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Oscar Romero: Martyr or Villain?

Bust of Archbishop Romero

Cathy Stripe LesterMarch 24 was the anniversary of the 1980 assassination of Monsignor Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. I was a little surprised when I looked for more info on him. There’s a move to make him a Saint, but others consider him a villain. About the kindest thing I could find on one particular website was that he was a simple-minded dupe of the Communists.

For those who may not even have been born when Romero was News with a Capital N, he was a conservative priest who rose through the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy in a fairly predictable manner. When he became Archbishop, many Salvadorean priests were disappointed because they’d been hoping for someone more progressive.

One of his miters. The inscription says, "To Feel with the Church"

El Salvador at that time was already at the beginning of what would become the Civil War. Thirteen families owned 40% of all the land in the country. You would have thought that would be enough to live like nabobs anyway, but they decided to expand their profits by kicking campesinos (small farmers) off their land in order to grow more coffee. The campesinos, literally not having anyplace else to go, didn’t go quietly.

The Salvadorean clergy were divided between those who believed the Church should stay strictly away from politics, and those who wanted to help the poverty-stricken campesinos who had not only lost their sole means of supporting themselves but were being brutalized and killed into the bargain.

The government of the time seemed to have a one-size-fits-all mentality to solving problems. Peasants protest? Shoot ‘em. Students protest? Shoot ‘em. Journalists protest? Shoot ‘em. Priests and nuns protest? Shoot ‘em. Somewhat lacking in imagination, you have to admit.

Less than a month after Romero’s elevation to Archbishop of San Salvador, a priest who was a personal friend of his was assassinated. Father Rutilio Grande had been helping the campesinos organize. Not burn the oligarchs’ houses, not lead armed rebellion; just organize. Romero asked the government to investigate. The government ignored him. He tried the media. The media was afraid of the government, so they ignored him too.

The Archbishop began to speak out himself. He started giving weekly sermons which were then broadcast as radio talks. In his sermons, he listed that week’s assassinations, Death Squad atrocities, tortures, and “disappearances.” According to The Irish Times, his sermons were “the main source in El Salvador about what was happening.” He criticized the USA for aiding the repressive Salvadorean regime, and he called on the country to institute land reform, return to Christ’s teachings and stop the violence.

Not all his flock agreed with him. In 1978 a group of four Bishops issued a statement condemning the campesinos’ organizations as “Marxist.” Romero, knowing that to acquire the name of “Marxist” was like sending a gilt-edged invitation to the Death Squads, defended the people’s right to form any organizations they wanted, saying they weren’t much different from any political party.

The crux came when Romero called on the military to stop shooting their fellow Salvadoreans. Soon afterwards, as he was saying Mass in the small church connected to the Divine Providence Cancer Hospital, a car drew up outside. The front doors of the church were open, as they often are in Salvador’s climate. Someone inside the car leveled a sniper’s rifle and shot him.

Romero's name on the "Wall of Martyrs" in San Salvador, a record of those who died (that we know of) in the Civil War.

What followed has filled a lot of books. Snipers shot people outside the Cathedral at Romero’s funeral. The protests and killings escalated into full-blown Civil War. Roberto D’Aubisson, who ordered the shooting, became president, then when the Civil War ended he founded ARENA, the right-wing political party. He is considered a hero by right-wingers. The actual assassin has never been satisfactorily identified, though Salvadoreños I met claim he’s living in Miami.

What kind of a person started all that?

Romero was the son of a carpenter. All his life, he sympathized with the poor and tried to live a humble life. He refused to swank it up in the Archbishop’s palace and instead stayed in a little room in the Divine Providence Church. The nuns who ran the hospital believed it didn’t fit the dignity of his office for him to stay there, so they built him a little house nearby. My group of Election Monitors visited it, and the one of the nuns told us that when Romero asked what the new building was going to be, they fobbed him off – and then when it was completed, they got some of the cancer patients to give him the keys. His reaction, was, “Oh, you are crafty – if you’d given them to me myself, I’d have refused them, but by having the patients hand them over, I have to accept!”

The Archbishop's bedroom

The home itself is tiny, simple and spare. His modest wardrobe is on display, as are the bloodstained vestments he was wearing when he was shot.

The Archbishop's clothes closet.

Why do some people consider him a villain?

Romero has been associated with “Liberation Theology” – the teaching that emphasizes the Church’s obligation to resist social abuse and try to improve the lives of the poor. A good many Catholic higher-ups insist that if you’re oppressed, you should embrace your poverty in humility and devotion, rather than turn your thoughts to hatred of the oppressor. This view is very popular among the rich. The Liberation Theologists, on the other hand, point out that if you’re an Oppressor, you are committing a good many deadly sins, including greed, torture, and murder.

To be fair, Romero doesn’t seem to have actually written much about Liberation Theology as such. His sermons emphasized Jesus’s Gospel message, and specific abuses in El Salvador. But you can see that they’re on the same page.

So, what exactly did the Archbishop say that makes some people think he’s a Marxist, or at least a dupe of the Commies?  That even poor people had human dignity, and no one should steal their land, even if it was just a little bean patch or corn field? Oh, Communist for sure!

That the USA should not aid dictators who kill, rape and torture their own people? Down with him, he’s anti-American!

That people have a right to form organizations and have protests, without being shot? Union stooge! Not to mention enemy of law and order!

That you shouldn’t kill campesinos, students, or anyone, let alone nuns and Priests? Liberal leftist softie!

That governments should be of the people, not just a tool of the oligarchs? Bad Archbishop!

In a sermon he gave the day before he was murdered, Romero spoke to the men of the Armed Forces who were taking part in the shootings. “Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. … In the Name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.” Those in power seized on the words, “I order you,” and pointed out that even though he was an Archbishop, Romero did not have the authority to issue orders to the military. Issuing orders to the military without authority is treason. The Archbishop was a traitor.

On March 24, people all over the world remember Monsignor Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. Forgive me if I think his message was for the world, not just for El Salvador.

Entrance to Romero's House. His unpretentious little car is up on blocks, in the shelter at the left.

  • CathyStripeLester

    I forgot to credit the pictures. They were taken by my fellow Election Monitor and Michigander, Pat Thornburg.

  • Michael McFarland

    I have studied the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was a martyr and true hero of the faithand I pray that he will one day be names among the Saints of the Catholic Church.

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