March 24: Remember Oscar Romero

We don’t have heroes anymore and for the most part, that’s good. They always turn out to have the typical feet of clay. But ever since I learned about liberation movements in Latin America, Oscar Romero has been my hero. The feet-of-clay issue doesn’t exist for him and, even if it did, it would have to be awfully severe to turn me around. Even if you told me he had sexual affairs right and left and had the typical Latin America priest’s secret wife, so what? He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture, and for that, he was assassinated almost forty years ago, March 24, 1980.

But that’s only part of the reason he’s my hero. The question is why did he speak out against these injustices? He came from a modest background, was raised in a conventional lower-middle-class El Salvadoran family, and was a typical kid. His parents pushed him toward the priesthood and he was conservative and ambitious when he started his religious career. Romero did not set out to change the world. He just wanted to be a traditional priest and, later, to climb the conventional Church hierarchy. After he’d been elevated to become the Archbishop of El Salvador, he was looked on favorably by the conservative priests and negatively by those on the left who sought reform within the Church. Many priests spoke of “revolution” but Romero made it a point to say that, for him, any true revolution was an interior revolution in people’s spirituality, not a real, change-in-the-power-structure, revolution.

The oppression and repression in El Salvador was not something new that Romero rose up against. Everyone in El Salvador knew the political system brutally supported the wealthy Salvadoran oligopoly against the vast majority of the country, in particular against campesinos, who did not have any land rights. Romero simply had not paid attention to these issues. They were not his concern. He was focused only on the traditional priestly mission of saving souls and performing the traditional Catholic ceremonies.

Little by little, influenced by his priests who were threatened and then some of whom were killed by the repressive government, Romero began to see with his own eyes and to better understand the plight of the poor and marginalized campesinos. As the government repression continued and worsened, eventually killing priests, Romero began to change in response to what he saw. He began to put his life on the line for the poor and the dispossessed, realizing they were indeed his responsibility. Only then did he dare to publicly command the Army, on the national radio station, with no authority but his own conviction: “I implore you. I beg you. In God’s name, I order you: Stop the repression!” In doing so, he signed his own death warrant. In a scene almost made for a movie, he was shot dead not long after, while holding high the host during communion at his daily Mass. (There are such movies, including Salvador and Romero.) He lived in a little room in a hospital and said his daily mass in a small chapel on the hospital grounds. I have visited that room and that chapel. Only a few people regularly attended Romero’s mass; he had to have directly seen his assassin and I think he had to have known what was coming. What courage!

(It is well-established a soldier shot Romero but neither the soldier nor the higher-up who was the “intellectual author” (a Spanish legal term) of the deed (convincing research points to death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson) has ever been convicted of the assassination.)

Public pressure forced the conservative Catholic Church (reluctantly, in my opinion) to finally name Romero a saint a few years ago. While I’m glad the Church did so, what makes Romero a hero for me is not his sainthood but that he did not turn away from his lived experience. He did not have a preconceived agenda to help the people gain rights, not that such an agenda would have been bad. So many successful people, and almost all Church officials, turned away from the many injustices they saw—and still do. Romero simply did not, would not, do this.

(Two excellent books on Oscar Romero are: James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1990, © Chicago Society of Jesus; and Romero’s posthumously-published diary, Irene B. Hodgson, Trans., Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Shepherd’s Diary (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, Inc., 1993).)

About johnwagner

John Wagner is a retired lawyer and the author of: 1. Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, a memoir about his human rights work in Peru 2. Baby Boomer Army Brat, a coming-of-age memoir

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