It was around 1997, while watching a video about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when footage appeared of an unassuming figure walking down the steps of the Cathedral in San Salvador. His face had the look of countenance, of peace and humility, of commitment and surrender. Throughout the video, I couldn’t get his face out of my mind, and I vowed to find out just who that man was. In the last several decades, I have had the opportunity to learn more about him, the people to whom he served as pastor, and the times they lived in. The best, however, was reading his own words and writings, hearing his speeches, and learning about him from those whom he loved. Today is the 37th anniversary of his assassination and martyrdom, and what will follow is a reflection on this man who I now consider my brother.
In 1977, Oscar Arnulfo Romero was named Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador. He had a reputation as a kind and gentle person, a conservative pastor with friends who were powerful and wealthy. Many of those who had begun to feel threatened by the archdiocese’s increased commitment to justice and to the poor under the previous archbishop felt assured that Romero would bring the church back to how it was before: to return the laity to the pews, the priests to the sacristy, the religious back to the convent, and the church’s social doctrine back to collecting dust in the libraries.
At Medellín, Columbia (1968), the Latin American bishops had met to discuss the application of the pastoral line of Vatican II (1962-1965) in their dioceses and countries. Many of the documents of Vatican II reflected a new movement in the church to enter deeper into the world, like Christ, and to encourage the laity to recognize their place and responsibility in the church and world as part of the Body of Christ, the People of God. By analyzing the documents of Vatican II and the conclusions of Medellín, we can see why a new effort was made in Latin America towards the formation of Christian-Based Communities (Comunidades de Base), lay catechists, deacons and Delegates of the Word. It was an effort to be in line with the new commitments made at Vatican II, and to awaken the laity by awakening the Word of God in their lives.
In March of 1977, Romero’s best friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, was assassinated together with two pastoral workers from the community, Manuel Solorzano, 72, and Nelson Rutilio Lemus, 16. What followed was a period of transformation, of conversion, in Romero’s life. He began to question what exactly was occurring in his country and why Christians were being persecuted and murdered. The official explanation given, that they were “communist” priests and Christians who had engaged in politics and lost their way, was not sufficient for Romero. He entered more deeply into conversation with the people in the communities, and with God. And he would never be the same again.
What Romero soon called “awakening the Word” was the expression of a church that had now made a commitment to the poor and oppressed. Romero knew that this commitment was feared, criticized and often despised by many. As Grande once preached:
“Some preferred a dumb Christ, without a mouth, passing on a portable platform through the streets. A Christ with a muzzle, a Christ made according to our whim and our petty interests. Some did not want a questioning God who disturbed our consciences. A God who would ask: Cain, what have you done to your brother Abel? Some would prefer a God in the clouds.”
Romero and many other church leaders refused to accept that the church ought to be more concerned with preserving its own identity and privileges in the world than with the plight of humanity in it. It brought much joy to Romero when he saw so many of the laity recognizing their place and responsibility as a part of the mission and life of the church and the nation. As historian Dermot Keogh accurately notes, “He managed to attract not just the poor but many middle and upperclass people away from the path of religious indifference.”
Romero loved to be with the people, who taught him so much about life, Christ and the world. They were like family to him and he wanted everyone to feel at home in the church. Coralia Godoy, a young woman who worked as a secretary in the archdiocese recalls Romero’s strong response when she recommended he keep an appointment book: “No, because I have my priorities. And with an appointment book or without one, I will always receive the campesinos who come here, during the day or at whatever time it is, in a meeting or not.”
A beautiful expression of Romero’s commitment to the people was to halt the construction of the Cathedral in San Salvador. The message that it sent, though it traveled all over the world, was heard clearest and most profoundly by those in El Salvador who had lived through countless years of feeling abandoned and forgotten, especially by the church. As one of them recalled:
“For Monseñor, the people came first. And it was for that reason that he said the Cathedral would remain like that, unfinished, as a monument to the people who had neither shelter nor land, neither bread nor peace.”
The persecution and repression that was occurring was proof of the utter depths humanity can sink, where innocent men and women, the young and the old alike, were kidnapped, horribly tortured, raped, and killed with impunity and with such terrible methods such as decapitation, impalement, massacres, executions, machete hackings, and being thrown from helicopters into the ocean. Nothing seemed sacred anymore, respect for life was basically non-existent, priests and religious were being murdered alongside the people, and churches were desecrated and occupied. However Romero felt encouragement and strength throughout this, as he felt accompanied by the people and by Christ, and he knew that the persecution and oppression were the manifestations of those who had not resisted the temptation of loving and worshiping something else in the place of God:
“But let us not be afraid of them. Though they use their power, we will never kneel down before the idols of power and force… It would be sad, if in a country where murder is being committed so horribly, we were not to find priests also among the victims. They are the testimony of a church incarnated in the problems of the people.”
A word that has been used often in this reflection is incarnation, which Romero defined well: “Incarnation in the socio-political world is the locus for deepening faith in God and in his Christ. We believe in Jesus who came to bring the fullness of life, and we believe in a living God who gives life to men and women and wants them to truly live… We see, with great clarity, that here neutrality is impossible. Either we serve the life of [human beings], or we are accomplices in their death… either we believe in a God of life, or we serve the idols of death.”
As the Jesuit priest and martyr of El Salvador (1989) Juan Ramón Moreno, affirms, “It is we who embody [Christ] concretely and historically in our own space and time.” Another Jesuit priest of El Salvador, Ignacio Ellacuría (who was murdered together with Moreno and four other priests along with their house worker and her daughter) further explains that, “The history of salvation is meaningless if it does not include the sociopolitical dimension, which is an essential part but not the whole of it.” The Salvadoran Jesuit, Jon Sobrino, also describes incarnation as “descent and encounter, primordial decision to come to be within the authentic reality of this world; it also means allowing oneself to be formed by the God who is hidden but present in that reality.”
Romero believed in a Christ who walked in the world primarily amongst the poor and suffering, a Christ that was ultimately persecuted for his love and commitment to the poor and suffering, who gave his life in obedience to God, for the life of the world. Romero’s life ultimately points to Jesus’ life, and in his death, just as in his life, Romero knew that Jesus was calling him to follow him and give his life for the people of El Salvador. He loved everyone and he refused to hate anyone, he died forgiving and calling those who hated him and the poor to conversion. The same thing he said about his friend Grande at his funeral is the same that can be said about Romero:
“A priest with his campesinos, who walked with his people, to identify himself with them, to live with them not an inspiration of revolution, but an inspiration of love.”
I would like to end this reflection with an invitation that I believe Romero and Grande along with many others accepted from the people who were the least among them. I believe it is an invitation that they constantly extend to us. It is an invitation to become one with the least amongst us in their joys and sufferings, in their life and death, an invitation to remember those that have gone before us and to answer the call to walk with them, the people that are first in Christ’s love:
“Accompany us on this vigil and you will know what it is to dream! Then you will know how marvelous it is to live threatened with Resurrection!” ~Julia Esquivel
Rest in peace brother Romero, we won’t ever forget the love that you had for your people, and for humanity, that beautiful love that Jesus loved us with and asks us to mirror, that sacrificial love that knows no bounds. Rest in peace big dog, one day we’ll all eat together; we’ll all sit and be together.
It was the people who taught you. Like your dear friend Polín. Who refused to go underground in clandestine living even though he had death threats against him, because he felt it worse to be away from the people. When they found Polín’s body soon after, you went into your room and cried and cried. And then when they found a list of people to be killed, that the death squads had published weekly, you looked at them and with great courage and tenderness said, “Am I too on that esteemed list?” That’s right homie.