Thirty years ago this week (24 March), Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated while celebrating Mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital in the country’s capital, San Salvador. Michael O’Sullivan SJ worked for a number of years in South and Central America, including El Salvador, with economically poor people. He was refused entry to San Salvador, arrested, and kept under armed guard for the night in 1991, and expelled to Nicaragua the following morning. He was able to return to El Salvador subsequently after the intervention of the Jesuits in that country. Below is his anniverary tribute to the martyred Archbishop, published in this month’s edition of Spirituality magazine.
ANNIVERSARY TRIBUTE TO ARCHBISHOP OSCAR ROMERO
Michael O’Sullivan, SJ (1)
Published in Spirituality (March-April 2010)
On 24 March, thirty years ago now, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was celebrating Mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital. The chapel was situated very near the simple home where he lived. During the Mass, at 6.25 p.m. local time, a lone gun man entered the chapel and killed the Archbishop with a single shot. Monsignor Romero fell to the ground and beneath the large crucifix that was hanging behind the altar. The killer was a professional hit man carrying out a contract killing. It was the eve of Holy Week when the Church worldwide commemorates the mystery of its own life and in a small and economically poor country we had heard proclaimed anew: ‘A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13).
Rutilio Grande and Romero’s Conversion
Oscar Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977 because he was a conservative and Rome did not want to appoint the more radical, and desired candidate of very many, Arturo Rivera y Damas. However, a month after his appointment something happened that was to have a profound effect on Romero. A Jesuit friend, Rutilio Grande, was murdered on his way to celebrate evening Mass. Grande was murdered because he was a great champion of the rural poor. Romero had a large photo of Grande hanging in his home when I went there in 1991. When he saw his dead friend, and the old man and teenage boy killed with Rutilio because they were travelling together to the Mass, he began to pray. As he did so, he also began to think about conversations where Rutilio tired to persuade him about the need to be more public on the side of the poor. He continued afterwards to go to Rutilio’s tomb to pray. A dramatic conversion happened to Romero through all of this, and people noticed it. His friend and advisor, Jon Sobrino, the well-known theologian who narrowly escaped martyrdom in 1989 when a Salvadoran military death squad broke into the home of his Jesuit community and killed them (2), said: “He (Romero) came to be, to do, and to speak in a very different way.” Although a somewhat nervous person he began to drop his defenses and draw nearer to the poor. He had been liberated within to become the most powerful outspoken voice of the voiceless in his country, and he also encouraged many practical initiatives to change the situation of the people. He was living his own words uttered to the people in 1977, the year he became Archbishop: “My life is not mine, but yours.”
Romero and True Incarnation
Reflecting later on Romero’s life Sobrino said: “…in my opinion, one of the greatest dangers in the Church today, especially in the Salvadoran Church, is the absence of true incarnation in reality.” The danger we face is that of falling into unreality, and thus we end up living outside this world, and never making the real life of the poor of this country our own.”(3) Sobrino is speaking here of the need for incarnation “from below”, to use a phrase of the great Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez. For Christians influenced by liberation theology/spirituality the Incarnation of Jesus was about Jesus becoming, not simply human, but also one of the ordinary people. This means, for them, that Christians, as companions of Jesus, are called to take on the struggle of the economically poor in order to bring forth the transformative truth and love of God.
Monsignor Romero was, to paraphrase Sobrino, a man possessed by the spirit of reality, that is to say, the spirit of incarnation of the historical Jesus. This Jesus came, as St. Luke says, to bring good news to the poor, and was, as St. Paul says, a self-emptying Christ who did not cling to his equality with God. Romero, in a country where the great majority of the people were economically poor, wanted the Church of El Salvador to be filled with such a spirit of incarnation. For example, he sometimes said, “A Church which does not suffer persecution, but in fact enjoys the privileges and the support of the world, is a Church which should be afraid, because it is not the true Church of Jesus Christ.” The Church of Christ, in other words, needs to fear, not persecution, but inauthenticity. On 24 July 1979 he said: “It would be sad that in a country in which there are so many horrible assassinations there were no priests counted among the victims.” With these words he was going against centuries of ecclesiastical tradition that believed priests and members of religious congregations should be different. With these words, too, he was giving us an insight, I would say, into some of what might have happened to him as he prayed and reflected on the death of his priest friend, Rutilio Grande. Rutilio, in my view, taught Oscar, by his death, that he himself must not be different to the people, that he must live his empathy and solidarity with them to the point even of being vulnerable to assassination like them, and that he must do so in the end because of who God is.
With his words about the need for priests, too, to be ready to die with and for the people Romero was also echoing the opening lines of Gaudium et spes of Vatican II and taking them to their logical conclusion. These opening lines say: “The joy and hope, the grief and anxiety of the followers of Christ, especially those who are poor, these, too, are the joy and hope, the grief and anxiety of the followers of Christ.” He was also identifying with the Latin American Catholic Bishops’ Conference at Medellín in 1968, which was held to work out how to implement the vision of Vatican II in Latin America. There the bishops said: “we will be true to our vocation to liberation (of the economically poor from the tyranny that enslaves them) at whatever cost.”(4)
Letter of Solidarity
During the Conference of Latin American Catholic Bishops at Puebla, Mexico, which began on 28 January 1979, and was the successor to the Medellin Conference, 47 of the bishops wrote to Archbishop Romero in recognition of his fidelity to Medellin and to express their solidarity with the struggle of the Catholic Church in EI Salvador. The letter is dated 10th February. Among those who signed it was the late Helder Camara, the distinguished Brazilian bishop. The following is an extract from that letter:
We know that the Lord placed on your shoulders the pastoral charge of the Archdiocese of San Salvador at a time when a harassment, a real persecution of word and of deed, was beginning against your Church’s service, a service in favour of the Christian liberation of many impoverished and oppressed Salvadoreans, those Salvadoreans denied brotherhood (sic), and in whom, on account of that, the grace of God the Father was obscured.
During these two years we have followed in solidarity the process of your pastoral commitment to the poor – peasants and workers. You “have been making ever more your own the problems and the struggles of those with whom a minority who idolise wealth and power do not want to share life. Not only have you known how to speak for them, but also you have defended courageously the right they have to form their own communities and organisations. In all this you have moved to acquire an ever greater fidelity to the pastoral commitment that we undertook at Medellín.(5) We are conscious that in this task the Cross will always accompany you, but it is precisely in trial that we show Christian fidelity to the Gospel.
In your Archdiocese in two years, four of your priests have been murdered, together with several lay people. More than ten have been expelled. Church institutions have been attacked. The poor, who are the principal object of the Church’s mission, have been increasingly repressed and the Church’s mission among them is continually harassed. Catechists and celebrators of the Word are intimidated and the convocation of Christian communities is becoming ever more dangerous. In the midst of all this, accused and calumniated, together with all those who look for the paths of justice, you have remained firm, knowing that you must obey God rather than men.
Through you, we want to address all your Church, the whole people of God that is in your archdiocese, and all the poor of your country to whom you announce the Good News of Jesus Christ in their actual situation. They are the body of Christ in history, as you have pointed out in your second pastoral letter. They have been present here in Puebla. They are a people to whose oppression and repression you have said, and will continue to say, in a Christian way – enough, it cannot be so!
They are a people who, knowing it or not, are the suffering Servant of Yahweh living today with their pain, with the surrender of their life for their dignity. They are constructing a communion that carries in itself the seeds of a new life for today and for tomorrow, for a new society – just, united, free and fraternal. And in the peace of this reconstruction among brothers and sisters, we find the sign of the Father’s love, the sign of his Kingdom, and the promise of eternal communion.
Running Risks for God
Romero knew he ran great risks because Grande’s murder marked the beginning of a marathon of murder in El Salvador, and he had become one of the people by the way he identified so fully with them. This marathon resulted in, not only the killing of other priests, but also ordinary people being hacked down with machetes, and found dismembered by the side of the road,
Octavio Ortiz was one of these murdered priests. In 1979 the military arrived at night to the parish compound where 100 or so young people had gathered on retreat. When Ortiz came out to them they drove over him and killed him. They then got out of their vehicles and opened fire killing a number of the young people. One of those there that night who managed to escape was Maria (not her real name). She went into exile in Mexico, but soon found she could not stay away and returned to her country. One night soldiers kidnapped her and gang raped her through the night. She conceived a daughter whom she still could not accept when I met her in the same parish compound in 1991.(6) Romero called such practices of murder and violation the work of a Satanic empire. In other words he saw the struggle for justice in his country as a struggle against forces that were not simply political and economic, but demonic. He saw it as a struggle against the forces of sin. He knew such forces had killed Jesus, but he also believed in the resurrection of Jesus against these forces that appeared to have overcome and done away with him. And because Romero believed in this Jesus, three weeks before he died he said: “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. My voice will disappear but my word, which is Christ’s, will remain. I say this without pride, with great humility.”(7) He also said: “I hope they will realize they are wasting their time. One bishop may die, but God’s Church, which is the people, will never die.” “May my death be for the liberation of my people.”
A certain traditional spirituality has fostered a neglect of this world, but liberation spirituality seeks its transformation into the meanings and values of God. In doing so it seeks, not simply political and economic liberation with the aid of Christian meaning and value, but the promotion of a faith-filled salvation that includes such liberation. What is being promoted through political and economic liberation is nothing less than God’s saving love coming into our world, a coming which, according to St. John in his gospel, is “full of grace and truth.”
Because Romero believed this passionately he wrote, just one month before he died, to President Jimmy Carter urging him to stop United States’ funding of the military in El Salvador. This letter generated huge international publicity. But it, also, as a result put Romero’s life in danger. Because he believed passionately in God’s liberation for the people he urged the Salvadoran military the day before he was killed to lay down their arms, cease the repression and realize that they were not obliged to carry out orders to kill and maim their own people. Because Romero believed passionately in a God of integral and historical salvation Roberto D’Abuisson, the head of the death squads in El Salvador, and later head of the Arena political party, held a meeting where the decision was taken to hire a professional killer to do away with Romero.
At Romero’s funeral many innocent people were shot when the army opened fire on the mourners. The majority of the bishops had opposed Romero while he was alive, and even though he had been shot dead while celebrating Mass, thus evoking the Last Supper and the bloody death of Jesus on Calvary, these bishops still did not show solidarity with him or the people by taking part in his funeral. Sadly, Romero did not feel sufficiently supported either by Pope John Paul II.(8)
Romero was a truly great Christian, and is recognized as such by the great majority of his people, and by people all around the world. But in the eyes of many powerful people to be a great Christian is to be a great threat to them. It is imperative, therefore, that we allow the gracious love of God to deepen in ourselves and with each other, and that, like Romero, we really value our friends. Such conversion to God, each other, and our friends is very empowering and a wonderful gift. It prevents us from being paralyzed by fear and panicked by guilt. We are called to self-care, for it would be a contradiction if the God who calls us to struggle against the oppression suffered by others did not want us to care for ourselves. But we are also called to be open to what is genuinely possible for us to do. Oscar Romero underwent a dramatic conversion to the economically poor of his country. Let us pray, on the thirtieth anniversary of his martyrdom, that we may have his courage to live even more than we do already the cost of discipleship of the risen Jesus Christ, and to live it in the context of what is needed and known in our time and place. Amen! Alleluia!
1. Dr. Michael O’Sullivan, a Jesuit priest, is Director of the Higher Diploma and MA in Applied Christian Spirituality at Milltown Institute, Dublin, Ireland, and Head of Theological Studies at All Hallows College, Dublin. He worked for a number of years in South and Central America, including El Salvador, with economically poor people. He was refused entry to San Salvador, arrested, and kept under armed guard for the night in 1991, and expelled to Nicaragua the following morning. He was able to return to El Salvador subsequently after the intervention of the Jesuits in that country. He learned that the original decision to prevent him entering the country appeared to have been due to the protests he had led or been a part of in Ireland against the Salvadoran government and U.S. foreign policy in that country over a number of years.
2. Jon Sobrino was out of the country at the time working with the Columbans in Thailand.
3. Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2003), 170.
4. The Second General Conference of the Latin American Bishops: The Conclusions of Medellin (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979), 23.
5. The Second General Conference of the Latin American Catholic Bishops was held at Medellín, Colombia in 1968. This was the predecessor to the Puebla conference. It was at Medellín that the Latin American Catholic Bishops committed the Catholic Church in that continent to a faith-based preferential option for the economically poor.
6. Michael O’Sullivan, “Salvadoran Woman,” LADOC (Latin American Documentation Centre) (July-August 1995): 18.
7. See Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom, 180.
8. Marcelo Barros, “Dom Oscar Romero – Latin American Prophet,” The Furrow 56 (2005), 358-65 at 364.