Óscar Romero (1917 - 1980)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Oscar Romero

Romero, perhaps the most powerful religious film I have ever seen, introduced many people in the United States to the life of Óscar Romero, and suggested why his example informs the hearts and minds of millions, particularly in Latin America and the Third World. In less than a decade, he has joined the company of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as an inspiration and guide in the struggle for human rights and nonviolent social change. Some people think that in time he will be canonized.

When he was consecrated archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, Óscar Romero appeared a safe choice — timid, scholarly, “spiritual.” Moderate in his opinions and critical of liberation theologians, Romero was regarded as “a compromise candidate” among the native clergy, someone who would neither challenge nor upset the ruling oligarchy of El Salvador. In this smallest, most densely populated country of Central America — on the Pacific Ocean, between Guatemala and Honduras — the rich owned 80 percent of the land, and the army, with U.S. military equipment and training, enforced the status quo by terrorizing workers and landless peasants.

In his first letter to fellow clergy, shortly after festivities marking his consecration, Romero spoke in traditional — abstract, though hardly platitudinous — language about a religious faith “that identifies us with the one priesthood of Christ ... and all the human virtues that nourish our supernatural communion on the natural and psychological levels.”

Three years later, when he lay dead in a convent chapel, after being shot while saying Mass, people looked back at that earlier letter. Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit theologian in Romero’s diocese who had had reservations about his appointment as archbishop, reflected on the younger Romero: “His theology was questionable. Beyond question, however, was his profound faith in God, and his surpassing concern for the glory of God in this world.” In the intervening years, Óscar Romero’s perspective on what constituted “the glory of God in this world” had changed. Some called that change “a conversion”; others regarded it as a natural consequence of his concern for and dedication to his people in a dangerous time.

Whatever the reasons for it, his altered perspective had profound implications for the church in El Salvador and the response of the ruling oligarchy toward that institution. In a speech that Romero gave one month before he was murdered, he described the profound implications of his change for the poor, for theology, for the church:

We believe in Jesus
who came to give life in abundance
Four of ten 20th-century martyrs from the Westminster Abbey façade.  Shown here: Elizabeth Feodorovna, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, and Dietrich Bonhoefferand we believe in a living God
who gives life to human beings
and wants them to truly live.
These radical truths of faith
become real truths...
when the church involves itself
in the life and death of its people.
So the church,
like every person,
is faced with the most basic option for its faith,
being for life or death....
on this point there is no possible neutrality.
We either serve the life of Salvadorans
or we are accomplices in their death....
We either believe in a God of life
or we serve the idols of death.

(Translation by Philip Berryman)

Re-reading Romero’s words during this tense period and knowing the price he paid for uttering them make one wonder at the courage that sustained him.

Born August 15, 1917, in eastern El Salvador, near the Honduran border, Óscar Arnulfo Romero was the second child of Santos Romero and Guadalupe de Jesús Galdámez. Leaving home at thirteen, where he worked as a carpenter’s apprentice, he made a seven-hour trip by horseback in order to enter the minor seminary at San Miguel. At twenty, he transferred to the national seminary in San Salvador before being sent to Rome, where he was ordained a priest in 1942.

Returning to his own diocese in El Salvador for the next twenty-five years, Romero gained a reputation as a kind but demanding priest. In 1967, he was transferred to the capital city of San Salvador, and later, as auxiliary bishop, was assigned to secondary tasks. Generally sympathetic, like many Latin American bishops, to the historic realignment of the Catholic Church toward the poor after the Second Vatican Council, Romero was nonetheless close to priests associated with Opus Dei and critical of liberation theology.

As bishop of his old diocese in the early 1970s, according to one of his priests, Romero quoted documents of the Second Vatican Council; but he never referred to those of Medellín, by Latin American bishops. In 1977, although many clergy probably preferred his contemporary Arturo Rivera Damas, Romero was named successor to Archbishop Luis Chávez y González, who had sided with working people in their efforts for better wages and working conditions.

Speaking always for peaceful reform, Romero soon had to face the fact, as a national leader, that the government made no distinction between people working for nonviolent social change and those advocating violent revolution. In the eyes of state officials, everyone for reform was “a doctrinaire Marxist,” including nuns and priests teaching in Catholic schools; and uniformed soldiers or secret death squads killed increasing numbers of human rights activists, students, and technicians, as well as urban guerrillas armed against the oligarchy.

Only weeks after his consecration as archbishop, Romero had to officiate at the funeral of Father Rutilio Grande, a personal friend and master of ceremonies at Romero’s episcopal ordination. A popular priest, whose sermons denounced the exploitation of the many by the few, Rutilio, along with a young boy and an old man, was murdered as he drove a Jeep across the flat sugarcane fields, one of the few places landless campesinos could find work in his region.

Archbishop Oscar RomeroNot long afterward, Romero began to speak more directly about the suffering of his people and the proper response of Christians to that condition. “A church that does not unite itself with the poor in order to denounce from the place of the poor the injustice committed against them is not truly the Church of Jesus Christ,” he said. For Romero, the place of the poor in El Salvador became indistinguishable from “the place of the skull,” where Christ died, and he increasingly identified their suffering with the suffering of Jesus. In Sunday sermons, from the Cathedral in El Salvador, he demanded an accounting of the abuses by the police and an end to the war between the national army and guerrillas. And when El Salvador’s president offered him protection, Romero, though fearing his own death, answered that rather than his own security, what he wanted was “security and tranquility for 108 families and their ‘disappeared,’” adding that a “shepherd seeks no security as long as the flock is threatened.”

In a letter to Jimmy Carter six weeks before Romero’s death, he expressed hope that the President’s religious sentiments and sensitivity to human rights would move him to halt U.S. economic and military assistance to the Salvadoran military junta, “thus avoiding greater bloodshed in this suffering country.” And on March 23, 1980, the day before Romero was murdered, he spoke directly to those primarily responsible for the violence, those under government orders:

We are your people. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear the voice of the man commanding you to kill, remember instead the voice of God. Thou Shalt Not Kill.... No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. There is still time for you to obey your conscience, even in the face of a sinful command to kill.

The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, and the dignity of each human being, cannot remain silent in the presence of such abominations. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to Heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression!

— Romero's Last Sermon

A quarter century after his death, Romero’s spirit is more alive than ever among those working at home and abroad to alleviate the violence, including ending U.S. military intervention in Central America. Ignoring Romero, the Carter administration — but more cynically, the Reagan and Bush administrations — made every citizen of the U.S. complicit in the deaths of seventy thousand people in El Salvador. Those murdered included citizens of the U.S., such as Sisters Maura Clarke, M.M., Ita Ford, M.M., Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U., and Jean Donovan, who were murdered eight months after Romero. Not until six Jesuit priests and two women were murdered, similarly, in 1989 did the U.S. government seriously reconsider its massive aid to the Salvadoran military, then second only to U.S. aid to Israel.

“The word remains. This is the great comfort of one who preaches,” Romero had said in a 1978 homily. “My voice will disappear, but my word, which is Christ, will remain.” At the end of a murderous decade, whatever peace comes to El Salvador and whatever hope landless, impoverished peasants enjoy owes a debt to the theology of Óscar Romero and to the ultimate sacrifice that it required of him.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by Óscar Romero
  • Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985.
  • The Violence of Love.  Compiled and translated by James R. Brockman, S. J.  Contains a foreword by Henri Nouwen.  Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, Inc., 2003.
Selected material about Óscar Romero
  • Berryman, Phillip. The Religious Roots of Rebellion: Christians in Central American Revolutions. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984.
  • Brockman, James R., S.J. The Word Remains: A Life of Óscar Romero. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982.
  • Sobrino, Jon. Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections. Tr.. Robert R. Barr, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1990.

Further Resources


Read an English translation of Romero's last sermon, given one day before he was killed.

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