A social revolutionary and modern martyr

Second Reading

CANONISED A mural with the image of St Óscar Romero in the Faculty of Jurisprudence and Social Sciences of the University of El Salvador. Pic: Centro Nacional de Artes, El Salvador/GFDL

Murdered while saying Mass for opposing the El Salvadorian military regime

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Christianity is not just a religion, prayer and ritual. It challenges its adherents to live the ideals of justice, love and peace. A commitment to the values may demand the sacrifice of one’s life. While martyrdom is especially associated with the early Church, there are modern martyrs.
In a memorable poem Desmond Egan tells the story of Fr Rudy Romano who, in the 1980s, sought to organise his poverty-stricken congregation in the Philippines into demanding fair wages. He ‘disappeared’ in the final months of the dictatorial Marcos regime. Egan called him ‘a missionary of hope’.
Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador was another one. This year we mark the 80th anniversary of his ordination as a priest.
He was an unlikely revolutionary. Born in 1907 in the town of Ciudad Barrios, his father was a postman who grew coffee to supplement the family income. At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to a local carpenter. Through a meeting with the diocesan vicar general he achieved his ambition of studying for the priesthood.
Ordained in Rome in 1942 he rose stolidly through the ranks of the Church’s hierarchy. After spells as a parish priest and school chaplain, he became secretary general of the national bishop’s conference. Three years later he was appointed an auxiliary bishop. By 1977 he was Archbishop of San Salvador.
Up to this elevation Romero was perceived to be a rigid churchman with conservative political views. He was suspicious of the radical social teaching that emerged at the Medellin Conference of South American bishops in 1968. He acquiesced in the military dictatorship that controlled El Salvador.
It’s leaders welcomed his appointment as the senior bishop in the country. They saw him as a safe man who would give them no grief.
El Salvador is the smallest country in South America. The coffee crop is its main source of wealth. Introduced by Spanish colonists in the 19th century, its production required the placing of vast tracts of land under private control. The indigenous people who owned the land were ruthlessly dispossessed and forced to live in poverty.
An American observer described El Salvador in the mid 20th century:
“One of the first things one notices is the abundance of luxury motor cars driving through the streets. Nothing seems to exist between the dearest cars and the oxen cart driven by a boy in bare feet. Practically no middle class exists between the enormously wealthy and the very poor.”
Forty families controlled the economy. The country was ruled by a series of military juntas that fixed elections, protected the wealthy and savagely policed the poor.
Throughout the 20th century there were sporadic revolts against the military dictatorship. By the 1970s the country was in a state of virtual civil war. Leftwing opponents of the regime believed that violent protest was the only viable political tactic. Hundreds were killed, many people simply ‘disappeared’ and dissidents were exiled.
Shortly after Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador, a priest friend of his, Fr Rutilio Grande, who supported the poor, was killed by the military. It proved the catalyst that changed him from being a staid conservative to a social revolutionary. In the wards of liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, he became ‘an impassioned letter of the truth’.
Romero’s passionate speeches about the social inequities of El Salvador won international attention and support. By 1980, he was the most vocal opponent of the military regime and the biggest threat to its survival. He knew he had placed his life in danger.
In his final months, the shadows of death surrounded him. The end came on March 24, 1980, when he was assassinated while saying Mass in his cathedral. At his canonisation in 2018, Pope Francis donned the blood-stained cincture [rope belt] Romero wore on the day of his death. He paid the new saint the following tribute:
“He left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to live his life according to the Gospel – close to the poor and close to the people.”