Oscar Romero: Bishop and Martyr

Not many people I speak to have heard of Oscar Romero, which suggests to me that he needs to be better known.

This book tells the story of Romero’s three years as Archbishop of San Salvador (in El Salvador) from 1977 to 1980, during which time he became radicalised by the suffering of the common people.

At that time, the poorest citizens of El Salvador (the so-called ‘campesinos’) had no access to the land, most of which was in the hands of the wealthy oligarchy. Because of this unfair distribution of land, the people were reduced to working as seasonal farm labourers. As such, their rights were frequently ignored.

In response to the manifest injustice of this situation, a number of grass-roots organisations had sprung up. These took their inspiration from both Latin-American Liberation theology and Marxist ideology (or bastardised versions of both). Many priests were involved in these groups, as were lay catechists.

Shortly after Romero became Archbishop, these grass-roots groups began to be targeted by armed right-wing activists, regularly supported by the army and government ‘security’ forces. The first priest to fall as a victim in the violence was Fr Rutilio Grande.

Romero, who had been appointed Archbishop on the grounds of his supposed conservatism, was forced to react to this and other acts of violence against his clergy. Without defending Marxism (rather criticising aspects of it instead), Romero declared that the gospel is relevant not just to the spiritual welfare of individuals, but also to the physical and material conditions of an entire society. Romero also reiterated Christ’s ‘preference’ for the poor. The book also cites Pope John Paul II, who said that private property is fine, as long as we remember that it comes with an enormous social mortgage. In other words, wealth brings with it huge responsibilities. This is a timely reminder for all of us in the West (myself included), no matter how poor we think we are!

Romero fought against the totalitarian and capitalist tendencies of the state from a primarily theological point of view, although he recognised that political involvement is a central part of a Christian’s engagement with the gospel and the world.

Romero maintained his position in the face of opposition from within the Church and successive Salvadoran governments until the day he was gunned down at the altar of his cathedral in 1980. Pope John Paul II declared Oscar Romero a martyr for our time. His death certainly stands as a ‘witness’, challenging me to ask what I am doing as a Christian and a human being to fight the injustice of our global capitalist system.

The extreme circumstances under which Romero lived and died do not negate the relevance of his witness to us today. Rather, they simply clarify or focus the issues, making it obvious what is at stake in our current situation and whose side Christ is on – that of the global poor.