Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., June 1, 2 or 3
It’s an understandable, innocent ignorance.
But his circumstances and actions should be remembered – and make us all humble.
Decades ago El Salvador was in upheaval, and government “death squads” were responsible for 85 percent of the violence there, according to a U.N. Truth Commission. Four churchwomen were raped and murdered in 1980 and a year later 1,000 civilians were massacred in El Mozote. More than 70,000 perished in the civil war from 1979-1992.
A day after pleading – then ordering – soldiers to stop killing innocent civilians, Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, as he conducted Mass for the mother of an independent newspaperman in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador. It’s taken 35 years of debating distinctions between pastoral duties and political engagement under repressive regimes for the Vatican to recognize him as a martyr to the faith.
Conservative Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 cleared the way for Romero’s beatification, but Pope Francis ensured it occurred.
Romero knew “how to guide, defend and protect his flock,” Francis said, “remaining faithful to the Gospel and in communion with the whole church. His ministry was distinguished by a particular attention to the poor and marginalized.”
Romero “built the peace with the power of love,” the Pontiff continued, and “gave testimony of the faith with his life.”
He didn’t fit the heroic stereotype. Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez was born Aug. 15, 1917, and grew up poor and worked as a carpenter as an adolescent before entering the seminary and becoming ordained on April 4, 1942. Pope Paul VI made the introverted cleric a Bishop in 1970.
But after the Salvadoran National Guard murdered five farm workers in 1975, Bishop Romero wrote a letter of protest to the government. Still, when Pope Paul named him Archbishop in 1977, Romero was regarded as a conservative, even timid, priest, but he couldn’t ignore events any more than betray his faith.
Not long after, Romero’s friend Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande was killed, and Romero found his voice, demanding an end to violence, pushing for agrarian reform and the right to organize, and advocating for the poor.
“Anyone committed to the poor must suffer the same fate as the poor,” he said. “And in El Salvador we know the fate of the poor: to be taken away, to be tortured, to be jailed, to be found dead.”
Romero began reporting kidnappings and atrocities as well as broadcasting his homilies on the church’s modest radio station, which would have an audience of more than half the country, where most media were mouthpieces for the dictatorship. He challenged the military about its brutality and even appealed to President Jimmy Carter to stop funding the junta. But he wasn’t just ignored by the Democratic administration; he became a target of the Salvadoran military.
Also, oddly, in trying to protect people from abusive authority, Romero became the most trusted newsman in Latin America, sort of a combination of Walter Cronkite and Pastor William Sloane Coffin. Despite increasing death threats and even the bombing of the radio station, Romero refused to be silent.
Salvadoran journalist Armando Contreras reportedly called Romero “the highest source of information that this country had during those years, and if there’s any title that fits him perfectly, it’s ‘the journalist of the poor’.”
Like other revered Catholics honored for their advocacy journalism – St. Francis de Sales, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe and Dorothy Day come to mind – he was less political than truthful. He condemned violence on both sides of the war and warned that churches are sanctuaries and “not meant to be centers for any type of political indoctrination or military training.”
He reached out directly to rank-and-file troops, preaching, “No soldier is obliged to obey an order to kill if it runs contrary to his conscience.”
The next day he was murdered.
Today, we should respect and honor Romero and try to continue his work for peace and justice and against war and violence, oppression and poverty, and lies and ignorance.
“If one day, they took our radio station away from us, closed the newspaper or didn’t let us speak – if they killed off all of our priests and the bishop, too, then each one of you would have to be a microphone for God.”
[PICTURED: People gathered for Archbishop Oscar Romero's beatification Mass in the Divine Savior of the World square in San Salvador. Photo from ncronline.org.]