Five years ago, as more than 20,000 people gathered for the twilight memorial Mass for Oscar Arnulfo Romero in San Salvador, the papal nuncio—the pope’s ambassador—announced, “We are gathered here to remember Archbishop Oscar Reynaldo Romero.” The sudden silence of more than 20,000 people holding their breath was broken by the chant, “Arnulfo! Arnulfo!” followed by, “Queremos un obispo que anda con los pobres!” (We want a bishop who will walk with the people!) throughout the rest of the Mass. Following the Mass, as the people marched to the plaza, they chanted, “Se siente, se siente, Romero está presente!” (We feel it, we feel it, Romero is present!)
Today, as El Salvador prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of this unlikely icon of a suffering and displaced people, one might ask: What is it about this memorial celebration that continues to gain momentum after so many years?
Romero’s martyrdom was a result of the fact that he spoke for the poor and voiceless amid the carnage of the Salvadoran civil war. His is not a story about a lifelong idealistic revolutionary, but rather about a man of privilege and prestige who came to see that the world he had known had to be turned upside down. His story shows the power of conversion into a new understanding of reality.
Romero wrote, “The church would betray its own love for God and its fidelity to the gospel if it stopped being ... a defender of the rights of the poor [and] a humanizer of every legitimate struggle to achieve a more just society ... that prepares the way for the true reign of God in history.” For Romero, “when the church hears the cry of the oppressed, it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.”
Today, the power of conversion breathes hope amid the harsh realities of continued oppression. CAFTA, which promises to enrich the mining, manufacturing, and agricultural businesses of the United States and Canada, has not improved life for the poor of El Salvador. While great wealth has been achieved by a few, the poor pay more to buy goods brought in from the north. Food is expensive, and Salvadoran farmers are not able to compete with the highly subsidized agribusinesses of the North.
Romero, in his radical demonstration of total surrender and trust in the goodness of God, continues to speak and to live in the Salvadoran people—those scarred by the war and those too young to remember it. As liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez said at the 25th anniversary of Romero’s death, “Jesus is the homily of God, and Romero is the homily of Jesus in our presence.”
For the people of El Salvador today, and for all people who are undergoing systematic brutality from their governments and the Western world’s powerful regimes, Romero’s actions and words incarnate the gospel of Jesus. If the past is any indication, this March in San Salvador, thousands of people—from Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, North America, and South America, Christian and non-Christian—will gather, to remember and be transformed by the witness of a martyred bishop who dared to defy the sinful structures of privilege.
Ted Fortier is a professor of anthropology and Jeanette Rodriguez a professor of theology and religious studies at Seattle University. They are co-authors of Cultural Memory: Resistance, Faith, and Identity.