(This is the first in a three-part series on our parish’s upcoming celebration of the beatification of San Oscar Romero which will take place on May 23rd. The event will be observed in St. Clare’s parish on June 3rd, when our new bishop, John Stowe, will join us.)
As one of the first acts of his new Episcopate, Bishop John Stowe will be visiting my parish, St. Clare’s in Berea, Kentucky, to celebrate the beatification of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was gunned down at the altar on March 24, 1980.
In accepting the invitation to join the celebration, then bishop-elect Stowe wrote:
“Oscar Romero is a great inspiration in my life and I am thrilled to know of a community that wishes to celebrate his witness.”
Bishop Stowe’s words and his decision to attend the celebration are freighted with meaning for Catholics of the Lexington Diocese. They speak volumes about Bishop Stowe’s overriding commitment to social justice. The bishop’s words call our attention not only to the person of Oscar Romero, but to the theology that informed his life, and to our vocation as followers of Jesus the Christ.
In today’s posting, think about Oscar Romero himself. (Subsequent blogs – next Wednesday and the following Monday – will focus on liberation theology as it relates to Romero, and then on practical responses to the archbishop’s beatification).
Oscar Romero was born in 1917. Like our present pope, Francis, he was a Jesuit. Monsignor Romero entered the seminary at the age of 13 and was ordained at 26. He studied in Rome, and received his doctorate in theology there from the Gregorian University. In 1977, he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador.
The monsignor was a bookish man – very traditional, both politically and religiously speaking. He was a conservative in every sense of the word.
However, a turning point came for Oscar Romero less than a month after his consecration as San Salvador’s 4th archbishop. A close friend of his – another Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande – was assassinated by one of El Salvador’s right-wing death squads. Rutilio Grande was an advocate of the poor, an opponent of government oppression of the peasants and workers, and an advocate of radical theology. He saw Jesus as a prophet – the Son of God bringing good news to the poor.
Romero’s own words reveal the impact of Grande’s death. He said, “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.'” The “they” Archbishop Romero referred to was his own government, its military, and their backers in the United States.
In other words, the penny had dropped for the archbishop. He realized that his country and all of Central America was at war. It was what Noam Chomsky called “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It pitted the United States of America and its right wing allies in Central America against the Catholic Church.
But as Romero said in a speech at the Universite Catholicque in Louvain, Belgium, just before his martyrdom, the U.S. war wasn’t against the entire Catholic Church. Or as the archbishop himself put it,
“. . . (I)t is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.”
In other words, the archbishop had put his finger on the problem: the Catholic Church was divided between the traditionalists who supported the rich, unfettered capitalism, and U.S. Empire on the one hand, and those who took the part of the poor on the other. Grande’s death convinced the archbishop that he had been on the wrong side. So he switched over and took the part of the poor. In doing so, he in effect signed his own death warrant.
Nevertheless, he began speaking out fearlessly each Sunday against his country’s government, its military, and their supporters in the United States. He railed against El Salvador’s endemic poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. He specifically criticized the United States for the military aid it gave to El Salvador’s repressive military government.
President Carter ignored the archbishop’s pleas to stop arming El Salvador’s military and death squads. And when he entered office, President Reagan doubled down on his predecessor’s policy.
Still, Archbishop Romero continued to follow faithfully Rutilio Grande’s path. His weekly radio programs became a sensation throughout El Salvador. He named names and listed the disappeared, tortured, murdered and much more. The archbishop’s broadcasts became the main source of trustworthy news for his oppressed people.
As a result, death threats from the White Hand death squad came to him every day. But such intimidation didn’t work on Oscar Romero.
Finally, though, on March 24, 1980, the chickens came home to roost. In a crime intellectually authored by Roberto D’aubuisson, a darling of U.S. Central American policy, the archbishop was assassinated while celebrating the Eucharist in a convent in San Salvador.
The country was plunged into mourning. 250,000 people attended Archbishop Romero’s funeral. However, only one of the country’s bishops attended his funeral. The others considered him too radical and politicized. They stayed home.
The Salvadoran army however did not. Death squad sharpshooters terrorized the funeral, dropping smoke bombs and killing anywhere from 30 to 50 people while wounding many others. It was a world-class scandal.
But it was by no means the end of the war against the Catholic Church. The White Hand death squad continued to follow its slogan, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”
Less than a month after Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom, four U.S. women religious (all from Cleveland, Ohio) were brutally raped and murdered: Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan. Then in 1989, a team of six Jesuit liberation theologians at the Central American University along with their housekeep and her 15 year old daughter were slaughtered by Salvadoran soldiers trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
By the war’s end, scores of priests were killed along with lay ministers of the word, teachers, social workers, and union organizers. In 1980 alone, more than 11,000 such activists fell victim to the death squads. By the war’s end, more than 70,000 Salvadorans had been killed by their own government. Imagine the impact of such numbers in a small country of just over 6 million people.