Oscar Romero

Archbishop Óscar Romero to be beatified May 23rd


Óscar Romero: A Martyr for Our Times

Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

The Christian martyr St. Thomas Becket was famously killed at the altar as he was celebrating Mass. Today we often tend to think that we are living in a more civilized age and that martyrdom is a thing of the past. But, in fact, martyrdom is still a very common occurrence for many twenty-first century Christians. John Allen, Jr., the highly respected English-language journalist who covers the Vatican has recently published a book entitled The Global War on Christians where, in horrifying detail, he explains that “however counterintuitive it may seem in light of popular stereotypes of Christianity as a powerful and sometimes oppressive social force, Christians today indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet, and too often their new martyrs suffer in silence.”

In this article I want to introduce our readers to Óscar Romero, a modern martyr, who, like St. Thomas Becket, was also an archbishop and who, again like St. Thomas Becket, was also killed at the altar while celebrating Mass.  But this man was not murdered for his Faith during some bygone Dark Age, but was martyred in 1980 during the lifetime of many of our readers and in the twentieth century, a century which saw the death of more Christian martyrs than the previous nineteen centuries of the history of the Church combined.

Óscar Romero did not have an easy life. He was born in a poor family on the feast day of Our Lady’s Assumption, August 15, 1917. He grew up in Ciudad Barrios, a small city one hundred miles away from the capital city of San Salvador. Although he was a good student, he was destined to become a carpenter as there were no job opportunities for people with academic qualifications in Ciudad Barrios.  But the young Óscar saw that God was calling him to be a priest and at age 13 entered the minor seminary.  He was soon moved to the National Seminary in the capital and eventually sent to Rome to complete his studies in the Gregorian University.  In 1942, while still in Rome, he was ordained a priest, but none of his family could attend his Ordination due to the travel restrictions imposed by World War II.  On his way home to San Salvador after his Ordination he was arrested in Cuba and placed in an internment camp (because he had come from Mussolini’s fascist Italy).  Eventually he was released and made his way home to El Salvador.

Once he got home he ministered in parishes for over twenty years. Here he did the regular work of a priest, working with different apostolic groups and started an Alcoholics Anonymous group. He also helped to spread devotion to Our Lady of Peace. Later on he was appointed as rector of the inter-diocesan seminary in San Salvador. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Salvador in 1970 and in 1974 he was appointed Bishop of the poor rural Diocese of Santiago de María. In 1977 he was appointed as Archbishop of San Salvador.

At this time the nation of El Salvador was suffering from a very serious political instability. Different groups were vying for control of the nation and the country was being pulled apart by the extreme political view of both the political right and left. Death squads were killing many people every day. A month after Archbishop Romero arrived in his new diocese something happened that was to change his life. Fr. Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who worked with the poor and a close friend of the new archbishop, was assassinated by a death squad. “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead” Archbishop Romero later wrote, “I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’”

From this point on, the Archbishop, who had been somewhat timid as a person, became a champion of the poor. As the political situation got worse and worse, and as it developed into a full-scale civil war, Archbishop Romero became the voice of the voiceless. He reached out to his flock in many ways, helping and consoling those facing the terrible sufferings of having loved ones killed or disappear. His weekly radio broadcasts were particularly popular. Here he listed the different murders, tortures and disappearances of the previous week and went on to give an hour-long sermon where he consoled and encouraged people. These were the main source of unbiased news and became the most popular radio broadcasts in the country. As a pastor of his flock, Archbishop Romero was a proponent of the true Liberation Theology. He once explained to a journalist that “there are two theologies of liberation. One is that which sees liberation only as material liberation. The other is that of Paul VI. I am with Paul VI.”

On the day before his martyrdom during his last public sermon, he addressed himself directly to his countrymen who were serving in the military: “I want to make a special appeal to soldiers, national guardsmen, and policemen: each of you is one of us. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s words, ‘thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey a law contrary to the law of God. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you; in the name of God I command you to stop the repression.”

The next day, March 24, 1980, the Archbishop spent most of the day at a meeting for priests organized by Opus Dei where they reflected on the gift of the priesthood together. After the meeting he went to a small chapel in Divine Providence Hospital to celebrate Mass. As he said Mass at the altar, shortly before the Consecration, he was shot dead by a sniper stationed outside the church. Nobody has ever claimed responsibility or been tried for his death.

Before his death, preaching at the funeral Mass of a murdered priest he said that “we must all be willing to die for our faith even if the Lord does not grant us this honor.” In the end the Lord did give him the “honor” of martyrdom, and since then, from heaven, he has continued his ministry of protecting the poor and the voiceless. When St. Johm Paul II visited El Salvador in 1983, the first stop he made was at Archbishop Romero’s tomb. Here he praised him as “a zealous and venerated pastor who tried to stop violence.” Early last February Pope Francis officially recognized “the martyrdom of Servant of God Oscar Arnolfo Romero Galdámez, Archbishop of San Salvador ... killed, in hatred of the faith, March 24, 1980, in San Salvador.” This official recognition, after careful study by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, allows the local Archdiocese of San Salvador to proceed with the Beatification Ceremony. This ceremony has been scheduled for May 23, 2015. Through his example and intercession, may Blessed Óscar Romero help all of us to care for the poor and those most in need and be a voice for the voiceless that surround each of us.