|By becoming an extraordinary pastor, Oscar Romero focused the world’s attention on the need, especially in the Church, to overcome the oppression of the poor.|
James R. Brockman S.J., is the author of The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero (Orbis, 1982) and of numerous articles on Latin America. He has also edited many of Romero’s homilies for future publication by the Archdiocese of San Salvador and has published The Church is All of You: Thoughts of Archbishop Oscar Romero (Winston, 7982) and The Violence of Love (Harper & Row, forthcoming). He currently resides in Chicago.
ARCHBISHOP Oscar A. Romero died in 1980. It is too soon to say what his lasting place will be in the history of the Church in Latin America. It does not seem too soon, however, to say that he will have a significant place, because he played, and continues to play, a significant role in the life of the Church. While alive, he shepherded the archdiocese of San Salvador for three important years. Since his assassination, his figure and his words remain in the memory of many thousands of Salvadorans, and his influence has spread all over Latin America and even beyond. Grass-roots church communities bear his name, as do pastoral centers, refugee camps, religious houses, and other institutions, both in Latin America and elsewhere. His tomb in the San Salvador cathedral, covered with testimonials and floral offerings, witnesses to the place he holds in the hearts of the people. And Pope John Paul II, on his 1983 visit to El Salvador, chose to begin his stay by praying at Archbishop Romero’s tomb.
Romero achieved this place in church consciousness not by founding any institution or bringing about any dramatic ecclesiastical reorganization, but simply by being an extraordinary pastor. Nothing in his history suggests that he sought to do anything other than that. Although he achieved international recognition in his lifetime, he did not seek it, except insofar as it helped protect his church from persecution. He did not dominate or try to dominate the political life of his country, though he accepted the pastor’s role of critic and moral guide in the midst of the political circumstances in which he was archbishop.
Of the Latin American church’s modern martyrs, Romero is undoubtedly the most widely known and venerated. In San Salvador on the fifth anniversary of his death, I watched representatives of grass-roots church communities offer homage to his memory by recalling their own martyrs, simple and unknown lay people who had also met violent death because, like Romero, they had given themselves to the service and defense of the poor. He represented all of the martyrs and all that the church communities had suffered and were still suffering. Among the tens of thousands murdered in El Salvador since Romero became archbishop in 1977, a large number have been members of such communities, Christians like Romero whose faith led them into action that in turn led to their assassination.
SERVICE TO THE WORLD
The persecution producing martyrs in Latin America is not directed at the entire Church as an institution, Rather, it is directed at those who are trying to follow the gospel in a certain way. These are persons who have heard the Second Vatican Council’s message that the Church is to be the servant of the world and, in looking at the world of Latin America, have seen that it is a world of the poor and oppressed. The Catholic bishops of Latin America accepted this vision of their continent in their meetings at Medellfn in 1968 and at Puebla in 1979, when they called for the liberation of Latin America’s poor. The bishops recognized the special love and concern for the poor that God expresses in the Bible, and they pledged themselves to give the poor a special place in the Church’s pastoral efforts, reversing a longtime disproportionate attention to the more affluent. Social justice assumed a greater place in the Church’s teaching and preaching. Pastors attentive to Medellín and Puebla concentrated much effort on encouraging and guiding small communities of faith (comunidades de base). Unlettered peasants and working-class people began to discuss the Bible and their own lives, experiencing a new sense of dignity and freedom as children of God and a new understanding of God’s saving power in history as they saw it revealed in the Bible. God was no longer a God who demanded only their patience in hardship and suffering, but the God who saved his people from Egypt’s slavery and now stands ready to liberate them again.
It is against such activity of the Church that powerful persons, social classes, and governments are directing their force. In general in Latin America, the goods of the earth and the benefits accruing from them favor a small part of society, and the majority are left in poverty, and even in extreme destitution. If the present relationships are altered, and especially if the poor and destitute majority begin to enjoy a share of power in proportion to their numbers, the power of the present elites will be diminished or destroyed.
Those threatened by the new developments in the Church say that the Church’s pastors are leaving their proper sphere of action and meddling in politics. In the face of such charges, Archbishop Romero constantly replied that he had no political program or ambition for political power, but that he had to turn the gospel’s light on the political area as well as on others and had to denounce sin wherever it was found.
Romero led no political movement and sought no political goal. His role was that of pastor, a word that means shepherd in Latin and in Spanish. The word and the image it summons up have deep resonances in Christian consciousness. In the Old Testament, God’s chosen people were shepherds, herdsmen of sheep and goats during centuries of nomadic living in the desert. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were shepherds. When the nomadic people became a settled people, shepherds remained a reality in their society; and when kings began to govern them, the people of Israel called their kings shepherds of the people.
But the prophets reminded both kings and people that the king was only the human substitute for the true shepherd of the people, who was God himself.(1) In the New Testament, Jesus received the title of shepherd, calling himself the Good Shepherd, the one who gives his life for his sheep, and laying claim to the royalty and divinity implicit in the title. The Christian Church calls its leaders shepherds — pastors — and charges them with guiding the people as Jesus would. A consequence of that responsibility is the duty to give even their life for their flock, a duty that Romero found he had to fulfill.
A pastor is a spiritual guide. Like Jesus, such a shepherd leads his flock to God and to God’s kingdom. Jesus spoke of how the shepherd protects the sheep from wolves and searches for even a single lost sheep until it is found. As shepherds, pastors in the Church must protect their people from harm, and especially from sin, which is spiritual harm. It is a duty that may require pastors to admonish and even to condemn. Living amid the sinful injustices done to the most helpless of his people, Romero never ceased to condemn the social and economic structures that oppressed the poor, and the murderous violence used to protect the structures.
Although the Church’s pastors are not political leaders, their actions as shepherds have political effects, “sociopolitical repercussions,” in Romero’s words.(2) This is because both pastors and people are living in the real world of human beings, and therefore living in the political order, and because Christian faith itself has profound implications for Christian conduct. Romero’s history illustrates how pastors, in fulfilling their duty of condemning sin and promoting justice, readily and perhaps inevitably finds that their actions have political repercussions, repercussions that in turn bring upon them persecution and even death.
Shortly before his death, Romero told an audience at the University of Louvain: “Christian faith does not separate us from the world, but immerses us in it. The Church is not a fortress apart from the city, but rather the follower of Jesus, who lived, worked, struggled, and died in the midst of the city, the polis.”(3) From Vatican II Romero drew the basic principle that the Church’s mission on earth is a mission to serve the world, and to serve it by promoting its salvation. This was the mission of Jesus, and it must therefore be the mission of his followers. Since Romero’s archdiocese was in the world, and that world was a world of the poor, it had to opt for the poor. This brought upon it the fate of the poor, persecution — “to be taken away, to be tortured, to be jailed, to be found dead.”(4)
At the time he became archbishop, February 22, 1977, Oscar Romero seemed unlikely to become a champion of social change or a challenge to the established powers of El Salvador. His years as a priest and bishop had marked him as conservative, devoted to the Church and to Rome, suspicious of new ideas and of advocates of change, energetic in defense of principle. The influential persons in Salvadoran government and society who urged Rome to name him archbishop expected that he would guide the important archdiocese to their liking, reining in the priests who they thought were stirring up the peasantry. His backers may have been unaware that for two years as the bishop of a small rural diocese Romero had been gradually awakening to the desperate poverty of the peasants and to the unjust wages and working conditions they had to accept. On one occasion, he had protested in vain to the local security force commander and to the president of the republic over the massacre of five campesinos by government forces. Someone also failed to take into account how Romero’s love for the Church and its priesthood and his powerful sense of justice and decency would react when a priest was assassinated.
Less than three weeks after Romero’s installation as archbishop, Father Rutiho Grande, S.J., and two campesinos were shot to death with high-powered police-type weapons on their way to celebrate mass. Grande and a team of Jesuits had been working since 1972 in the rural parish of Aguilares, where wealthy landowners had over the years monopolized the best farmland and the campesinos were left with small, rocky plots or no land at all. Grande boldly preached the need for reform and a more equal and just society, while still trying to keep the Church’s pastoral workers from direct involvement in the peasant organizations that were developing in the region. Tensions were high in the area, and landowners’ organizations were blaming the clergy working in the region for stirring up “hordes” of organized peasants.
Grande’s murder shocked the nation. The clergy and Catholic activists of the archdiocese urged a vigorous reaction, and Romero agreed. In protest, he closed all the Catholic schools in the archdiocese for three days, thus impressing on the parents, who included members of El Salvador’s prominent families, how seriously the Church viewed the attack. He ordered that only one mass be celebrated in the archdiocese the following Sunday, in the plaza before the cathedral, so that all the priests and faithful might gather together with the bishop in the moment of grief and persecution. The canceling of all the parish masses greatly displeased the papal nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador to El Salvador, and was the first of many difficulties that Romero experienced with the pope’s representative and with his fellow Salvadoran bishops. Romero even found it necessary to make four trips to Rome to explain himself during his three years, the first trip being shortly after Grande’s death, only about a month after becoming archbishop.
Five more priests died like Grande during Romero’s three years, and the archbishop himself was the seventh. A far greater number of catechists and leaders of church communities were also killed, as well as many ordinary Catholics. Romero endured continual attacks on himself and the Church in the newspapers and on television and radio, the media being almost completely controlled by the country’s wealthy oligarchy. At one point, the government even began publishing an intermittent tabloid devoted entirely to attacking him.
ROMERO AS PREACHER
The archdiocese’ own radio station and weekly paper were almost Romero’s only means of getting his words to the public, except for his Sunday morning sermons in the cathedral and his continual pastoral visits to parishes throughout the archdiocese. The people filled the cathedral for his 8 A.M. mass and listened attentively to his homily, which came to last more than an hour as he found more and more to tell them and found them eager to listen. The radio carried his words to the farthest reaches of the country, and many remote communities made it a regular part of their Sunday service. Parish masses would not start until the people had listened to the archbishop’s words, and small communities of peasants too far from a church for mass would gather around a radio with their catechist or delegate of the word, to listen, to reflect together, and to pray.
During his first year as archbishop, Romero began to incorporate a report and commentary on the past week’s events into his homily on the scripture readings of the mass. “We can not segregate God’s word from the historical reality in which it is proclaimed,” he said. “That would not be God’s word . . . .It is God’s word because it enlightens, contrasts with, repudiates, or praises what is going on today in this society..”(5) The people themselves, he told them, must learn from his example to apply God’s word to their own lives, just as he was trying to apply it to the life of the nation and of their church.
Romero saw preaching as central to his duty as pastor. His Sunday morning homily in the cathedral was the high point of the week, his proclamation of the gospel message to the diocese and to the world. He prepared for it by reading and reflection during the week and especially on Saturday, and by a Saturday meeting with his communications director and other advisers to decide on what events in the church and the world he should include in his reflection on the scripture readings of the Sunday mass. “When I focus on the week gone by,” he said, “I attend to a work that is proper for the Church …. We turn the gospel’s light onto the political scene, but the main thin for us is to light the lamp of the gospel in our communities.”(6)
The work of shepherd also involved continual visits to all parts of the archdiocese. Shantytown dwellers in a ravine of the capital city were amazed to see the archbishop picking his way through rocks and dust to visit them. Peasants in remote villages would turn out to escort him on foot from the road to their church. He tried to appear personally for every confirmation, first communion, or local celebration, not only celebrating mass and preaching, but sitting with the people, discussing their community with them, and sharing their tamales and pupusas(7) A Sunday could involve two or three such events, after the cathedral mass. At his office, he received both rich and poor, those of high and low estate. One high U.S. State Department official had to wait while the archbishop finished talking with a group of campesinos. Those who came seeking his help over family members taken away by the security forces had a special claim on his attention, even though — or perhaps because — he could do little to help.
Almost all of Romero’s Sunday homilies and a few others were preserved on tape and transcribed. The archdiocese began to publish them even during his lifetime. They are especially helpful in understanding Romero and his times, as well as in knowing his thinking and teaching. Also of special importance are his four pastoral letters, written to guide his flock during the difficulties they faced during the three years he guided them, and the address he gave shortly before his death at the University of Louvain, in which he described the course that his archdiocese had been following under his leadership and enunciated the principles that guided it.
The homilies, although carefully prepared, were delivered extempore. The pastorals and the Louvain address have the advantage of being carefully elaborated expositions of Romero’s ideas. They were, of course, prepared for specific people in specific circumstances, and are not general treatises for universal audiences.
THE PASTORAL LETTERS
Romero wrote his first pastoral letter as his formal introduction to his flock only two months after becoming archbishop. The archdiocese had been through trying events during the transition from one leader to another. He compared the experience to that of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt and to the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, entitling it “La Iglesia de la Pascua.” The title can be translated “The Church of Passover,” or “The Church of the Paschal Mystery,” and he published it at Easter. He apparently wrote it alone, polishing it during his trip to Rome and even between flights at John F. Kennedy airport. It contains basic ideas about the Church that he developed in the later letters and at Louvain, in particular the fundamental insight of Vatican II that the Church’s mission is to serve the world.
The second letter appeared two months later, on the occasion of El Salvador’s patronal feast, the Divine Savior of the World, celebrated on August 6, the observance of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Church, he said, must carry on Jesus’ mission to the world, because it is Jesus’ body. It must proclaim God’s reign of love and justice, as Jesus did, and so it must defend the poor and support their desires to free themselves from injustice and oppression. At least one professional theologian helped Romero write the letter, which he called “The Church, the Body of Christ in History.”
The third letter, in August 1978, built on the ecclesiology that Romero had expounded in the first two and discussed the question of the Church’s relationship to the political order and to the political activity of its members. The concrete question for Romero’s people was the Church’s relationship to the peasant organizations and other grass-roots political organizations that were growing in El Salvador. He also had to deal with the moral question of resisting with force the government’s violent repression of the organizations. A large group of advisers, lay and clerical, collaborated in preparing the letter, and Romero invited other bishops to sign it with him, though only Bishop Arturo Rivera Damas, present a archbishop of San Salvador and then bishop of Santiago de María, did so. Romero himself determined its contents and final form. It was called “The Church and the Popular Political Organizations.”
The fourth pastoral letter, in August 1979, dealt with the deteriorating political situation in the country and presented the local church’s reflection on it and on itself in the light of the recently held Puebla conference of the Latin American bishops, which Romero had attended. It further developed Romero’s thoughts on violence and touched on the sensitive question of the use of Marxist thought by politically involved Christians. It was developed through a wide grass-roots consultation with the most active Catholics of the archdiocese, and was entitled “The Church’s Mission in the Nation’s Crisis.”
Like the pastoral letters, the address at Louvain, where he accepted an honorary degree,also discussed the Church. Romero had been asked to speak on the political dimension of the faith. He focused on what his dlliocese had been living for three years, and which Puebla had now formally given the name “preferential option for the poor.” It is called “The Political Dimension of the Faith from the Standpoint of the Option for the Poor.”
In these documents appear somhoof the general principles that governed Romero’s pastoral praOciice. “The Church,” he wrote in his first pastoral letter, “does not live for itself. Its reason for being is the same as that of Jesus: service to God in order to serve the world.”(8) He drew the principle from the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the Church, a teaching that he had made his own as the Church’s loyal and devoted servant. Near the end of his life, speaking at Louvain in February 1980, he repeated the idea: “The essence of the Church lies in its mission of service to the world, in its mission to save the world in its totality and to save it in history, here and now.”(9) The Church, he said, must make its own “the hopes and joys, the anxieties and sorrows”(10) of human beings. The Church, like Jesus, is sent to bring good news to the poor, to lift up the downtrodden, to seek out and save the lost.(11) It was what his archdiocese had been doing for three years.
The church of the archdiocese could do the work of Jesus because Jesus lives in the Church. Romero wrote in his second pastoral letter that the Church is Christ’s body in history, his presence in the world as he fulfills his mission of salvation through his members in each age. The Church must therefore act like Jesus, proclaiming God’s kingdom to the poor especially, fulfilling with Jesus Isaiah’s prophecy of good news to the poor and liberty to the imprisoned and the oppressed.(12) It must resist and denounce all that opposes God’s reign, all the injustice and callousness built into society, just as Jesus denounced the sins of his contemporaries and their society. And the Church must call to conversion and reform and to service in building God’s kingdom.
In the circumstances of El Salvador, the Church, Romero soon realized, must support the poor’s attempts to liberate themselves from their poverty and oppression, at the same time calling on them to seek a fuller liberation, one from the internal bonds of their own sins as well as from the external bonds imposed on them by others’ sins. In preaching liberation, Romero drew his teaching from Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi.(13) He called for a liberation both material and spiritual, both temporal and eternal, a liberation including conversion of heart and leading to God’s reign over all creation.
CHRISTIANS’ POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT
During his three years as archbishop, Romero found he had to instruct his people about certain particular questions that arose in the historical circumstances of El Salvador. He devoted his third pastoral letter to the Church’s relationship to the political grassroots organizations that were growing alongside the Church’s grass-roots communities, especially in the countryside. The same peasants were often involved in both, and they found in the political groups the fulfillment of the desire to work for social justice that the life of the church communities inspired in them. Yet the Church itself ought to remain independent of political organizations. In practice, it was difficult for peasants, and even for priests and other religious workers, to maintain a distinction between the life of the Christian community and the activity of the political organization.
Romero said that the Church must respect the autonomy of the secular or political sphere and the plurality of political options. It offers its guidance, but does not make its members’ political decisions for them in particular cases. The Church itself has no specific political, economic, or social program or task. It has rather the mission to proclaim the gospel. But those who believe and accept the gospel find that it makes them aware of “what is sin and what is grace, and of what must be resisted and what must be constructed on earth.”(14) They are thus drawn to political involvement. Moreover, God’s word draws people into community, into a common life nourished by the sacraments. In its pastoral ministry, the archdiocese found that the development of small communities among the peasantry was especially helpful in stimulating Christian life, and Romero called the communities “vital cells of the Church.”(15) He warned the community members that political groups could try to use them for political ends, but he insisted that the life of the community could also arouse a genuine vocation to political action. In such cases, the Church must not try to determine the specific means that believers should use to follow their political vocation.
Christians politically involved, even those following a genuine vocation to political involvement, must not make improper demands on the Church, said Romero. They can demand that the Church defend their right to organize, to assemble, to speak out, to strike, and to demonstrate — rights often violated by the Salvadoran government. But they can not ask the Church to let its liturgy or symbols be used for partisan purposes. They can not say that their group is the only correct political expression of the faith or that only within their organization can one “develop the requirements of Christian justice that spring from the faith.”(16) Faith and political vocation are not the same, but a Christian must try to integrate them. “Faith ought to inspire Christian political action but not be confused with it.”(17)
Politically involved Christians, said Romero, must profess and live their faith within their political commitment, not an easy task, especially when Christians must work with non-Christians in the same organization. Choices about the use of means, such as violence, in achieving objectives can be difficult in such circumstances. One of Romero’s aims in his pastoral letters and in his preaching was to help people make such decisions according to Christian principles. He warned about the tendency of a political commitment to absorb the individual and demand the sort of loyalty and absolute commitment that only God may demand.
Romero called upon Christians in political organizations to make their faith their ultimate point of reference, professing it openly and in solidarity with the Church, opening themselves to God through the sacraments, prayer, and meditation on God’s word, so that their commitment to their faith and to the pursuit of justice might develop together. “This mutual interaction between an explicit faith and dedication to justice will guarantee that one’s faith is not vain, but is accompanied by works, and likewise that the justice one seeks is indeed the justice of God’s kingdom.”(18)
Priests and lay pastoral workers, Romero taught, may often feel drawn toward one or other political organization. But because they represent the Church and the bishop more directly, their role must be primarily to be “animators and guides in faith and in the justice that faith demands.”(19) Priests especially have the task of “keeping alive the gospel standards of thought and action, reminding the faithful, as Jesus did, of the Father’s love for all, and urging them to follow Jesus in implanting God’s reign on earth.”(20) Lay ministers and catechists commissioned by the bishop should be careful about becoming leaders in a political group. “If playing an active role in an organization deprives them of the credibility and efficiency that they need for pastoral work among God’s people, then there is a strong reason why they ought, after serious reflection before the Lord, to choose between the two leadership roles.”(21) If a priest were to feel that in an exceptional case he should work more closely with a political organization, it would be for the bishop to make a Christian discernment of the apostolic value of such work in a sincere and faith-enlightened dialogue with the priest.
THE CHURCH AND LIBERATION
In August, 1979, six months after the Puebla conference, Romero asked in his fourth pastoral letter: “What is the contribution that the archdiocese in the spirit of Puebla offers to our people’s liberation movement?” The Church, he said, must first of all be itself, be true to its own identity as Church. “It onl1 wants to develop the great affirmation of God and his reign.”(22) It offers only the gospel, and makes no purely political contribution or one arising from any merely human skill. It preaches the liberating message of the gospel, God’s truth about Christ, about the Church, and about humanity. It denounces sin and error and preaches conversion and the overturning of the idols it finds in society. In El Salvador the idols were property and national security on one side and, for some on the other side, the popular organization which for activists could become more important than the people it meant to serve. The Church, said Romero, preaches a liberation that emphasizes both human spirituality and eternal destiny and the here-and-now establishment of God’s kingdom. The Church advocates profound and urgent social change, but through nonviolent means. It sides with the poor, whose rights are violated, but calls for rich and poor alike to be converted. It must try to walk with those who have made a political commitment, caring for them as a shepherd in the difficult task of guiding Christians in a highly political and volatile environment, even though such efforts bring on the Church and its pastoral workers “risks, allegations, and false accusations.”(23)
VIOLENCE AND PEACE
Violence was a continuous reality in El Salvador during Romero’s time, although it had not yet become the present civil war or the repressive slaughter that followed his death. To guide his people, he followed the traditional moral teaching that force can be used in defense if it is the only means possible and is kept proportionate to the force being resisted and to the rights being defended. The possibility of armed insurrection was already being mentioned in the country, and he repeated the teaching of Paul VI’s encyclical “On the Development of Peoples” (Populorum Progressio) and of the Medellín conference. An insurrection might be justified, said Pope Paul, “in the very exceptional circumstances of an evident, prolonged tyranny that seriously works against fundamental human rights and seriously harms the common good of the country.”(24) Medellín added, “whether the tyranny Eroceeds from one person or from clearly unjust structures.”(25) Medellín had also noted that unjust social structures are themselves a form of violence.(26) Romero worked for peace and tried to diminish violence in every way that he could. His homilies are a record of his calls for peace and his efforts at mediation. After the military coup of October 15,1979, he told the people he thought the coup had fulfilled the conditions for a legitimate insurrection, but he advised them: “The Church is not the one to say when the time has come for an insurrection. She only sets out the theological principle.”(27)
TEACHING ON MARXISM
Romero rejected repeatedly the charge that he and his church were Marxist. “Worldly interests,” he said in 1977, “try to make the Church’s position seem Marxist when it is in fact insisting on fundamental human rights and when it is placing the whole weight of its institutional and prophetic authority at the service of the dispossessed and weak.”(28) In El Salvador, as elsewhere, much anti-Marxism is really support for an unjust social order based on capitalism. “In concrete terms;” said Romero, “capitalism is in fact what is most unjust and unchristian about our own society.”(29)
Many of Romero’s people, however, needed some guidance in regard to Marxism. Marxist ideas were common coin in the popular organizations, at least at the leadership level, and many people in the Christian communities wondered about the possible uses and dangers of Marxism. “If one understands by Marxism a materialistic, atheistic ideology that is taken to explain the whole of human existence and gives a false interpretation of religion, then it is completely untenable by a Christian,” wrote Romero in his fourth pastoral letter. But Marxism, he said, could also be understood as a structural analysis of the economic and social order, which many used as a guide because, they said, it did not affect their religious principles. Romero echoed the warning of Paul VI in the apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens(30) against the possible risks of using such analysis. He saw a greater danger in using Marxism as a political strategy for the taking of power, because it could lead to conflicts of conscience about means and methods that might be contrary to Christian ethics and could lead to making the organization an absolute, as he had warned before.
He cautiously avoided going much deeper into the subject, which he knew was very complex. “As a pastor, I beg all who are learned in this subject to spread, with Christian criteria, greater knowledge of this subject, which is of absorbing interest to many and also disturbs many Christians.”(31) If Romero had lived to write a fifth pastoral letter, perhaps it would have been a deeper probing into the possible uses and dangers of Marxism.
GOOD NEWS FOR THE POOR
The 1979 Puebla conference made its own the preferential option for the poor (though it cautiously added “but not exclusive” to “preferential”). When Romero received an honorary degree at Louvain a year later and was asked to speak on the political dimension of the Christian faith, he chose to speak on the political dimension of the faith from the aspect of the option for the poor. He approached the topic, he said, as a pastor who had found the political dimension of the faith in his diocese’s service to the poor. His church did not seek a role in politics, but tried to become incarnate in the world of El Salvador, a world of the poor. It sought to proclaim good news to the poor, giving them hope and encouraging them to work for their own liberation. It defended them and their cause, and therefore it also shared their fate, persecution by the powerful.
By incarnating itself in the world of the poor, he said, the church of the archdiocese was finding its life enriched. It now understood better the evil of sin, which oppressed and killed members of Christ’s body, God’s children and temples of God’s Spirit. Its experience made it better understand what Christian love is: “a love that indeed seeks peace but also unmasks false pacifism, resignation and inactivity.”(32) It is a love that tries to be effective, that tries to liberate the poor, not by making them the recipients of handouts, but by helping them to be the protagonists of their own struggle for liberation. The Church was learning from the world of the poor that the Christian hope of a new heaven and new earth must be nourished by signs of hope like those announced by Isaiah: “They will build houses and live in them, plant vineyards and eat of their fruit.”(33) The Church was deepening its faith in God and in Christ. “We believe in Jesus, who came to bring the fullness of life, and we believe in a livin God who gives life to humans and wants them truly to live.”(34) The Church thus faces the fundamental option of faith: to be in favor of life or of death. “With great clarity we see that in this no neutrality is possible. Either we serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death. It is the expression in history of what is most fundamental in the faith: either we believe in a God of life, or we serve the idols of death.”(35)
On March 24,1980, Archbishop Romero fell mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet while preaching during mass. It was his final act of faith in the God of life, whom he had served as a shepherd. Of his own action as a pastor, he noted during his retreat a month before his death, “The only thing that matters is to radically follow the gospel, which not all can understand. One can yield in certain nonessential aspects, but there can be no yielding on radically following the gospel.”(36)
- The prophet Jeremiah inveighed against kings who failed in their duty to protect and defend the people Jer. 23:1-2). Romero, in one of his most memorable homilies (July 22,1979), echoed Jeremiah’s cries as he rebuked El Salvador’s civil rulers. Homily published as leaflet by Publicaciones Pastorales Catedral, San Salvador, 1979.
- Address at Louvain University, Feb. 2, 1980, in Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, Orbis Books, (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1985), p. 178. I refer all quotations from Romero’s pastoral letters and Louvain address to this book, although at times I use my own translation.
- Homily of Feb. 17, 1980, in La Voz de los Sin Voz: La Palabra Viva de Monsenor Romero, (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1980), p. 257.
- Homily of Nov. 27,1977, in Mons. Oscar A. Romero: Su Pensamiento, (San Salvador: Publicaciones Pastorales del Arzobispado, 1980), p. 2.
- Homily of July 22,1979, (San Salvador: Publicaciones Pastorales Catedral,1979), p. 24.
- The Salvadoran tamal is made of cornmeal with meat or other food in the center, wrapped in a banana-tree leaf; it is not spiced like the Mexican tamal. Pupusas are corn tortillas with a filling of cheese or something else.
- Voice of the Voiceless, p. 59.
- Ibid., p. 178.
- Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), no. 1.
- Voice of the Voiceless, p. 178; Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), no. 8; Luke 4:18 and 19:10.
- Is. 61:1; Luke 4:18.
- Published as “On Evangelization in the Modern World” by the U.S. Catholic Conference, (Washington, 1976).
- Voice of the Voiceless, p. 95.
- Ibid., p. 96.
- Ibid., p. 100.
- Ibid., p. 102.
- Ibid., p. 103.
- Ibid., p. 104.
- Ibid., p. 128.
- Ibid., p. 156.
- “On the Development of Peoples” (Populorum Progressio), no. 31.
- “Peace,” no 19.
- See James R. Brockman, The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982), pp. 128-130 and 172-173, for a fuller treatment of Romero’s teaching on violence in the third and fourth pastorals.
- Homily of Oct. 21,1979, leaflet, (San Salvador: Publicaciones Pastorales Catedral, 1979), p. 12.
- Second pastoral letter, Voice of the Voiceless, p. 78.
- Fourth pastoral letter, Voice of the Voiceless, p. 146.
- Published in English as “A Call to Action, Apostolic Letter on the Eightieth Anniversary of Rerum Noaarum,” by the U.S. Catholic Conference, (Washington, 1971).
- Fourth pastoral letter, Voice of the Voiceless, p. 146.
- Ibid., p. 184.
- Is. 65:21.
- Voice of the Voiceless, p. 184-185.
- Ibid., p. 185.
- Unpublished notebook.