It is a wonderful coincidence that this year's anniversary of the death of Blessed Oscar Romero [March 24] who was shot dead as he celebrated mass at a hospital chapel fell on Holy Thursday, the day of the institution of the Holy Eucharist. I first learnt about Oscar Romero sometime in 1990, ten years after his audacious assassination by El Salvador's right wing political cum business establishment. It was Emeka Anaenugwu, SAN, whose level headedness at an age of worldly living left strong impressions that lent me the VHS tape of the archbishop's courageous Christian witness in very difficult and delicate circumstances. It was a gripping story of the cost of Christian faith as well as the dilemma of Episcopal leadership in a modern society under repressive rule. In addition to some written accounts, I have since watched the tape over a dozen times, each time with growing admiration for his remarkable testaments of purpose.
A little background information is necessary for better understanding of the tension that this shepherd of the flock had to grapple with in the three years of his mandate as Archbishop of San Salvador. Following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church in Latin America convened the Episcopal Conference of 1968 in Medellin, Columbia towards domesticating the reforms of the Council. The Medellin Conference emphasized the commitment of the Church to alleviate the problems of the region's poor. It was from the thrust of these deliberations that grew what came to be known as liberation theology.
El Salvador, in the 1980s, was a relatively poor country in which about two percent of the population owned over sixty percent of the land holdings. With a cash crop economy dependent on private plantations and partly on U.S. aid, there existed a wide gap in the living conditions of the minority rich and the majority poor. This was also the period of significant Marxist impact in scholarship, political economy and international relations. For most societies of central and Latin America at the time, the subject of political power invariably involved a discussion on the class question. There was also the extensive influence of the Catholic Church on the polity given that El Salvadorans were predominantly Catholic. It was in the context of these cross currents for a new social order that Monsignor Oscar Romero became the country's metropolitan archbishop.
In the light of the foregoing, it is easy to understand the predilection of analysts of the left and right, and to lesser extent liberals, to situate Romero in the mould of a political crusader, social activist and empowerment advocate. Romero was essentially a priest of God propagating the gospel and ministering to his flock. He embraced social action purely as a component of the gospel rather than in conformity with the demands of any secular ideology. His commitment to the priestly vocation echoes powerfully in the test of the true shepherd who lays down his life for his flock. That is the heart of the Romero story.
Two interesting but often overlooked incidents by commentators in the life of Blessed Oscar Romero give us useful insights into the person of our subject. The first was his reaction to the news of his appointment as Archbishop on February 23, 1977. When the news was broken to him, it was a genuinely surprised Romero, sobered by awareness of the responsibilities of the office who responded in what was no more than a whisper: 'I'm not qualified.' It was a statement of profound humility, deference and surrender into God's hands. Fr John Spain, who was a close associate of Romero, painted this portrait of him. 'He was mild mannered and somewhat shy…He was not one to draw attention to himself.' The other arresting incident in this diligent bishop's sojourn was the revealation that on the morning of the day he was matryed, he had gone to confession! Nothing more needs be said on this significant personal fortune.
Many political commentators have also drawn the conclusion that it was the murder of his Jesuit priest friend, Rutilio Grande that marked the turning point in the archbishop's intervention in the country's civil strife; turning him from a conservative, timid prelate to a radicalised pastor – defender of the poor. At best, this interpretation would be partially correct and only in so far as it relates to Fr Rutilio Grande's murder as the immediate prod of the reviewed engagement with the ruling establishment. The problem with the account of 'ideological' and 'secular' historians remains the quest for political correctness and misguided detachment respectively. A holistic view of Romero's personas would reveal a long and well considered vision of social action.
Appointed auxiliary bishop in 1970, Oscar Arnulfo Romero's 'initiation' into the turmoil brewing in his country seemed to have occurred with his posting as substantive bishop of Santiago de Maria in 1975. It was at this rural diocese that he saw and felt closely the squalor of the country's landless population. On June 21, 1975, National Guard officers hacked to death five peasants who were part of the movement for land reforms. After consoling the victims' families, Romero condemned the massacre. The local National Guard commander pointed a finger at the Bishop with the threat: 'cassocks are not bullet proof.'
It was therefore not entirely a strange tale to the Archbishop when Fr Rutilio Grande sought him out at a state function to break the news of the slaughter of dozens protesting fraudulent election results; detailing the increasing penchant by the regime to label anyone advocating social justice as a terrorist. Fr Rutilio had been on the watch list for organizing peasant farmers to form cooperatives. But that public testimony sealed his fate and made him a marked man. Shortly after, he was shot along with two companions in his jeep - an eight year old boy and elderly parishioner – at a lonely road spot.
The inner steely spirit of the archbishop came to the fore when finally granted an appointment to see the incoming President; he saw a fitting opportunity to protest the murder of the trio. Soon enough, the President – elect launched into a monologue of how the slain priest had been indicted for subversive activities, concluding that he most probably died in guerilla action. A scandalized Romero looked the political leader straight in the eyes and said: 'You're a liar' pausing for a moment for the gravity of the words to sink in. 'The day he was killed, Fr Rutilio Grande went for infant baptism.' The authorities now wary of the Archbishop, nevertheless continued with their hounding of critics and perceived opponents. When the prelate boycotted the inauguration of the new President, it was predictable that more trouble lay ahead. It was not long in coming. A massive clampdown on the Church, involving the arrest and sometimes torture of outspoken priests followed, reaching a critical juncture with the occupation of a Church by soldiers.
It was a desecration that Monsignor Oscar could not stomach. When the unit commander dismissed the archbishop with the words that the place was now a military barracks, he obviously believed that his was the last word on the matter. Romero returned a moment later, this time with the stole over the white cassock and proceeded with unmistakable purposefulness towards the Church's main entry. For a brief period, the faithful gathered watched the unfolding scene. Then singly, in twos and threes, hesitantly at first, but shortly decisively, the unwilling spectators queued up behind the bishop and the Church that was under assault. Still under the delusion of military invincibility, the commanding officer barred the doorway, his rifle aimed at the approaching column. Resolute on reclaiming the divine sanctuary, the bishop – led march continued until just few inches separating them, the power of the solidarity compelled the soldiers to lower the guns and step aside.
But soon, matters were to deteriorate further. The soldiers laid siege to another Church and when the Archbishop arrived to take away the Blessed Sacrament, he was kicked and bullied out of the Church. Cases of arrests, disappearances and deaths of priests and peasants grew by the day – and to a point that the hardline priests decided to fight back. Some of the priests were even involved in the kidnap of the wife of a minister of government – a means intended to secure the release of detainees in jail.
Romero was both alarmed and scandalized the day he saw one of his priests carrying a gun. It was a huge burden the Archbishop had to bear at this stage. He realised that the poor looked up to him for protection from the regime violence. He was prepared to use the moral weight of his office to indict the unjust system but without any recourse to militancy. The radical clergy thought his position naïve. For them, the only scenario that could sober the murderous regime was the reality of an opposition with fighting capacity. For their part, the establishment chose to indict Romero for not using his great influence to rein in the “terrorists” – secular and religious alike.
However, the prelate was not as much concerned about what the ruling class thought of him as he was of his office as a shepherd of the weak and minister to all. He had hot arguments with the resistance – line clerics on how to manage the situation, telling one simply: 'you're a priest, not a soldier.' He rejected the argument of self – defence as inapplicable in the circumstance, admonishing another priest on another occasion. 'With what you say there'll be no end to the violence…You're not defending; you're attacking.' So complex was the situation that on a particular day of persecution, he sank to his knees and so close to tears gravely prayed: 'Lord, show me the way.'
Against all odds, Romero maintained a distinction between the Church and political organisations. As much as he recognised his priestly role as that of a pacifist, he at the same time considered it a sacred duty to uphold the cause of freedom, human rights and justice. It was a mission death threats would not deter him from. 'You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realise they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.'
And it was precisely in defence of the people who were daily victims of the regime - sponsored violence that Monsignor Oscar continued to commit himself. Somewhat prophetically, the Archbishop proved by his broadcast – induced assassination that we can be powerful even without guns – with just the truth. In a passionate plea for sanity addressed especially to the military he said: 'No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God…In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God, stop the repression!' He was shot the following day at Mass as he held up the chalice for consecration.
Monsignor Oscar Romero was particularly pained at being misunderstood by some of his fellow bishops at the time. He is today vindicated by Pope Francis' rejection of the notion that Romero sparked division. For the pontiff: 'Archbishop Romero built the peace with the power of love, gave testimony of faith with his life.’