   In so doing, he desired to be faithful to the example of Jesus Christ and the Salvadorans he loved so deeply.

In an address at the University of Louvain to receive an honorary doctorate a few weeks before he was killed, Romero reflected,

“In the name of Jesus we want, and we work for, life in its fullness, a life that is not reduced to the frantic search for basic material needs … But we see with equal clarity that in the name of Jesus it would be sheer illusion, it would be an irony, and at bottom, it would be the most profound blasphemy, to forget and to ignore the basic levels of life, the life that begins with bread, a roof, a job … When the church inserts itself into the socio-political world it does so in order to work with it so that from such cooperation life may be given to the poor. In doing so, therefore, it is not distancing itself from its mission, nor is it doing something of secondary importance or something incidental to its mission. It is giving testimony to its faith in God; it is being the instrument of the Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. This faith in the God of life is the explanation for what lies deepest in the Christian mystery. To give life to the poor one has to give of one’s own life, even to give one’s life itself. The greatest sign of faith in a God of life is the witness of those who are ready to give up their own life. “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And we see this daily in our country. Many Salvadorans, many Christians, are ready to give their lives so that the poor may have life. They are following Jesus and showing their faith in him. Living within the real world just as Jesus did, like him accused and threatened, like him laying down their lives, they are giving witness to the Word of life.”

Óscar Romero did more than say these words; he lived them to his last breath. The fact that he did so makes him a saint and martyr, to be sure. But let us not forget that he was a person like you and me and that his example in faith, hope, and love ought to continually inspire and improve our own.