Preacher, Prophet, Martyr, Saint

Pope Francis has made the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero his own project. Though the lengthy process was begun during the papacy of John Paul II, opposition caused it to stall. But in 2015, Francis beatified Romero, which opened the door to eventual canonization.

Who was Oscar Romero? To understand the man, one must start with his country. El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated nation in Central America. In El Salvador, the gulf between the haves and have-nots is wider and deeper than anything North Americans have ever known. As El Salvador entered the 20th century, its land and wealth was concentrated in the hands of just fourteen families, known simply as “The Fourteen.”

Coffee was king in those days, and “The Fourteen” were the Salvadoran nobility. Most of the rest of the people of El Salvador were little more than serfs. They didn’t own land or homes. Half of their wages were “appropriated to provide housing. There was no health care. Worse, there was no hope for improvement.

Romero, who was born in 1917, grew up in this world. His father hoped to instruct him in a trade, but young Oscar believed himself called to ministry in the church. At age 14, he began his studies, which were interrupted briefly by his mother’s illness. After graduating from the national seminary in San Salvador, he went to the Gregorian University in Rome.

In 1943, Romero returned to El Salvador, where he served as a parish priest and, later, as the rector of the diocesan seminary. In 1966, he became the editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, where he had a reputation as a quiet intellectual and a staunch defender of traditional Roman Catholic values.

In 1974, the rather reticent and bookish priest was appointed bishop of a poor diocese in rural El Salvador. During that time, the influence of liberation theology was growing across Central America, and with it the popularity of Marxist ideology. Liberation theology promised hope to the poor and generationally oppressed, but the newly appointed bishop remained steadfastly opposed to it, believing it to conflict with Catholic doctrine.

In 1977, Bishop Romero was elevated to Archbishop of El Salvador, to the consternation of progressives in the Church. They did not see the rather quiet traditionalist as a friend of El Salvador’s poor. They could not have been more wrong.

A few weeks after his appointment as Archbishop, Romero’s dear friend and fellow-priest, Rutillo Grande, an advocate for El Salvador’s poor, was assassinated. His work to help the poor achieve self-sufficiency had been considered a threat to the nation’s rigid social structure, and an affront to the wealthy. Standing over the dead body of his friend, Romero made up his mind to continue his work.

Romero never wavered in his stand against liberation theology and Marxism, but now he had something to stand for, not just against: he stood for the poor. But in El Salvador in the 1970s, standing for the poor was a risky thing to do. The Archbishop knew that. He once said, “I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”

Romero began broadcasting his Sunday sermons, which became the most popular radio program in the nation. He wrote President Jimmy Carter, begging him to stop sending military aid, which was being used to repress the people. Fearing the spread of communism, the U.S. was pouring money into training Salvadoran special forces. Those forces later committed unthinkable atrocities against the poor, most of whom had never even heard of Karl Marx.

Though he knew it was risky, Romero called on soldiers to disobey any order to kill their fellow-peasants. Days before his assassination, he told a reporter, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it … A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”

To almost everyone’s surprise, the quiet priest found courage to become a preacher, prophet, and martyr. A deeply spiritual man, Romero received strength from the savior of El Salvador, the savior of the world, to whom his life unreservedly belonged.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/24/2018

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