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  • Fr. Satish Joseph

Oscar Romero: The Reluctant Revolutionary and Martyr

Archbishop Oscaro Romero with young people in El Salvador in this undated file photo. Photo courtesy of Arzobispado de San Salvador/Oficina de la Causa de Canonizacion.

Early life and Rise to Leadership

Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was born 15 August, 1917 in Cuidad Barrios in El Salvador. He was ordained in Rome in 1942, after he graduated and received a Licentiate in Theology in 1941. Romero was appointed auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Salvador in 1970, and in 1974 the Bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de María, a poor, rural region. He became the Archbishop of San Salvador on 23 February 1977, and it was in this capacity that he would be drawn into the complexities, controversies, and exigencies of Sal Salvadoran social and ecclesiastical life. While his appointment was welcomed by the government, many priests who saw liberation theology as the necessary pastoral response to the oppressive political system, were disappointed. They feared that his conservative reputation would be detrimental to the progress liberation theology had made in the lives of the poor masses.

The Reluctant Revolutionary

The turning point in Archbishop Romero’ life was the brutal murder of the Jesuit priest, Fr. Rutilio Grande, Manuel Solorzano, and a sixteen-year-old boy named Nelson Lemus. On hearing the news, Romero rushed to the murder scene. Perhaps, no other event would have a more life-changing effect on his life than seeing Fr. Rutilio Grande and his companions’ bullets-ridden and lifeless bodies. He later said, "When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'"[1]That evening, Archbishop Romero presided over a Mass at 10:30 PM where all the three bodies were laid in state in front of altar in the church in El Paisnal. The next Sunday, Archbishop Romero decided to have a "single memorial Mass," at the cathedral in San Salvador. No Masses were celebrated that weekend in all of El Salvador. 150 priests and more than 100,000 people were present. This was the first mass-movement of people that would ultimately lead to a holy revolution, led by, whom I call a “reluctant revolutionary,” archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

The Making of a Martyr.In 1979, the coming of power of the Revolutionary Government Junta, its human rights abuses, and an escalation of violence would ultimately end up developing as the Salvadoran Civil War. In February 1980, Romero pleaded with the United States and the then President Jimmy Carter to cease US military aid to the regime. Carter ignored Romero's pleas and military aid to the Salvadoran government continued. The rest is history.

On 23 March 1980, Romero delivered a sermon that would also seal his death sentence. He preached, “I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” He went on, “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.”

On March 24, 1980 Romero had spent in a recollection organized by Opus Dei, and in the evening, celebrated Mass at the Divine Providence Hospital chapel. A red automobile came to a stop on the street in front of the chapel. The gunman emerged from the vehicle, stepped to the door of the chapel, and fired one (possibly two) shots and then sped off. Romero was struck in the heart and collapsed at the altar. A martyr was born!

Saint Archbishop Oscar Romero did not merely leave behind a history of a heroic Christian life. He left behind a legacy for modern day martyrdom. May I expound this legacy from three vantage points.

Reconciling Contradictions

Romero was strongly influenced by charism of Opus Dei, an institution that one normally associates with orthodoxy and rigor. The larger vision of Opus Dei focuses on the holiness of life. Very early in his priestly life, as early as Feb 4, 1943, Romero’s diary entry read: "In recent days the Lord has inspired in me a great desire for holiness. I have been thinking of how far a soul can ascend if it lets itself be possessed entirely by God." Opus Dei and liberation theology are not approaches to Christian life that are easily reconciled in the mind of theologians and pastors like me, or for that matter, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. His beatification and ultimate canonization were debated and disputed for many years. The question raised was whether his assassination was motivated solely by hatred for the faith, or was it influenced by politics, liberation theology, or by his courageous yet calculated critique of the social realities of his country. Romero would have been pained by these disputes. Romero would be pained at the ideological divide that torments contemporary Catholic Church today. His preaching and teaching make it clear that he did not see the contradictions in the seemingly opposing approaches. "A journalist once asked him, “Do you agree with Liberation Theology?” Romero answered: "Yes, of course. However, there are two theologies of liberation.” The liberation theology Romero did not approve of was the one that reduced the struggle for justice to a purely temporal project; to “a material well-being or only to initiatives of a political or social, economic or cultural order.”[2]He was also concerned about danger of the kind of liberation theology that could succumb to the temptation to resort to violence. He categorically rejected the use of violence whether it was incited by the junta or it’s victims. Rather, as he would say, "The most profound social revolution is the serious, supernatural, interior reform of a Christian.”[3]On the day he was gunned down, he had spent the entire day at a recollection organized by Opus Dei. I interpret Romero’s quest for social justice and his opposition to totalitarianism as his quest for personal holiness – a holiness that expressed itself in a shepherd laying down his life for his people; a personal holiness that by virtue of its character, leads to a striving for just and egalitarian society. True holiness cannot be contained within the constraints of one’s soul. True holiness acts in self-sacrificing love for the poor and oppressed. Romero bears witness to the truth that the Christian calling is one – a personal call to holiness that has radical implications for the common good.

Allowing Social Realities to Appeal the Holiness Within

Whereas many people were unhappy with Romero’s appointment as Archbishop of El Salvador because of his non-comital social stance, as time went on, he stood at the forefront of the struggle for human rights. While his involvement in the social struggles made his initial critics happy, it displeased those members of the archdiocesan clergy and staff who supported the junta. In spite it all, Romero stood on the right side of history. The largescale disappearance of people and the murder of Fr. Grande became compelling reasons for Romero to plunge headlong into the social struggles. Whereas I have argued that Romero was compelled by the demands of holiness to respond to the social realities, the compelling social realities of oppression could not have been ignored by any person with a conscience. Romero remained firm in his resolve to respond to the atrocities in the way the social reality demanded. He did not hide behind institutional exigencies or ecclesiastical propriety. Rather, he risked it all, even his own life for the sake of the Gospel and the needs of the poor. Similarly, there are social realities today that tug our hearts and souls. The systemic economic inequalities that create social instabilities in in neighboring nations, policies that uproot agrarian families, that gives rise to crime, drugs, and violent extortion, that creates refugees and asylum seekers, that villainizes and victimizes asylum seekers, that separates children and babies from their families, that detains entire families for undetermined periods, that indiscriminately deports immigrants, thus sentencing them to death, are compelling reasons for us to respond as radically as Romero did. Ecclesiastical institutions, institutions of higher education, clergy, people like me, are often tempted to maintain a decorum that befits our dignity and sometimes, our security, wellbeing, and our future. Romero calls out to us. Nothing should be at stake when human life and dignity are violated. When history judges us twenty or thirty years from now, which side of history will we be found standing? My hope and prayer is that we will be on the same side that Romero was.

Martyrdom, Saint Romero and the Imitation of Christ

The movie “Romero,” which is a realistic and accurate biography of his life, depicts numerous moments of Romero’s life where there are striking similarities between Romer’s martyrdom and that of Jesus. One time, feeling lost and desponded, he falls on his knees in the same way that Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, seeking God’s light and direction. In fact, this is a great insight into the understand of martyrdom. The greatest motivation for the early Christian martyrs was the imitation of Christ. They willingly accepted martyrdom, because through it, they most closely imitated Christ. The martyrdom of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, is set in terms of the imitation of Christ. Stephen preached the gospel boldly like Jesus did. As he was being stoned to death, Stephen uttered words similar to Jesus’ on the cross, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” As he died, imitating Christ, he forgave his enemies. Time does not allow me the go into the details, but the martyrdom of St. Polycarp also has striking similarity to the martyrdom of Christ. It is in light of this reflection on ‘martyrdom as an imitation of Christ,’ that I suggest that Romero is a true martyr. He was a good shepherd like Jesus. He did not run away when he saw the wolf coming. He cared for his flock in danger. Finally, he gave up his life for his sheep. As John says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The church for many years held back the title ‘martyr’ from Romero because she could not determine whether he was killed because of hatred for faith. Perhaps, she was asking the wrong questions. It is now clear that in his life and his death, Romero imitated Christ. To that extent, Romero is a true martyr.

Today, on the occasion of the awarding of the Romero award, Romero appeals to our collective conscience. His life and death compel us to bridge the ideological divide. His martyrdom compels us to respond radically to the social injustices of our time, and to respond to them as a respond to God’s call to holiness. He invites us to the imitation of Christ – an invitation to love as Christ loved us – unto the end.

[1]Michael A. Hayes (Chaplain); Tombs, David (April 2001). "Truth and memory: the Church and human rights in El Salvador and Guatemala". Gracewing Publishing.

[2]6 August, 1976 Sermon

[3]O. A. Romero, La Más Profunda Revolución Social [The Most Profound Social Revolution], DIARIO DE ORIENTE, No. 30867 – p. 1, August 28, 1973.

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