Archbishop Oscar Romero gave his life, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “for the Church and the people of his beloved country” of El Salvador.
Until his assassination, Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980) of San Salvador spoke out courageously in defence of human rights and social justice in strife-torn El Salvador.
Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was born in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, on August 15, 1917. One of ten children. He was apprenticed to a local carpenter when he was 13 years old but he felt a vocation for the priesthood. He left home the following year to enter the seminary and was ordained in 1942.
Romero spent the first twenty-five years of his ministry as a parish priest and diocesan secretary in San Miguel. In 1970 he became auxiliary bishop of San Salvador where he remained for four years until 1974 when the Vatican named him to the see of Santiago de María, a poor, rural diocese which included the town he grew up in.
In 1977 he returned to San Salvador to succeed Archbishop Luis Chávez y González, who had retired after almost 40 years in office.
Oscar Romero was living in a period of dramatic change in the Church in Latin America.
As Clare Dixon, Head of CAFOD in Latin America told us in the Cornerstone in Cardiff on Saturday 6 October, the region’s bishops, had met at Medellín in Colombia, in 1967 to discuss how to implement the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), locally.
El Salvador was an extremely conservative society where a privileged few enjoyed enormous wealth at the expense of the very impoverished majority. Some younger priests recognized the injustice and imbalance of this situation and sided with the poor but the lone voice of encouragement in their efforts came from Archbishop Chávez y González.
During this period Oscar Romero was seen as a conservative and sometimes sceptical of both the Vatican II reforms and the Medellin pronouncements.
So when he was appointed Archbishop in 1977, he was not a popular choice with the politically active clergy, who saw his appointment as preserving the status quo in a safe pair of hands.
However, Romero emerged almost immediately as an outspoken opponent of injustice and fearless defender of the poor and suffering.
Romero himself said that he owed his change of attitude to his time as Bishop of Santiago de María, where he witnessed firsthand the suffering of El Salvador’s landless poor.
Increasing government violence against politically active priests and civilians had undermined his trust in the impartiality of the authorities and led him to fear that the Church and faith itself was under attack.
March 12, 1977 brought another significant shift in his attitude as his long-term friend, the Jesuit priest Father Rutilio Grande was assassinated. Oscar Romero vociferously denounced his murder and demanded that those responsible be brought to justice.
“Nothing is as 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.” 16 March 1980
As Romero spoke out more and more frequently over the coming months, he gathered a huge following who crowded into the cathedral to hear him preach or listened to his sermons over YSAX, the archdiocesan radio station.
“With this people it is not hard to be a good shepherd. They are a people that impel to their service us who have been called to defend their rights and to be their voice.” (18 November 1979
Romero used the radio to great effect as week after week his voice rang out over El Salvador, crying out against murder and torture, calling on his people to seek peace and forgiveness and to build a more just society.
He denounced both the violence of El Salvador’s developing civil war and the deeply-rooted patterns of abuse and injustice which bred it. He gathered evidence and heard eyewitness accounts of murders, disappearances and torture and named the victims in his weekly broadcasts. He kept a whole nation hanging on his every word by speaking directly to his listeners about their lives, whose sufferings he said, “touch the very heart of God.”
In a country whose rulers regarded dissent as subversion, Romero used the moral authority of his position as archbishop to unmask and denounce “the culture of silence” imposed on the oppressed campesinos. He spoke out on behalf of those who could not do so for themselves and in doing so he came to be known as the “Voice of the Voiceless.”
“With this people it is not hard to be a good shepherd. They are a people that impel to their service us who have been called to defend their rights and to be their voice.”
18 November 1979
Romero’s campaign for human rights in El Salvador won him many national and international admirers as well as a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Inevitably it also brought him many enemies. And he also earned the hatred and calumny of powerful people in his own country – hatred that would lead inevitably to his martyrdom.
The majority of Salvadorans are poor. It was mainly the poor who filled the cathedral for his 8 am Sunday Mass and it was the poor who surrounded him on his visits to even the most isolated hamlets of his diocese. But people of all kinds testified that he and his words strengthened their faith and he in turn found his own faith reinforced by the people.
Oscar Romero was well aware of the likelihood of assassination and had spoken of it often.
On March 24, 1980, he was shot dead as he was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the cancer hospital where he lived.
His last words were: “…whoever, out of love for Christ, gives himself to the service of others, will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only seems to die. If it did not die it would remain alone. Only in undoing itself does it produce harvest.”
In the 1970s, CAFOD supported Romero’s famous radio broadcasts, which – at a time when the press was heavily censored – were often the only means by which people in El Salvador knew the truth about the atrocities occurring in their country. When Romero’s radio station was blown up, CAFOD provided funding to rebuild it. CAFOD also helped to fund the support given by the Church to thousands of people who had fled their homes because of the violence.
After Romero was martyred, CAFOD staff successfully petitioned Lambeth Council to rename the Brixton street where their office was located ‘Romero Close’. And when CAFOD moved to a new office in 2009, it was named ‘Romero House’.
CAFOD staff, partners and supporters have been at the forefront of the campaign to have Romero canonised, and continue to be inspired by his work. Around the world CAFOD works with Church leaders and other partners who speak out against the injustices in their countries. In the UK, CAFOD supporters are currently campaigning on the injustice created by climate change – which is the single biggest threat to reducing poverty in the world today.
The Canonization of Oscar Romero on Sunday 14 October, brought to fruition a reality that the Salvadoran people have known for many years: Oscar Romero is a Christian martyr. The recognition as “Saint” is a reminder of Romero’s love for Christ grounded in his solidarity with his brother and sister Salvadorans. Romero’s witness has inspired millions of people to reflect on how they themselves are living out the Gospel as people of justice and peace. (The Romero Trust)
Find out more about our work in El Salvador.
A FUTURE NOT OUR OWN
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime
only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise
that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives
That is what we are about.
We plant a seed that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations
that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation
in realising 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 the Lord’s grace
to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
He replied: “I offer you this by way of example. A building is on fire and you’re watching it burn, standing and wondering if everyone is safe. Then someone tells you that your mother and your sister are inside that building. Your attitude changes completely. You’re frantic; your mother and sister are burning and you’d do anything to rescue them even at the cost of getting charred. That’s what it means to be truly committed. If we look at poverty from the outside, as if we’re looking at a fire, that’s not to opt for the poor, no matter how concerned we may be. We should get inside as if our own mother and sister were burning. Indeed it’s Christ who is there, hungry and suffering.”
Saint Oscar Romero pray for us.