Oscar Romero: Martyr, Friend to the Poor, Prophet of Justice

In 1977, Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador an appointment that pleased the government of that country, but disappointed many priests in El Salvador, especially those openly aligned with Marxism. Romero was somewhat conservative and generally was not a rock the boat kind of guy.

But something happened to change Romero. Only a few months after he became Archbishop, a progressive Jesuit priest named Rutilio Grande, who was a personal friend of Romero and who had been creating self-reliance groups among the poor, was assassinated. His death had a profound impact on Romero, who later stated, “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.'” Romero asked the government to investigate the death of his friend, but they ignored his request.

From that point on, Romero was a changed man. Rutilio’s death helped Romero grow into his role as a voice for the voiceless. He became a strong voice against the violence and injustice that was being perpetrated on the people of El Salvador.

In one of his sermons, Romero warned, “If you live out a Christianity that is good but that is not sufficient for our times, that doesn’t denounce injustice, that doesn’t proclaim the kingdom of God courageously, that doesn’t reject the sins humankind commits, that consents to the sins of certain classes so as to be accepted by those classes, then you are not doing your duty, you are sinning, you are betraying your mission. The church was put here to convert humankind, not to tell people that everything that they do is all right; and, because of that, naturally, it irritates people. Everything that corrects us irritates us.”

As Romero recognized, “it is easier to preach lies, to conform to the situation so as not to lost your advantages, so that you always have friends that flatter you, so that you have power.” Nonetheless we are called to speak the truth, even when doing so means personal loss. That takes enormous courage and enormous faith, of which Romero is a powerful model.

That kind of courage has consequences. On March 24, 1980, Romeo presided at a special evening mass. That evening he proclaimed from the Gospel of John, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” As he concluded his sermon, which preached the need to give one’s life for others as Christ did, he was shot in the heart and died almost immediately.

Romero was tireless in his call for solidarity with the poor and oppressed, a voice for those who had no voice. He was strident in his denunciation of violence and called for a culture of peace and an end to the killings that were destroying his country.

On this anniversary of his assassination, we remember Oscar Romero, martyr, friend to the poor and prophet of justice.