The Passion of Oscar Romero – The Rev. Morgan Allen – Palm Sunday

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Since the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066, England has celebrated its royalty’s crowning and burying in Westminster Abbey, and all of the royal processions attendant to those ceremonies have passed through its main, west doors. Above that primary entry, ten, carven niches remained empty for more than 500 years. Architects speculate that designers originally intended the niches to house statues of the monarchy, but interest and financing apparently waned, and they remained vacant for those many centuries.[i] During the last quarter of the last century, the English government undertook a significant restoration of Westminster – as Episcopalians, one of our ancestral homes – and, in 1998, the English Church unveiled in these niches ten statues of Twentieth-Century martyrs.

Notably, not one of the recognized men and women hails from England. One adjacent pairing from the Americas includes, on the left, Martin Luther King, Jr, his hand extended and a child at his feet, hinting Jesus’ familiar instruction, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”[ii] To King’s right stands Oscar Romero, the former Roman Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador. The conspicuously bespectacled Romero wears Communion vesture and cradles a toddler, his right hand holding the child in the familiar position of blessing, the same position a priest customarily gestures when pronouncing absolution and celebrating the Eucharist. While King’s story is likely well-known to you, perhaps Romero’s is not.

Born into the family of a telegraph operator in 1917 El Salvador, Oscar Romero often interrupted his primary and theological education to support his family. Following his ordination to the priesthood in 1942 (at age 25), he studied at the Gregorian University in Rome, but procrastinated his doctoral thesis. Upon his return to El Salvador, Romero primarily served as a diocesan and seminary administrator. His colleagues knew him as a priest who struggled physically to keep up with the demands of active ministry, one noting, “[Romero thought that the glory of God was reflected in the glory and purity of the church, and he [physically] suffered when he had to cover up the sins of the institution – his task when he served as secretary to the bishop of his diocese…He suffered from nervous tension caused by the strain of cloaking the defects of the institutional church, while maintaining his own integrity.”[iii]

In his biography, Archbishop Romero: Martyr of Salvador, Plácido Erdozaín describes their country as the smallest republic in the Americas (about the size of Massachusetts); the only [nation-state] in Central American with no Caribbean coast and no banana export trade; [with] five million individuals trying to be a people.[iv] Erdozaín lists the “fourteen families, the rulers…of the destiny of El Salvador” who, collectively in the 1970s, comprised an oligarchical government reinforcing their own power before that of the empobrecido, that is, a people who “are not simply poor[, but are] made to be poor, [with] poverty imposed on them.”[v]

In this context, “elections were nothing more than an organized lie,” and the oligarchy actively and violently oppressed resistors to their will.[vi] In 1980, “half of one percent of all landowners owned 38 percent of [the country’s] arable land,”[vii] and, in response, campesino clerics – literally rendered as “peasant” priests – sought solidarity with these poor indentured to the lands they farmed.[viii] For those Salvadoran clergy engaged in this civil resistance, the church in El Salvador reflected Salvadoran society, with a chasm set between the ecclesially powerful and the marginalized priests. Before his tenure as Archbishop, Oscar Romero’s colleagues viewed him as a weak instrument of Rome’s most corrupted local leadership, while the oligarchs welcomed the appointment, doubting Romero’s willingness to challenge their rule. They would be proved wrong.

On February 8, 1977, Erdozaín and his campesino colleagues met to discuss the front page of that day’s newspaper, which featured, the “retiring bishop, Luis Chávez, dressed in a cassock, smiling. Next to him, with his typical half-smile, was what [concerned them]: Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, the new[ly named] archbishop of San Salvador.”[ix] Erdozaín explains, “I had known Bishop Romero for a long time. He had been a member of the cursillo movement from the very beginning and recently had felt attracted to the spirituality of the conservative Opus Dei.[x] Churchy, [a] lover of rules and clerical discipline, [and a] friend of liturgical laws, he was convinced that ‘the most important [mark of the Christian life was] prayer and personal conversion.’”[xi] As a local bishop, Romero “believed that the church was made up of the ‘good rich’ and the ‘good poor,’ and he put as much distance as possible between himself and the ‘bad rich’ and the revolutionary poor.”[xii] The campesino clergy believed their “kind of pastoral work, which involved [advocacy, activism, and] working directly with the poor, was going to be fenced in” by Romero.[xiii]

“The installation of Bishop Romero was planned to be a solemn occasion, according to all the rules and formalities. But the government thought that the interregnum would be an opportune moment for its interests, and it thought it could ‘count on’ the new bishop. [Therefore,] The government began an escalation of repression against the church…For Fr. Rafael Barahona, a…campesino cleric, the repression was [especially] cruel. When they brought him back to the chancery, he had been severely beaten. The guards had taken out all their fury on his body. Archbishop Chávez was grief-stricken with helplessness and begged Bishop Romero to take his place [more] quickly [than originally planned].”[xiv]

In the 1960s, Rutilio Grande served as “prefect of discipline” at the San Salvador seminary, and he became a friend of Oscar Romero. In 1970, Rutilio served as Master of Ceremonies at Romero’s ordination as a local bishop. In 1972, Grande became pastor in Aguilares, where he served 30,000 campesinos, preaching against “the injustice of a few dominating and exploiting the many for their own profit.”[xv] On March 12, 1977, scarcely a month since Romero’s installation, Rutilio, an elderly parishioner, and a fifteen-year-old boy set out to “say an evening mass at El Paisnal, a village a few miles away from [Aguilares]…Midway [in their journey], in the midst of flat fields of tall sugarcane, high-powered bullets struck [Grande and his companions]. All three died on the spot. It was about 5:30 P.M.”

Word of these murders quickly reached the capital city, and “Romero arrived at Aguilares about 10:00 P.M. The three bodies were laid out on tables in the church, covered with sheets. Jesuits and other priests had been gathering, and the church was filled…Later, at the formal funeral, Romero said of his friend’s death, “Who knows if the murderers that have now fallen into excommunication are listening to a radio in their hideout, listening in their conscience to this word. We want to tell you, murderous brethren, that we love you and that we ask of God repentance for your hearts, because the church is not able to hate, it has no enemies. Its only enemies are those who want to declare themselves so. But the church loves them and dies like Christ: ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’”[xvi] Colleagues attributed Grande’s death as the cohering moment of Romero’s ministry: when he risked leaning into his new authority for the sake of the communities he served, and his priests and people risked leaning into his leadership.

As Romero referenced in his remarks following the death of his friend, the Salvadoran church used the archdiocesan radio station to broadcast not only liturgies and devotionals, but news, and YSAX became “the most popular station in [the country], and Romero was its most popular figure. But the government was unhappy about its straight-talking ways[, and the church’s willingness to report on the government’s atrocities against its own people]. In his Sunday sermon on May 8, 1977, Romero spoke of the [government’s] threat to close the station down and of the bombs that had gone off in the archdiocese’s print shop…[Recognizing the effort] to silence the church’s voice[, Romero warned, “Who knows if this may be the last time that I communicate with you by radio? God grant that it is not…If, unhappily, they silence the radio, seek the Word of God in your parish; don’t miss mass on Sunday. The archdiocesan office will keep publishing its information bulletin. Look for it in your parishes. Don’t keep isolated from this communication of the Word. For while the forces of persecution and defamation of the church have all the newspapers, all the radios, all the television on their side, the struggle is unequal[, for we have God’s mighty Word in our voices.][xvii]

Struggle, persecution, and assassination persisted in the last years of the 1970s, until, on Monday, October 15, 1979, the Revolutionary Government Junta assumed control of El Salvador through a coup of threat and intimidation. “In [his] first pronouncements of the new government, Romero recognized ‘good will, clarity of ideas, and clear consciousness of their responsibility.’ However, the new rulers would have to show that their…promises were really the beginning of a new era. As a pastor of the church, Romero was ready for dialog and collaboration with [this] new government[. He said, ‘We lay down only one condition: that we both, government and church, be conscious that our reason for being is to serve the people, each one in its own sphere.’”[xviii]

In companion with Romero’s good-faith receipt of the new government – which, on its surface, risked alienation of his activist clergy – he petitioned for “past violations of human rights [to] be [repaired]. The disappeared must be accounted for, the guilty must be brought to judgment, and restitution must be made to victims or their survivors. The communications media also owed an explanation and satisfaction to the public for ‘their demonstrated complicity in the murders and corruption of the previous government.’

“He called on the [junta] to return twenty-million dollars that had been given to the armed forces from the budgets of [Salvadoran domestic] ministries, and he asked the United States not to resume military aid to El Salvador[ citing, ‘We are tired of weapons and bullets. Our hunger is for justice, for food, medicine, education, and effective programs of fair development. If human rights come to be respected, we will have no need at all for weapons or methods of death.”[xix]

Despite these appeals, the new government “[acted] even more savagely than before.”[xx] Not only were past wrongs not righted, but new strategies of domination and division emerged, threatening not only the unity of the country, but the unity of the Salvadoran church. Threats against Romero’s life quickened and intensified.

In the chronology of the archbishop’s life, Erdozaín entitles the chapter beginning with February of 1980, “The Path to Calvary.” Romero had received an honorary doctorate from the University of Louvain, Belgium, and on February 2, he preached at the recognition ceremony: “I am a shepherd who, with us people, has begun to learn a beautiful and difficult truth: our Christian faith requires that we submerge ourselves in this world. The course taken by the church has always had political repercussions. The problem is how to direct that influence so that it will be in accordance with the faith. The world that the church must serve is the world of the poor, and the poor are the ones who decide what it means for the church to really live in the world…The persecution of the church is a result of defending the poor. Our persecution is nothing more nor less than sharing in the destiny of the poor.”[xxi]

Following the annual clergy retreat at the end of that month, Romero spoke to the Mexican newspaper, Excelsior, sharing: “My life has been threatened many times. I have to confess that, as a Christian, I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. I’m not boasting, or saying this out of pride, but rather as humbly as I can. As a shepherd, I am obliged by divine law to give my life for those I love, for the entire Salvadoran people, including those Salvadorans who threaten to assassinate me.”[xxii]

On Sunday, March 23, 1980, YSAX, which had been taken off the air, returned to service and broadcasted Romero’s sermon on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Romero preached, “I have tried during these Sundays of Lent to keep uncovering the divine revelation, contained in the Word that is read here at mass, God’s program to save peoples and individuals…This is the church’s mission[, and i]n light of God’s Word…we have the duty of pointing out the realities, of seeing how God’s plan is reflected among us or despised among us. Let no one take it ill that in the light of God’s Word read in our mass, we enlighten social, political, and economic realities. If we did not, it would not be Christianity for us…”[xxiii]

With members of the military guard present at the service, Romero continued, “I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, and in particular to the ranks of the Guardia Nacional, of the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God…It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin.”[xxiv]

Perhaps this, finally, was enough, that Romero – being broadcast across the country, into villages and military outposts, alike – would make appeal for fidelity to God, rather than worldly power. The next evening, while celebrating mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital for the terminally ill, Romero was assassinated. Of that moment and the season of suffering that followed, his friend and colleague writes, “They assassinated him…They had to do it…And he rose again, as he had promised.”[xxv]

Situating ourselves beneath Romero’s statue at Westminster Abbey, imagine as  The Last Week images: “two processions [entering a great city, approaching a splendid temple]…One [is] a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus [rides] a donkey down the Mount of Olives…On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, enter[s] Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. [Though the crowd at each entry cheer the arrival of the “Son of God”] Jesus’ procession proclaim[s] the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaim[s] the power of empire.”[xxvi]

While in order to minimize disruption we want to synchronize these parades, Oscar Romero understood their irreconcilable conflict, and he gave his life rather than concede his integrity. As we now approach Holy Week – not so far removed from his witness[xxvii] – realize that “these two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion,” and we must choose in which one we will align ourselves, our families, our faith. In this decision, the Passion of Oscar Romero warns us who might rationalize our faith into a First-World Christianity of minimal consequence, that we imperil our souls should we choose to separate our own fates from “the destiny of the poor”…that in so doing we march with Pilate – we cry out, “Crucify him!” – processing against Jesus, and not with him.

In companion with the Passion of Jesus, Romero’s remarkable faith and courage invite our own fidelity and strength, challenging us to look beneath the superficial peace of our daily lives, to see those who suffer so that we might be comfortable; to recognize those who struggle so that we do not; and to realize that where the empobrecido is, God is, and, if we are faithful and God is merciful, we might also be.

[i] Heller, Jenny E. “Westminster Abbey Elevates 10 Foreigners.” The New York Times. September 22, 1998.
[ii] Matthew 19:14-15.
[iii] Erdozaín, Plácido. Archbishop Romero: Martyr of Salvador. Orbis, 1981. 4,6. Erdozaín’s book, first published within months of Romero’s assassination, bears his love for his friend and shares Romero’s passion for their Christian cause in El Salvador. Unapologetically partisan, I found the immediacy of the text incredibly compelling and convincing. I would offer that its ardor is its historicity.
[iv] Erdozaín, 2-3.
[v] McFadden, John, and Ruth Warner. “Translators’ Preface.” Archbishop Romero. Orbis, 1981. xxiii.
[vi] Erdozaín, 5.
[vii] Erdozaín, 3.
[viii] Erdozaín, xxiii.
[ix] Erdozaín, 6.
[x] The organization sensationalized in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code novels, known for the physical and spiritual rigor demanded of its prelates.
[xi] Erdozaín, 6.
[xii] Erdozaín, 7.
[xiii] Erdozaín, 7.
[xiv] Erdozaín, 10.
[xv] Brockman, James R. The Word Remains: A Life Of Oscar Romero. Orbis. 1982, 8. While published only eighteen months after Erdozaín’s work, the Brockman biography applies a more traditional, biographical tone and style. Brockman organizes the biography by date.
[xvi] Brockman, 10.
[xvii] Brockman, 25
[xviii] Brockman, 181.
[xix] Brockman, 183.
[xx] Brockman, 184.
[xxi] Erdozaín, 73-74.
[xxii] Erdozaín, 75.
[xxiii] Brockman, 216.
[xxiv] Brockman, 217.
[xxv] Erdozaín, 82.
[xxvi] Borg, Marcus J. & John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week. HarperOne, 2006, 2.
[xxvii] As Americans, we are not heroes in Salvadoran story: https://www.thenation.com/article/time-for-a-us-apology- to-el-salvador/
[xxviii] ibid.