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A modern-day martyr

18 August 2017

Adrian Leak celebrates Oscar Romero, the centenary of whose birth fell this week


True likeness: autographed photograph of Archbishop Oscar Romero, 1979

True likeness: autographed photograph of Archbishop Oscar Romero, 1979

A FELLOW seminarian said of the young Oscar Romero, “He was of medium height, dark complexion, deliberate in bearing, like one who is not hurried to arrive because he knows he will get there.”

Even so, Romero’s arrival at the Gregorian University in Rome in 1938 at the age of 22 was not accomp­lished without a struggle. He had grown up in a mountainous district of El Salvador in a small town, Ciudad Barrios, which until 1940 could be reached only on horseback or foot.

At the age of 13, he was appren­ticed to a carpenter, and learned to make doors, tables, chairs, and coffins. The joiner’s gauge that he had made from mahogany was still in use years later, and would be proudly displayed by the old car­penter whenever Romero returned to visit his former master.

At 14, he left to join a seminary in San Miguel. His father would have preferred him to stay at home and contribute to the family’s meagre income, but was persuaded to let him go. The journey to and from home at the start and end of each term took seven hours by mule. Later, in 1937, he went to the nation­al seminary run by Jesuits; and from there he was sent to Rome, where he was ordained in 1942.


IT IS hard to imagine a bigger con­trast than that between his upbring­ing in a remote and impoverished community, without electricity or roads, and the stability and splen­dour of the Roman Catholic Church, manifest at his ordination mass in Rome. In the years ahead, he and his fellow Latin American clergy drew strength from that stability as they ministered in a hostile and volatile world to a society ravaged by cor­ruption and civil war.

He drew strength, too, from a traditionally Catholic praxis: daily mass, private prayer, Bible study and meditation, devotions before the Blessed Sacrament, veneration of Our Lady of Peace (the patroness of El Salvador), the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, and recitation of the rosary — a friend recalled how “on long car trips we would say 15 decades”.

Lest this makes him sound too other-worldly, we should remember that Romero always emphasised the well-being of the whole person. Bodies, as well as souls, needed to be fed. In his ser­mons, he taught that the gospel had to do with daily life as it is lived in the field, in the shop, in the factory. “The Kingdom of heaven begins right here,” he would say.


EARLY in his ministry, he worked with prisoners (he brought them films to relieve their boredom) and children (he catechised them strictly, and tested them on the previous Sunday’s sermon). He knew well the life of the rough illiterate campesinos (farm workers), and treasured their letters to him, dictated and signed by thumbprint.

He discovered, too, the value of radio. When he was pastor of the cathedral in San Miguel, his sermons were eagerly listened to, and broad­cast every Sunday by five different radio stations.

Cancilleria del Ecuador/WIKI Cancillería del Ecuador Cancillería del Ecuador Local hero: crowds in the Plaza Salvador del Mundo, San Salvador, for the beatification of Oscar Romero, on 22 May 2015

It was his experience of the poverty and hardships of life, as well as his well-grounded faith, that made him an effective proponent of what came to be known as “liberation theology”, although he distanced himself from its political aspects. By nature, he was cautiously conservative — he disapproved of clergy who appeared in public without a cassock — but he embraced the new ideas emanating from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In his second pastoral letter to his archdiocese in 1977, he drew attention to the fundamental change in the way the Church must now look at the world. In his words, the Church must be prepared “both to challenge society in regard to what is sinful in it and to be challenged by it in regard to what is sinful in itself”.

“PREFERENTIAL option for the poor” became a slogan. In a society such as El Salvador’s, where the bias was so patently to the rich, a gospel that set out to swing the bias to the poor was bound to be opposed by the rich and the powerful, and, as Romero discovered, by some church leaders too.

The right-wing press began their attack, at first by open opposition, calling the clergy (and, in particular, Jesuits) Marxist subversives. Then, with greater subtlety, the newspapers printed bogus articles in support of the regime, written by fictitious bodies such as “The Salvadoran Ca­-tho­lic Association”, and purport­ing to be the true voice of Catholi­cism.

At the same time, incidents of persecution began to increase. One of the most flagrant occurred in 1977 when soldiers entered the church at Aguilares, shot open the tabernacle, and trampled the hosts on the floor, before going on a killing spree in the town. Earlier, the parish priest, Rutilio Grande, had been assassin­ated by government agents.

In a sermon preached to a congre­gation numbering an estimated 5000 at Aguilares, a month after Grande’s murder, Romero said: “It is my lot to gather up the trampled, the dead, and all that the persecution leaves behind.” He went on to call for caution, and, in an allusion to some politically active clergy, urged his listeners “not to confuse the libera­tion of Christ with false liberations which are merely temporal”.

Romero, by now the Archbishop of San Salvador, was having to tread a path between challenging a corrupt right-wing government and openly siding with left-wing elements whose revolutionary agenda promised greater violence. In his weekly broad­casts, which attracted the largest listenership in the country, he denounced the injustice and inequal­ity of Salvadoran society, but was equally passionate in his call for restraint. “No to violence,” he reiterated, “Yes to peace.”

“I am accused by the ultra-Right of being a communist and [by] the ultra-Left of being in collaboration with the Right,” Romero said, “but I am neither Right nor Left. I am simply trying to be loyal to preaching the Word of the Lord.”


BY THE beginning of 1980, the country was sliding into a civil war that was to last 12 years and claim 70,000 lives. Death squads roamed the streets. The slogan “Be a patriot: kill a priest” was daubed on walls. The number of “disappeared” opponents of the regime increased.

Romero’s criticism of the government grew more trenchant. In his last broadcast, on 23 March, he made a direct appeal to the police, the members of the armed forces, and the paramilitaries: “In the name of God, I beg you, I ask you, I order you to stop this repression.”

The following day, he was shot by a pro-government agent as he celebrated mass. He died not for his politics, but for the gospel. His was indisputably a martyr’s death. And yet it was not until 33 years later that the Vatican took serious steps towards his canonisation. It is generally believed that the process — the “cause” — had been blocked because of his suspected Marxist beliefs. Neither Pope John Paul II nor Pope Benedict wished to be seen supporting liberation theology.

Things changed under Pope Francis. Romero was beatified in 2015. His canonisation is expected either later this year — the centenary of his birth — or shortly thereafter. When the people of El Salvador are at last given their saint, he “who is not hurried to arrive because he knows he will get there” will, by his death, have presented to his country a gift more precious than any during his life.

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