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Almost exactly 35 years ago, Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, was shot dead at the altar. This magnicide was such an earth-shattering event, a rupture of the old traditional axis of power, that some have suggested that the history of the Church in Latin America can be divided into pre-Romero and post-Romero times.
It was 18.25 on Monday March 24th 1980 with El Salvador on the brink of civil war. Romero was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the cancer hospital where he lived. He had just finished his sermon when the marksman fired.
Romero slumped to the floor at the foot of a huge crucifix with blood pouring from his mouth, nostrils and ears. He was declared dead on arrival at the emergency hospital. (See photos here).
The unthinkable had happened. In one of the most Catholic countries in the world, dedicated to Christ the Saviour, the metropolitan archbishop of the capital city was assassinated in the middle of Mass. Such choreography would have been beyond Hollywood’s or even Bunuel’s imagination. This public execution was carried out by a death squad linked to the country’s armed forces in an operation planned, approved and financed, not by terrorists or fanatics, but by wealthy and powerful Catholic and evangelical Christian members of the military and the oligarchy.
It brought to an abrupt end three tumultuous years as archbishop. Romero was a deeply spiritual and prayerful man, shy and self-effacing; yet he demonstrated colossal courage in facing up squarely to the poverty and exploitation of the Salvadoran people, the grotesque killings and massive violations of human rights by the security forces, and the kidnappings and revolutionary violence of the far left.
“I do not understand Mr President how you can declare yourself before the nation, Catholic by upbringing and by conviction; and yet allow these unspeakable outrages on the part of the security forces in a country we call civilised and Christian.”
Option for the poor
He made what is known in Catholic Church teaching as an ‘option for the poor’. He put himself on their side, listening, consulting, defending them and pressing their cause. For three years he became the voice of the voiceless poor, from his pulpit speaking the truth about what was happening in a country of cover-up and lies.
He was a passionate advocate for non-violent social change and economic transformation; and, contrary to the perspective of some commentators with their own agenda, he emphatically opposed the violence of both the right and the left. His writings and sermons are the evidence; and still today they give inspiration and hope to communities across Latin America and the global south struggling for social justice – and suffering for it.
“I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the governance of the country, and repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.”
Many both inside and outside the Church still have difficulty in comprehending that Romero was utterly radical and at the same time utterly orthodox. He was not a political populist in a cassock; he was not a pious simpleton, manipulated by Jesuits or Marxist advisers; he was an authentic exponent of a faith commitment that is inseparable from the pursuit of justice. That is often labelled as liberation theology and indeed an option for the poor is at the heart of liberation theology. But Romero was not the leader of any liberation theology movement although across Latin America he is seen as their hero or icon.
He was putting into practice, in the dramatic context of El Salvador (which he said had come to resemble the dominion of hell), the precepts and teachings emanating from the Second Vatican Council which concluded in 1965 and in the Latin American church assemblies held in Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979). These latter had set out a new, or different, way of being Church – on the side of the poor majorities and divorced from the centuries-old alliance with the wealthy and powerful.
A man of synthesis
This new orthodoxy (right teaching) found its expression in Romero’s orthopraxis (right action). He preached a faith that does justice. He told the different groupings in the Salvadoran Church that it was not either faith or justice; but both-and. He was the man of the synthesis. To Opus Dei and to the Charismatic Catholics he praised their commitment to a prayerful spiritual life but pressed them vigorously to bring it to fruition in social action to benefit the destitute, oppressed and excluded. To the more radical ‘base communities’, on the other hand, he praised their bravery and colossal commitment in organising for change, but he reminded them that the Scriptures were their inspiration and he warned them to guard against the instrumentalisation of the ecclesial community for the ends of a political party or movement.
Romero was not the first Catholic bishop in Latin America in recent times to think and speak and act this way. Helder Camara and Paulo Evaristo Arns in Brazil, Raul Silva in Chile, Leonidas Proaño in Ecuador and many others had led the way. But, although there had been suspicious deaths, Romero was the first to be so openly and brazenly assassinated for preaching the truth and living out a faith that embraces the poor and seeks social and economic justice whatever the cost.
Oscar Romero is now declared by Pope Francis to be a martyr, killed out of hatred of the faith. This is a great victory.
Romero’s adversaries in the military and the landed elite have to be seen alongside those in the hierarchy of the Church – in El Salvador, in CELAM (the Latin American continental Church body based in Colombia), and above all in the Vatican Curia. Cardinals like Mario Casariego in Guatemala, Sebastiano Baggio in Rome, and Alfonso Lopez Trujillo in CELAM, strongly opposed Romero’s teaching and pastoral action. This last spent his entire episcopal career aggressively trying to stamp out Latin American liberation theology and to reverse the radical conclusions of the Medellin Conference.
For these prelates Romero was naïve; and what they saw as his deeply flawed and erroneous preaching was giving live ammunition to their liberation theologian enemies! Romero was regularly presented as though he were the black sheep, out of step with other loyal and responsible bishops and the Pope in Rome. And, not surprisingly, when this message was constantly echoed and eagerly amplified in the newspapers and media, controlled by the same landed oligarchy, then the unthinkable became just about thinkable.
Almost immediately after his death Christian communities across Latin America recognised Romero’s greatness and in a sense he was canonised by popular acclaim with the title ‘San Romero de las Americas’. The official canonisation process began with an announcement by Romero’s successor, Arturo Rivera Damas in 1990. The diocesan process was completed in 1996 and sent to Rome with warm support from the then archbishop, Saenz Lacalle, who incidentally belongs to Opus Dei. There in Rome, Romero’s case has languished for 18 years with investigations into his theological orthodoxy and continuous bureaucratic obstructionism – until Pope Francis took up the cause and dramatically ‘unblocked’ the process in 2013.
A wave of joy
On May 23rd 2015 we will see a wave of great joy extending far beyond the confines of El Salvador and the Catholic Church. Romero will be beatified in a ceremony in San Salvador – that is he will be raised to the title of ‘Blessed’, the penultimate step before being declared a saint. Beatification focuses on the local Church – in this case the Salvadoran Church. Canonisation, which should follow within the next two years, is an event held in Rome for the worldwide Church at which the Pope himself invariably presides.
Oscar Romero’s elevation to the gallery of saints will be the crowning endorsement of the conclusions of the Councils of Medellin and Puebla – together with their option for the poor, and their recognition of, and challenge to, structural injustice and institutionalised violence in Latin American societies. Oscar Romero who ceaselessly cited those declarations, and lived them out, is now deemed worthy of sainthood. It is the greatest possible affirmation of a Church taking the side of the poor, defending human rights and accepting the consequences.
The present generation of committed bishops in Latin America who engage in the struggles to protect indigenous lands from rapacious mining interests and mega development, in the pursuit of environmental justice, or in the endless battle against urban squalor and destitution, can no longer be written off as heterodox, disloyal or even dangerous churchmen out on a limb.
In truth the most astonishing embrace of Romero’s martyrdom came four years ago from the United Nations – and specifically from the General Assembly. The UN official website (with a special page of Oscar Romero’s biography) explains that, on December 21st 2010, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 24th as the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims – and specifically recognised ”the important work and values of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador”. Furthermore, the resolution invited all Member States, international organizations and civil society organizations and individuals, to observe the International Day in an appropriate manner.
Where the UN General Assembly, the Anglican Communion, and the Christian communities of Latin America have led the way, the Vatican has finally followed.
March 24th is Romero Day. It ought to be possible then, with Church and human rights organisations working hand in hand, to force March 24th onto the social and political calendars of all the Latin American nations as a special moment to campaign vigorously for human rights and to continue to press for an end to the impunity still today enjoyed by so many powerful economic and military interests ….just as Oscar Romero was doing so valiantly 35 years ago.
Julian Filochowski is Chair of the Archbishop Romero Trust. He is a former Director of CAFOD, the UK Catholic Agency for Overseas Development and has travelled extensively in Latin America. He is a member of LAB’s Council of Management.