Twenty-nine years ago today, a Salvadorian government hit man assassinated Archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero as he was saying Mass in a convent. News of Romero's assassination sparked a slew of global responses -- from sadness and outrage to impartiality. Those who mourned his death praised his courage in siding with the poor and oppressed of his violence-plagued nation. Those who felt no grief criticized the archbishop's supposed political involvement by painting him as a weak-minded pawn of the radical priests and "leftist" guerrillas who longed for a different Salvadorian government.
Romero's assassination shows that he paid the ultimate price for preaching and living the radical gospel of Jesus. Death was the final stage in his suffering, however, and while alive, both the government and the Catholic hierarchy criticized him -- causing him much emotional consternation. But this unpopularity with those in power was not always the case for Romero.
A once conservative clergyman educated at the Gregorian University in Rome, Romero was the ideal choice of the Vatican in 1977 to replace the socially conscious retiring archbishop Luis Chávez y González. Many knew Romero would try to stifle the then-new liberation theology movement that sought to free the poor and oppressed from the social and economic structures that kept them in bondage. Indeed, leading liberation theologian and Jesuit Jon Sobrino mentioned that bad times were on the horizon following Romero's installation as archbishop.
Yet amid growing violence at the hands of the government, the new archbishop reconsidered his position. He began noticing a contradiction between the gospel of Jesus and the human rights abuses committed by the Salvadorian government. In particular, he deplored the kidnapping and killing of priests, nuns, peasants, and others who desired government reform, equitable land distribution, and more humane economic policies. His pastoral letters emphasized the poor's rights to form unions, as well as to demonstrate nonviolently. But perhaps sealing his fate was the homily he gave on Sunday, March 23, 1980 (the day before his assassination). In his homily, he urged soldiers of the National Guard to disobey orders that violate God's law of "thou shalt not kill." His concluding words were arguably the most poignant:
In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!
Unfortunately, repression and division continued unabated within the Salvadorian government and within the Catholic hierarchy. Immediately before Romero's death, many in the Catholic hierarchy were unsure what to make of Romero's "subversive" words and actions. As Romero began championing the rights of the poor and oppressed, conservative prelates of El Salvador and the Vatican began to look upon the archbishop with deep suspicion. One cardinal at the Vatican told Romero that he and others who favored his appointment were disappointed at the bishop's sudden radical views and meddling in politics. Several Salvadorian bishops, along with the papal nuncio to San Salvador, attempted often to defame the archbishop of the people. Some sources even indicate that at one point Pope John Paul II considered sending an apostolic administrator to Romero's diocese. This would have rendered Romero's authority obsolete.
For those who accused Romero of espousing an overly political message, let us recall that Jesus was both a religious and political figure who saw religion and politics as intertwined, especially in the oppressive context of first-century Galilee. Theologian Harvey Cox, in his book When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today, states that "most Christians do not realize that Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was not really a religious event. It was political, a brazen display of non-violent rebellion." So Romero, like Jesus who defended his people against imperial repression, faced adversity from society and from his own faith tradition for speaking the truth.
The mounting death threats eventually materialized, and the archbishop of the oppressed was suddenly gone, though he continues to live on in those who struggle against injustice. He also lives on through his pastoral letters that contributed to the Catholic Church's post-Vatican II mission of making modern society more humane by reading the signs of the times. But most importantly, he -- like Jesus -- lives on in the persecuted peoples of the world, who daily struggle for basic human rights.
César J. Baldelomar is the executive director of Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching and blogs at www.holisticthoughts.com. He will begin graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School in the fall.