“I have often been threatened with death,” Archbishop Oscar Romero told a Guatemalan reporter two weeks before his assassination on March 24, 1980. “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.”
Oscar Romero was killed twenty-five years ago today, but he lives on in El Salvador, Latin America and even in the United States, wherever people give their lives in the nonviolent struggle for justice and peace. He gave his life for that struggle in the hope that the outcome was inevitable, that justice would be done, that war would be abolished, that truth will overcome, and that love and life are stronger than hate and death.
Romero’s journey took him from the spoiled life of a quiet, conservative pious cleric whose silence blessed decades of poverty into a prophet of justice, “the voice of the voiceless” in war-torn, politically explosive El Salvador. He represented no political party or ideology, only the suffering people of El Salvador, and became a stunning sign of God’s active presence in the world, of the struggle for justice itself.
After his friend Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande was brutally killed for speaking out against injustice on March 12, 1977, Romero was transformed overnight into one of the world’s great champions for the poor and oppressed. At the local mass the next day, Romero preached a sermon that stunned El Salvador. Like the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., Romero defended the work of Grande, demanded justice for the poor, and called everyone to take up Grande’s prophetic stand for justice. In protest against the government’s suspected participation in the murders, Romero closed the parish schools for three days and canceled all masses in the country the following week. Over one hundred thousand people attended the Mass at the Cathedral in a bold call for justice. While the government and military were concerned, the campesinos were inspired to stand up for a new El Salvador.
As more priests and church workers were assassinated, Romero spoke out more intensely, even publicly criticizing the president on several occasions. As the government death squads began to take over villages, attack churches, and massacre campesinos, Romero’s protest became loud. In the growing climate of fear and war, his word of truth in a culture of violence and lies was nothing less than a subversive act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Within a period of months, everywhere Romero went he was greeted with applause. His Sunday homilies were broadcast nationwide on live radio and heard by nearly everyone in the country. Letters poured in from every village, thanking him for his prophetic voice and confessing their own new found courage.
As Romero gained strength in his role as spokesperson for justice and truth, and as he exhorted the Salvadoran people to the nonviolent struggle for justice and peace, he never lost his simple faith and pious devotion. From this devotional piety which he shared with all Salvadorans, he paved a new way into active Gospel peacemaking. He preached about God’s preferential option for the poor, justice and peace. In his opposition to the government’s silence, he refused to attend the inauguration of the new Salvadoran president. The church, he announced, is “not to be measured by the government’s support but rather by its own authenticity, its evangelical spirit of prayer, trust, sincerity and justice, its opposition to abuses.”
As more and more people were arrested, tortured, disappeared and murdered, Romero made two prophetic institutional decisions which stand out for their rare Gospel vision. First, on Easter Monday, 1978, he opened the seminary in downtown San Salvador to all displaced victims of violence. Hundreds of homeless, hungry and brutalized people moved into the seminary, transforming the quiet religious retreat into a crowded, noisy shelter, make-shift hospital, and playground. Second, he stopped construction on the Cathedral until, he said, when justice and peace are established. When the war was over and the hungry were fed, he announced, then we can resume building our cathedral. Both moves were unprecedented and historic and cast judgment on the Salvadoran government.
Romero’s preaching escalated each month to new biblical heights. “Like a voice crying in the desert,” he said, “we must continually say No to violence and Yes to peace.” His August 1978 pastoral letter outlined the evils of “institutional violence” and repression, and advocated “the power of nonviolence that today has conspicuous students and followers…The counsel of the Gospel to turn the other cheek to an unjust aggressor, far from being passive or cowardly,” he wrote, “shows great moral force that leaves the aggressor morally overcome and humiliated. The Christian always prefers peace to war.”
Romero lived simply in a three room hermitage on the grounds of a hospital run by a community of nuns. He associated on a daily basis with hundreds of the poorest of the poor. He traveled the countryside constantly, and assisted those who suffered most. He frequently commented that his duty as pastor had become the task of claiming the dead bodies of priests and campesinos and to defend the poor by calling for an end to the killing. One Salvadoran told me, on one of my many visits to El Salvador, how Romero drove out whenever necessary to a large garbage dump where bodies were often discarded by the government death squads. He looked among the trash and the dead bodies for relatives of family members whom he accompanied. “These days I walk the roads gathering up dead friends, listening to widows and orphans, and trying to spread hope,” he said.
His last few Sunday sermons in late 1979 and early 1980 issued strong calls for conversion to justice and bold denunciations of the daily massacres and assassinations. His plea to the wealthy elite who supported the death squads was pointed and prophetic. “To those who bear in their hands or in their conscience, the burden of bloodshed, of outrages, of the victimized, innocent or guilty, but still victimized in their human dignity, I say: Be converted. You cannot find God on the path of torture. God is found on the way of justice, conversion and truth.”
Every day, Romero took time to speak with dozens of persons threatened by government death squads. People came to him to ask for the help or protection, to complain about harassment or murders, or to find some guidance and support in their time of grief and struggle. Romero received and listened to everyone of them. His prophetic voice became stronger and angrier as he learned of their pain and suffering.
In February 1980, when Romero heard that President Jimmy Carter was considering sending millions of dollars a day in military aid to El Salvador, Romero was shocked. Deeply distressed, he wrote a long public letter to Carter, asking the United States to cancel all military aid. Carter never responded to Romero, and sent the aid.
On March 23, Romero exploded with his most direct appeal to the members of the armed forces:
“I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
The next day, March 24, 1980, Romero presided at a special evening mass in the chapel of the hospital compound where he lived, in honor of someone who had died one year before. He read from John’s Gospel: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit ”(Jn. 12:23-26). Then he preached about the need to give one’s life for others as Christ did. Just as he concluded his sermon, he was shot in the heart by a man standing in the back of the church. Romero fell behind the altar and collapsed at the foot of a huge crucifix depicting a bloody and bruised Christ. Blood covered Romero’s vestments and the floor of the church, and he gasped for breath. He died within minutes.
Romero’s funeral was the largest demonstration in Salvadoran history, some say in the history of Latin America. The government was so afraid that they threw bombs into the crowd and opened fire, killing some thirty people and injuring hundreds. The funeral Mass was never completed and Romero was hastily buried.
Today, we remember Oscar Romero as a saint and a martyr, but also as a prophet of justice, a friend of the poor, and a peacemaker. He became the martyred shepherd of the Third World, the spokesperson of the poor and oppressed, not only of El Salvador, but all of Latin America, calling us all to conversion, disarmament, and justice.
Romero calls us to live in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, to think with them, feel with them, walk with them, stand with them, and become one with them. From that preferential solidarity, he summons us to join his prophetic pursuit of justice.
Romero denounced violence on all sides and called for a new culture of justice and peace where there is no more killing, no more hunger, no more bombings, no more poverty, and no more guns. He said the most important task we can undertake in a culture of war is to publicly announce the good news of peace, even if that announcement disrupts our lives, even costs us our lives.
He invites us to join the struggle for justice, and to proclaim the truth of peace regardless of the consequences. Speaking the truth today, as Romero did twenty five years ago, means denouncing Bush’s war on Iraq, opposing corporate greed and the ongoing U.S. war on the world’s poor, and resisting the U.S. nuclear weapons industry. It means fearlessly naming our wars and violence as sinful, idolatrous, and demonic, and upholding a new vision of nonviolence.
So today we remember Oscar Romero, speak out for justice and peace, and join with our Salvadoran sisters and brothers in their resurrection chant. Oscar Romero: Presente!
John Dear is a Jesuit priest, activist and author/editor of 20 books, including most recently, “Living Peace” and “The Questions of Jesus,” both from Doubleday. His booklet, “Oscar Romero and the Nonviolent Struggle for Justice,” is available from www.paxchristiusa.org. He lives in New Mexico, where he organizes a campaign to close Los Alamos. For info, see: www.johndear.org