Monday, March 25, 2013

AB Oscar Romero: An Omen Of Change For Reform In Catholicism?

AB Romero is the third from the left.  This is the gallery of 20th Century martyrs on the facade of Westminster Abbey.  Mother Elizabeth of Russia is on the far left, followed by Martin Luther King, Romero, and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The following is an article  about Archbishop Romero written by Fr. John Dear for the NCR on March 16, 2010.  I reprint it virtually in total because I know Fr. John would not be upset.  I've met him and there is no doubt in my mind that he's the real deal himself ---and the issue is to spread the word, not own it.

I think Pope Francis understands that Catholicism does not own the word with the right to sell it like some trademarked product.  He will spread it, even the really hard parts about the preferential option for the poor.  This is why I have some hope that AB Oscar Romero will take his place in the pantheon of Catholic saints, as he has already been honored by the Anglicans.

"I have often been threatened with death," Archbishop Oscar Romero told a Guatemalan reporter two weeks before his assassination, 30 years ago on March 24, 1980. "If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality."
Oscar Romero gave his life in the hope that peace and justice would one day become a reality. He lives on now in all those who carry on the nonviolent struggle for justice and peace. A beautiful new photo book and biography, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints, by Scott Wright, shows us what a holy life he lived, and just how much he gave.

Romero spent his years up until 1977 as a typical quiet, pious, conservative cleric. Indeed, as bishop, he sided with the greedy landlords, important power brokers, and violent death squads. When he became archbishop, the Jesuits at the Univeristy of Central America in San Salvador were crushed. They immediately wrote him off -- all but one, Rutilio Grande, who reached out to Romero in the weeks after his installation and urged him to learn from the poor and speak on their behalf.

Grande himself was a giant for social justice. He organized the rural poor in Aguilares, and paid for it with his life on March 12, 1977. Standing over Grande's dead body that night, Romero was transformed into one of the world's great champions for the poor and oppressed. From then on, he stood with the poor, and denounced every act of violence, injustice and war. He became a fiery prophet of justice and peace, "the voice of the voiceless," and in Jon Sobrino's words, "a new Jeremiah." For me, Romero was a stunning sign of God's active presence in the world, a living symbol of the struggle for justice and what the church could be.

The day after Grande's death, Romero preached a sermon that stunned El Salvador. With the force of Martin Luther King, Jr., Romero defended Grande, demanded social and economic justice for the poor, and called everyone to take up Grande's prophetic work. To protest the government's participation in the murders, Romero closed the parish school for three days and cancelled all Masses in the country the following week, except for one special Mass in the cathedral.

That act alone would have put Romero in the annals of history. Imagine if every Mass in the United States but one had been canceled in protest after the death of Dr. King! Over a hundred thousand people attended the cathedral Mass that Sunday and heard Romero's bold call for justice, disarmament and peace. Grande's life and death bore good fruit in the heart and soul of Romero. Suddenly, the nation had a towering figure in its midst.

Within months, priests, catechists and church workers were regularly targeted and assassinated, so Romero spoke out even more forcefully. He even criticized the president, which no Salvadoran bishop had ever done before, and few in the hemisphere ever did. As the U.S.-backed government death squads attacked villages and churches and massacred campesinos, Romero's truth-telling became a veritable subversive campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Soon Romero was greeted with applause everywhere he went. Thousands wrote to him regularly, telling their stories, thanking him for his prophetic voice and sharing their new found courage. His Sunday homilies were broadcast nationwide on live radio. The country came to a standstill as he spoke. Everyone listened, even the death squads.

As Romero's stature grew and his leadership for justice and peace deepened, his simple faith and pious devotion remained steady, and gave him a foundation from which he could take on the forces of death. To protest the government's silence in the face of recent massacres, he refused to attend the inauguration of the new Salvadoran president. The church, he announced, is "not to be measured by the government's support but rather by its own authenticity, its evangelical spirit of prayer, trust, sincerity and justice, its opposition to abuses." While he embodied the prophetic role of the church, he also modeled that spirit of prayer, trust and sincerity in his everyday life.

As the arrests, torture, disappearances and murders continued, Romero made two radical decisions that were unprecedented. First, on Easter Monday 1978, he opened the seminary in downtown San Salvador to welcome any and all displaced victims of violence. Hundreds of homeless, hungry and brutalized people moved into the seminary, transforming the quiet religious retreat into a crowded, noisy shelter, make-shift hospital, and playground. (Pope Francis, as the Jesuit provincial of Argentina also opened his seminary for the displaced of Argentina's 'dirty war'.)

Next, he halted construction on the new cathedral in San Salvador. When the war is over, the hungry are fed, and the children are educated, then we can resume building our cathedral, he said. Both historic moves stunned the other bishops, cast judgment on the Salvadoran government, and lifted the peoples' spirits.

Meanwhile, Romero's preaching reached biblical heights. "Like a voice crying in the desert," he said, "we must continually say No to violence and Yes to peace." His August 1978 pastoral letter outlined the evils of "institutional violence" and repression, and advocated "the power of nonviolence that today has conspicuous students and followers." He wrote: "The counsel of the Gospel to turn the other cheek to an unjust aggressor, far from being passive or cowardly, shows great moral force that leaves the aggressor morally overcome and humiliated. The Christian always prefers peace to war."

Romero lived in a sparse, three-room hermitage on the grounds of a hospital run by a community of nuns. During his busy days, he traveled the country, met with hundreds of poor Salvadorans, presided at Mass, and met with local community leaders. He assisted everyone he could. Later, he said that one of his primary duties as archbishop had become not just challenging the U.S.-backed government and its death squads, but claiming the dead bodies of their victims, including priests, nuns and catechists.

On one of my visits, a Salvadoran told me how Romero would drive out to city garbage dumps to look among the trash for the discarded, tortured victims of the death squads on behalf of grieving relatives. "These days I walk the roads gathering up dead friends, listening to widows and orphans, and trying to spread hope," he said.

In particular, Romero took time every day to speak with dozens of people threatened by government death squads. People lined up at his office to ask for help and protection, to complain about harassment and death threats, and to find some support and guidance in their time of grief and struggle. Romero received and listened to everyone. His compassionate ear fueled his prophetic voice.

By late 1979 and early 1980, his Sunday sermons issued his strongest calls yet for conversion to justice and an end to the massacres. "To those who bear in their hands or in their conscience, the burden of bloodshed, of outrages, of the victimized, innocent or guilty, but still victimized in their human dignity, I say: Be converted. You cannot find God on the path of torture. God is found on the way of justice, conversion and truth."

When President Jimmy Carter announced in February 1980 that he was going to increase U.S. military aid to El Salvador by millions of dollars a day, Romero was shocked. He wrote a long public letter to Carter, asking the United States to cancel all military aid. Carter ignored Romero's plea, and sent the aid. (Between 1980 and 1992, the U.S. spent $6 billion to kill 75,000 poor Salvadorans.)

In the weeks afterwards, the killings increased. So did the death threats against Romero. He made a private retreat, prepared for his death, discovered an even deeper peace, and mounted the pulpit. During his March 23, 1980, Sunday sermon, Romero let loose and issued one of the greatest appeals for peace and disarmament in church history:
"I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!"
The next day, March 24, 1980, Romero presided over a small evening Mass in the chapel of the hospital compound where he lived, in honor of a beloved woman who had died a year before. He read from John's Gospel: "Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit "(12:23-26). Then he preached about the need to give our lives for others as Christ did. Just as he concluded, he was shot in the heart by a man standing in the back of the church. He fell behind the altar and collapsed at the foot of a huge crucifix depicting a bloody and bruised Christ. Romero's vestments, and the floor around him, were covered in blood. He gasped for breath and died in minutes.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news -- in my fraternity room at Duke University. I had just turned on the TV to watch the evening news. Only the month before, I had decided to apply to the Jesuits, to try to spend my life following Jesus. The shocking report of the death of this brave archbishop stunned me, inspired me and encouraged me to go through with my decision. Later that night, a peace vigil and prayer service was held on campus. My friend Paul Farmer, living next door to me, marks his conversion from that event. (Farmer would become a doctor and teacher at Harvard University and founder of Partners In Health, an international health and social justice organization.) Both of us were touched and changed by Romero's gift.

Romero's funeral became the largest demonstration in Salvadoran history, some say in the history of Latin America. The government was so afraid of the grieving people that they threw bombs into the crowd and opened fire, killing some 30 people and injuring hundreds more. The Mass of Resurrection was never completed and Romero was hastily buried.

Just recently, I learned from one of his biographies that Pope John Paul II had decided to remove Romero as Archbishop of San Salvador. In fact, he signed the removal order on the morning of March 24. In some ways, I'm grateful that Romero never lived to hear that dreadful news. His martyrdom became a spiritual explosion that continues to transform the church and the world.

Today, we remember Oscar Romero as a saint and a martyr, as a champion of the poor and prophet of justice. He calls us to live in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, to think with them, feel with them, walk with them, listen to them, serve them, stand with them, become one with them, and even die with them. In that preferential solidarity, he summons us to carry on his prophetic pursuit of justice and disarmament......


I have always found it beyond coincidence that Pope John Paul II signed the order removing AB Romero from his position in El Salvador on the very day Romero was assassinated. Even if one assumes JPII did this to protect AB Romero from assassination, one still has to wonder why JPII left Romero hanging, and the Jesuits who were assassinated before Romero, and the thousands of campesinos who died through out Central and South America.  For a Pope who was so vocal about the excesses of Communism, he was strangely silent about the excesses of military fascism in Latin America.

Pope Francis lived through these times and experienced first hand what the 'preferential option for the poor' really means and what the consequences can be.  He does not have a European understanding of these issues.  He is much more like AB Romero than he is the European curial cardinals he is being tasked with reforming.  He will not see reforming the curia as an exercise in efficient corporate management.  He has plenty of experience with how a curial response operating from a geo political agenda exacerbated life for the poor in Latin America.  He will not see clergy and laity as pawns to be sacrificed in these kinds of games.  I will continue to pray that he himself does not become a similar sacrifice.


  1. What were the chances that the date of the commemoration of Romero's martyrdom would be during a time period when the world has its eyes back on Latin America? I hope I am not being overly optimistic but it seems to me that the Holy Spirit is is gracing us in a very powerful way.

  2. I read this with tears and with hope. And I share your final sentiments - in more ways than one, remembering the untimely death of JPI.

  3. I was very lucky to be able to go to El Salvador to stand where Romero was killed, to see where he lived, to see where the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were killed, and to visit the site where the American religious women were raped and killed. The people have learned the lesson of Romero. They seek peace. He lives among them as they tell the story of what he meant to them.

    The present archbishop has tried to suppress the stories of murder and torture and make it more difficult for those who would visit his tomb in the basement of the Cathedral. I so hope Francis allows the man the Salvadoran people consider a saint, to be formally recognized as such.

  4. As we have had a day of commemoration I thought you might enjoy seeing a music video that we have produced honoring Oscar Romero. It is part of a new CD release. The singer is a deacon, Michael Glen Bell, and the film maker is Owen Thomas. The Project is the subject of a wonderful article in Canada’s Catholic Register

    Go to to view the video. Feel free to use it on your site, review the album or video, or blog about The Project. If you do, let us know so we can put a link on ours. If you are interested in a story on The Project, please get back to us. We are located in Indianapolis. You can follow us on Twitter @martyrsproject.

  5. Thank you for posting this memorial of AB Romero....his courage and that of all the Salvadorean people in the face of such fascist violence is humbling...may their struggle inspire us and give us hope when our spirits are low.....I follow the tradition of the Eastern Church in regard to saints.....they are proclaimed by the devotion of the people of God not by the Church hierarchy......Oscar Romero is already a saint to me.....a true servant shepherd...may his sainthood be declared in Rome and even better if the Church leadership truly tries to emulate him.....

  6. I didn't realize that March 24, 1980 was the Anniversary of when AB Romero was shot and killed. The memory of him did come to me on that day, yesterday, very strongly and I shuffled the music I made in his honor and memory towards the top of my playlist. I'll move him to #3 spot, for the Holy Spirit. Strange how stuff like this seems to happen or play out with such a strengthening of the message to be mindful and grateful for the courage and love of this Holy and devout priest. His last words are just so telling and prophetic. Wonderful testimony of the Holy Spirit at work in God's people with Fr. John Dear's witness as well.

    Back in 1980 the news reports about the troubles in Salvador were very confusing to say the least. After all of these years the truth is going to hit the masses and the world will resent the truth of it or repair its ways. I think if people do not yet see the truth that their blindness will still rule them and their judgment will be skewed with unreasonableness, clouded by years of denial or clinging to deceptions as truth.

    I pray with you, Colleen, that Pope Francis I will not suffer the same as Saint Romero. I pray he will live a long and healthy life, breathing new life into the Church and into the world.

  7. I think you are right about the Holy Spirit powerfully moving at this time. Bishop Gumbleton's latest post has a story about a new movement in Haiti amongst the young men of the worst Ghettos. It's worth reading because it's another sign of the Spirit moving all of us in new directions.

  8. It's funny Jayden, I actually posted this three years ago and came across it this morning googling for something else. It's kind of weird to read your own work from that long ago and have it effect yourself. Of course, most of it was John Dear's writing, but even back then the longing I had for a Church represented by Romero's understanding came across very strongly. Now that Francis is pope, and the long wait may be over, it's still hard to know how far to trust--hence my final sentiments.

  9. When did you go coolmom. I wonder if the Archbishop you mean wasn't
    Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle. He was the AB of San Salvador after Romero and until 2008. He was Opus Dei and a former military chaplain.
    I bet you're not shocked.

  10. I hate to be a cynic Michael, but the RC process costs big bucks. Sainthood by acclimation won't see the light of day in Catholicism without real serious reform in the curia.

  11. Fran the news reports were so confused back then that Americans forget a great deal of what happened in this time period in El Salvador began with funding approved for the right wing military by Jimmy Carter. It's hard to picture the Jimmy Carter of today in the Jimmy Carter of 30+ years ago. We'll probably wind up with a similar confusion over President Obama. It's sad to me how this country can not appreciate what his drone program is all about. It's not much different in kind from what Carter/Reagan were doing in El Salvador.

  12. A date to be mentioned: Ronald Reagen became US president on Jan 20, 1980. If the military aid increase to El Salvador was in Feburary of 1980 it was under Reagan's watch (and much more in his adminstration's character) and not Jimmy Carter's.

  13. Your right about the 1980 date, but the Carter administration was responsible for a lot of the money being dumped in South and Central America during the late 70's. It seemed since Jimmy was being embarrassed in Iran, he was sure not going to have a similar hostage taking in 'America's backyard'. And then Reagan went over the top.

  14. You know, I was going to add something about Jimmy Carter and I was wondering if he has written anything about it and the awful mistake it was of him? The news was awful. I could not comprehend what the heck was going on down there, so when John Dear wrote about AB Romero a few years ago it all began to make sense and hence I was so moved by that story. I have never taken a music lesson on how to compose Latin music and one would never guess that. The Latin influence came to me via the I Love Lucy Show with Ricky and his band playing.

    Nevertheless, the truth of AB Romero has to get out there now. If it were not for the internet, we would still be in the dark about a lot of this stuff.

    I agree that Obama and the drone program is just so awful. It is pitiful. I don't know anyone who supports allowing these drones to be used. There are so many other people who are killed besides the targets including babies and children and mothers. It is dreadfully awful. I wonder now what VP Biden has to say about it, if anything. They need to Wake Up already.

    Also, that Jeremiah was mentioned in your blog is synchronistic because sometimes I will just ask God to guide me and I'll open up the Bible and today it opened to Jeremiah. It is pretty clear from there what happens to nations that truly turn from God.

  15. I was there fall 2011-can't remember Archbishop's name. But the rural people were saying that they were being told not to talk in church about Romero and not to tell their stories about living in the forest and losing children and spouses. I have heard since that in the Cathedral permission is difficult to get to say Mass in the crypt where Romero is buried.

  16. Their names were Julia Elba Ramos and her daughter, Celina. Could we please stop referring to them as "the housekeeper and her daughter" ? These women had lives of their own and their own names. They were murdered for seeking refuge from the violence. It reminds me of the Gospel passage where Jesus says of one of the first women to have faith in him, "Your name will be remembered." And it was not.

    PS a good NY Times article on the murders and remembering them:

  17. John Paul II made Archbishop Romero a Servant of God. He INSISTED that he be included in the list of martyrs during the millenium jubilee.He did not "block" or stall hios path th=o sainthood. His insistence on praying at Romero;s tomb andt praying there for a long time were heartfelt. They were not stunts. He deeply regretted that he had not listened to his concerns more carefully. Why don't you ask his secretary of 40 years,,Stanisław Dziwisz, how JPII felt about Archbishop Romero. I have read articles on Archbishop Romero and John Paul II that have such opposing views...It seems to be such a polarizing hotbutton issue!They are men of God and I believe that they are both saints!. ...