Roundtable: Oscar Romero and Latin America
March 24, 2011 @ 7:00 PM (or as soon as the dishes are done!)
As we continue our reflection on human dignity, we have chosen to discuss and learn about the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero. All are welcome to join us.
In honor of the 31st anniversary of the death of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero
Oscar Romero was born on August 15, 1917 in Cuidad Barrios, El Salvador. Romero entered the seminary at the age of 13 and proceeded to study at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he was ordained a priest in 1942. Romero had hopes of receiving his doctorate in Rome but was called back to El Salvador in 1944 due to a shortage of priests. His intellect and exceptional commitment to the Church were immediately realized by the diocese he worked with and he quickly climbed the ranks of the Salvadoran church hierarchy.
In 1970, he became the Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador. Although Romero worked closely with oppressed coffee farmers he was still widely regarded as a supporter or at least a complacent bystander of the corrupt Salvadoran government. He was described by a Jesuit biographer as “strong-willed and seemingly born to lead; yet he submitted unquestioningly to a structure that encourages conformity.”
In 1975 things started to change for Romero. On June 21 a Salvadoran National Guardsman attacked and killed five coffee farmers in a rural village of El Salvador. Romero knew it was time to speak up against the unjust, violent Salvadoran military regime. Romero proclaimed,
The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of handouts from government or from churches, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for justice.”
For these comments Romero received his first death threat from a National Guard commander who replied to Romero’s words by saying, “cassocks are not bulletproof.”
Two years later, after Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador (the capitol city), on March 12, 1977 a death squad ambushed a Jesuit priest and friend of Romero, Fr. Rutilio Grande, while he was on his way to say Mass. After Romero heard of Grande’s brutal murder Romero had a conversion experience. On the following Sunday after Grande’s tragic death Romero canceled Mass across El Salvador and held one Mass at the national cathedral in San Salvador. The Mass was attended by more than 100,000 people and Romero finally proclaimed, “to know God is to know justice.” Because of Grande’s death Romero was now ready to stand up for the liberation of the people of El Salvador.
From then on Romero served as voice for those whose voice was silenced by the corrupt Salvadoran government and military forces. He spoke up for his people by communicating with Vatican officials regarding the institutionalized murders, tortures, and kidnappings throughout the country. He also pleaded with US President Jimmy Carter to stop sending military aid to the Salvadoran government. For over 12 years US military aid averaged over $1.5 million per day. Romero’s pleads for international intervention were ignored, but he remained a strong voice for justice. Human rights abuses continued and in 1979 four more priest were assassinated and the peasant death toll exceeded 3,000 per month.
Romero kept speaking up, his life was at risk, and on March 23, 1980 he made his most prophetic statement yet. Romero began his homily by reporting on the previous week’s deaths and disappearances, then he began to speak directly to Salvadoran soldiers,
“Brothers, you are from the same people; you kill your fellow peasants…No soldier is obliged to obey any order that is contrary to the will of God…In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people, I ask you – I implore you – I command you in the name of God: Stop the repression.”
The following evening on March 24, 1980 Romero celebrated a funeral Mass at the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital, during the Mass he was shot and killed by a paid assassin. A few days later over 200,000 people came to the National Cathedral for Romero’s funeral mass. During the Mass small bombs were hurled into crowds in the plaza outside of the cathedral and sharpshooters fired shots into the crowds from balconies of the national palace. The attack killed 40 people and wounded hundreds. The following day a Washington Post reporter and eyewitness of the funeral attack prophetically wrote, “A highly popular and controversial figure and outspoken critic of the military that has long dominated this Central American nation, Romero was looked upon as one of the few people who could keep the violence ridden society from plunging into all out civil war.”
Soon after Romero’s death the civil war in El Salvador officially began and would last for 12 years. It took more than 75,000 lives and disappeared an estimated 300,000 more. During the civil war Romero remained alive in the voices of courageous men and women who stood up and continue to stand for the rights of Salvadoran people. As Romero once said,
“If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish. I do not believe in life without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.”