Romero protected his flock from political repression

People carry large portraits of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero during a rally in late March in San Salvador. Romero will be beatified May 23.

CNS PHOTO | ROBERTO ESCOBAR, EPA

People carry large portraits of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero during a rally in late March in San Salvador. Romero will be beatified May 23.

May 18, 2015
CINDY WOODEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who will be beatified in San Salvador May 23, has become a symbol of Latin American Church leaders' efforts to protect their flocks from the abuses of military dictatorships.

However, his life and the 35 years it took the Vatican to recognize him as a martyr also reflect decades of theological and pastoral discussion over the line dividing pastoral action from political activism under repressive regimes.

Romero was assassinated March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador, the city he served as archbishop for three years.

The intense turmoil in El Salvador coincided with a period of intense questioning within the Church as pastors in countries under military dictatorships, civil war or communist oppression tried to find the best ways to be faithful to their mission of ministering to their flocks while defending their rights.

The Vatican made frequent calls in those years for priests and bishops, especially in Latin America and in Africa, to stay out of partisan politics.

Jesuit Father James Brockman, author of a biography of the archbishop, like many historians and supporters of Romero's beatification, said when Romero was chosen as archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, he was known as a "conservative" and there was a widespread assumption that he would not directly challenge the country's rulers.

His background was not that of a political activist.

Oscar Romero was born Aug. 15, 1917, in Ciudad Barrios, the second of seven children. Although not considered poor, the family did not have electricity or running water in their home, and the children slept on the floor.

Oscar began working as a carpenter's apprentice when he was 12 years old, but then decided to enter the minor seminary and continue his formal education.

Once he finished his studies at the San Miguel minor seminary, he transferred to the major seminary in San Salvador and was sent to Rome where he studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

He was ordained to the priesthood April 4, 1942, in Rome.

Returning to El Salvador in 1944, he worked as a parish priest in the Diocese of San Miguel, later becoming secretary of the diocese, a position he held for 23 years.

Archbishop Oscar Romero

Archbishop Oscar Romero

During that time – long before the famous radio broadcasts of his homilies while archbishop of San Salvador – he convinced local radio stations to broadcast his Sunday Masses and sermons so Catholics in more rural areas could listen and grow in their faith.

He also served as rector of the interdiocesan seminary in San Salvador and editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, Orientacion.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI named Romero an auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. Four years later, he became bishop of Santiago de Maria, the diocese that included his hometown of Ciudad Barrios.

Social and political tensions in El Salvador were growing worse; when five farmworkers were hacked to death in June 1975 by members of the Salvadoran National Guard, Romero consoled the families and wrote a letter of protest to the government.

"Before Romero was archbishop for a month, his deeply admired friend, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, was killed," wrote Thomas Quigley, a former official at the U.S. bishops' conference.

Grande's strong advocacy for the poor as he ministered in rural communities in northern San Salvador strongly influenced Romero, say many of those who knew him.

The Jesuit used his pulpit to denounce actions of the government and of the death squads in his country, as well as the violence used by some opponents of the government.

After consultation with the priests' council, Romero "ordered only one public Mass celebrated in the archdiocese on the Sunday following Grande's funeral," Brockman wrote.

"It turned out to be the largest religious demonstration in the nation's history and for many a profound religious experience.

"But it also led to a serious clash with the Vatican's ambassador, the papal nuncio, who had pressured Romero not to hold the single Mass lest the government think it provocative. It was the beginning of an enduring lack of understanding and support on the part of the nuncio."

Romero continued having his Sunday Masses and homilies broadcast by radio and, increasingly, he used them as opportunities to explain to Salvadoran citizens what was going on in their country and what their response as Christians should be.

He always condemned violence and he urged conversion, particularly on the part of members of the government death squads.

LONG HOMILIES

Romero's homilies rarely lasted less than an hour and a half and included his account of the events of the week, both good and bad.

Quigley said the homilies were notable for "proclaiming the good news of the liberating Gospel and, with the prophets of old, denouncing the evils of the day."

His homilies and his letters to government officials made him a frequent target of death threats and often put him at odds with several of the other Salvadoran bishops and with Vatican officials.

They believed he had crossed the line into politics and was placing the Church's pastoral work in jeopardy.

He lived in a small residence on the grounds of the Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador and frequently celebrated Mass, vespers and benediction there with the sisters who ran the hospital.

He was shot and killed in the chapel, a day after he challenged army soldiers for killing their fellow citizens.

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez said while Romero is a martyr, he is not being beatified because of the way he died but "because of the way he lived."

"Archbishop Romero was pastor of a people living in desperate poverty and radical inequality," Gomez said in a homily during a March 22 Mass in Los Angeles marking the anniversary of Romero's assassination.

TERROR AND REPRESSION

"He lived in a time of terror and repression, when a new word was introduced into the ordinary vocabulary of the people – desaparecido – 'the disappeared.'

"He walked with his people during this dark time of sorrow and fear living and working alongside this people, sharing in their struggles," Gomez said.

Gomez said Romero "discovered the face of Jesus Christ" when he looked into the faces of the poor and those who were tortured and mistreated and the faces of children who had nothing to eat.

SEEK FACE OF CHRIST

"Each one of us is called to follow Jesus in our own way and to reach out to our neighbours in need," Gomez said. "Each one of us is called to seek the face of God in the face of the poor, the immigrant, the prisoner, the sick, the hungry, the lonely."