Oscar Romero (15 August 1917 – 24 March 1980) was a Catholic priest and bishop in El Salvador. In 1980, Romero was shot by an assassin while celebrating Mass.
Romero attended a junior seminary from the age of 13 and then the national seminary in El Salvador gaining a degree in theology before undertaking a doctorate in Rome and being ordained in 1942. For over 20 years he devoted himself to parish ministry before becoming rector of a seminary and then secretary to the Bishops’ Conference. He also edited a diocesan newspaper and pursued a conservative line in pushing the traditional teaching of the Church. Ordained a bishop in 1970 he served as an auxiliary bishop before being appointed archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. Many priests were disappointed in his appointment fearing he’d restrict their work with the poor and their critique of their society which owed much to Marxist ideology. However, on 12 March 1977, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest, and personal friend of Romero, who had been creating self-reliance groups among the poor, was assassinated. His death had a profound impact on Romero, who later stated: “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.” Romero urged the government to investigate, but they ignored his request. Furthermore, the censored press remained silent. In response to Grande’s murder, Romero revealed an activism that had not been evident earlier, speaking out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture. In May 1979, Romero met with Pope John Paul II and unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a Vatican condemnation of the Salvadoran military regime for committing human rights violations and its support of death squads. He expressed his frustration in working with clergy who cooperated with the government but was told by Pope John Paul II to maintain episcopal unity as a top priority. Romero condemned the persecution of the Church where it worked to help the poor and gained a huge following due to his weekly sermons broadcast on a Church radio station which became a rare source of accurate news. His diocesan newspaper also detailed acts of repression by the armed forces. In March 1980 he called on the armed forces to stop killing people; he was assassinated later that month whilst saying mass. The people declared him a saint immediately; whilst John Paul II started the process of canonization it was stalled until Francis canonised him in 2018.
Isaiah 53: 8 – 9
By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
I first encountered Liberation Theology, which mined the deep Scriptural truths of condemnation of the rich and a preferential option for the poor, as a student in the late 1980s. I was attracted to this reading of the Bible as, after all, we follow the One who told the rich to give away all they had and who was arrested, tried, and executed as a result.
Catholics have long held oppression sinful and told the powerful to treat others with love, care, and respect – the evening prayer of the Church always contains the radical words of the Magnificat. The Church, however, was uneasy with Liberationists who used Marxist analysis to critique society as Marx belittled the spiritual aspect of life – only being concerned with the material.
Romero is an interesting character – theologically conservative but radicalised by oppression. Supporters of liberation theology hail Romero as their hero yet he was, by repute, not very interested in it! Instead, he faithfully adhered to Catholic teaching on liberation and a preferential option for the poor but rejected a Marxist analysis of society. He clearly desired a social revolution but one based on interior reform.
Romero was influenced by Pope Paul VI who taught that the proclamation of the Kingdom is not to be replaced by the proclamation of liberation. Paul VI taught all human ideologies, if their goal is not to find liberation in Christ, contain within them the seeds of their own destruction.
Romero’s suspicion of the ideology behind Liberation Theology did not stop him working to end oppression, ease the burden on the poor, and challenge the powerful. The fact he was not a Marxist did not stop him being killed by the state and acclaimed by the people.
We can use many sociological and philosophical tools to understand, and critique, our society but, in the end, like Romero we need to return, again and again, to the Gospel as the prism through which we see and interpret the world.
O Most High, we proclaim Your greatness, Your glory in the heavens above and in all Your people here below. You have done mighty things for us.
O Ancient of Days, You scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, cast the mighty from their thrones, send the rich away empty, lift up the humble, and feed the hungry.
O God of our ancestors, help us to do the same. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the Minister of Digital Worship and a member of the Peedie Kirk in Orkney