The Reluctant Conversion of Oscar Romero | Sojourners

The Reluctant Conversion of Oscar Romero

Don’t be mistaken. Archbishop Oscar Romero was an ordinary man. When soldiers pointed guns at him or made crude threats, he sweated, he trembled, he looked for where he could hide.

Romero came to be known for his courageous and eloquent public denunciations of the atrocities and injustice committed by the military in the turbulent years before El Salvador’s bitter civil war. But for much of his earlier career, he was politically cautious.

In 1968, the Latin American Catholic bishops gathered at Medellín, Colombia. They spoke of the "institutionalized sin" that afflicted and oppressed the majority of people in Latin America, and they called the whole church to a preferential option for the poor. For a long time Romero wanted nothing to do with this. He squelched community-based pastoral projects that he felt were too radical. He steadfastly protected the status quo.

Romero was named archbishop of the archdiocese of San Salvador on February 10, 1977. On February 28, a major protest of election fraud ended in bloodshed when a crowd of protesters were attacked by soldiers in the town square of the capital. Romero did not intervene or raise his voice.

Then, on March 12, 1977, a radical Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande, was murdered along with a 72-year-old layman and a young boy. Romero had known Grande. He questioned why there was no official inquiry into the deaths. From that point forward Romero continued to ask questions which revealed that power in El Salvador lay in the hands of the wealthy—many of whom had supported him for archbishop—and that these same people tacitly sanctioned the violence that maintained their positions.

In May 1979, Romero presented the pope with seven dossiers filled with reports and documents describing assassinations, disappearances, and human rights abuses in El Salvador. On March 24, 1980, Romero was shot dead while celebrating Mass in the chapel of the hospital where he lived.

Here are some glimpses of Romero, stories told by those who knew him.

—The Editors

‘The bishop is coming!’

CIUDAD BARRIOS AWOKE from its peasant slumber as soon as the sun raised its head above the horizon in the usual place.

"The bishop is coming!"

San Miguel’s very first bishop, Juan Antonio Dueñas y Argumedo, was coming to visit.

"Mamá," said Oscar, who was still a little boy, "why don’t you buy me a new shirt and a pair of pants so I can go see him?"

Niña Guadalupe de Jesús got the new clothes ready so her son would be neat and presentable. So the boy went about, here, there and everywhere, accompanying the bishop on all his rounds. The bishop was quite impressed with him.

"Oscar, come over here!" the bishop called to him in front of his townspeople.

"Yes, Monseñor?"

"Tell me, boy, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

"Well, I...I would like to be a priest!"

Then the bishop raised his hefty finger and pointed it straight at Oscar’s forehead.

"You are going to be a bishop."

After marking the destiny of the boy, he went back to his mansion in San Miguel. And Ciudad Barrios went back to its drowsy sleep.

Fifty years later, Monseñor Romero touched that place on his forehead and told me, "I can still feel the touch of his finger right here."

—Carmen Chacón


Buried in his papers.

I DIDN’T LIKE HIM. He was an insignificant being, a shadow that went by clinging to the walls. I don’t know why, but when he arrived in San Salvador, Father Romero decided to stay in the San José de la Montaña Seminary. I was part of a Jesuit community that lived there. But he never ate any of his meals with us. He would go down to the dining room at different times so that he wouldn’t run into us. It was clear that he was avoiding us, and that he had arrived at the seminary laden with prejudices.

We never saw him attend anything that resembled a pastoral activity. He didn’t have a parish. And he didn’t go to the clergy meetings. If he did go, he would hide in some corner and never open his mouth. He was afraid of confronting the more active priests who were being radicalized by everything that was happening in the country—and there was a lot happening! But he preferred to stay in his office buried in his papers. Or to walk down the halls dressed in his black cassock, praying the breviary.

Soon after he arrived in San Salvador, we had a pastoral week that was a real shaker-upper! Everything went into high gear and became more radical. Plans, meetings, communities—a thousand things were getting under way! He stayed on the margins of all of that. Later he started to take sides, but against us. —Salvador Carranza

A pair of underwear

for Christmas.

"THE TEACHING YOU DO is too participatory." That’s what Monseñor Romero would say most often when we would talk about the work at the Los Naranjos Center. He had finally let us open it again. Sometimes he would come at me with another kind of argument:

"I’ve heard it said that the government is worried about this type of teaching, too."

"The government? But who should tell me what the correct teaching is? The government or my bishop? Because if it’s the government, then I have no use for you. But if it’s you, then I don’t care what the government says!"

You just couldn’t tell about him. He couldn’t just take a stand and move on it. From the very beginning, any time that I or anyone else mentioned Medellín to him, the man would get so nervous, he’d develop a tick. The corner of his lip would start trembling. It would shake and shake, and he couldn’t control it.

But still, he was learning. Learning from reality.

He started realizing that the campesinos who arrived to work the coffee harvest on the plantations were sleeping on the sidewalks, scattered around the plaza, shivering with cold.

"What can be done?" he asked one day.

"Monseñor, you can solve the problem. Look at that big old house where the school used to be. Open it up!"

He opened it. Romero would go around and talk with the campesinos. That’s how he began to understand that the problems we’d told him about so often were not stories that we’d made up.

"Father," he said to me one day, "what is this ‘helper system’ all about?"

"The foremen, whether they’re on coffee or cotton plantations, register a certain number of workers on the payroll, but they always write down fewer people than they need. What do they do then? They accept everyone else who comes, but only as helpers. And they only pay the helpers for the weight of the can of coffee or the sack of cotton they’ve picked, but they don’t give them any food, and if they work on Sundays they don’t get paid for it...."

"Why do they do that...?"

"Because they save a big wad of money that way, and there’s always a lot of cheap labor available to them. Needy campesinos always show up, and there’s always a crop ready to be picked, so they’ve got the perfect set-up!"

"But how is it possible for good Christian people to do these things?"

"They do that and more! Do you know how these Christians who are such good friends of yours make up for these outrageous tricks? With little Christmas presents. On a certain plantation, where some close friends of yours live, do you know what they gave their workers who picked cotton for them, frying their backs in the hot sun like pork skins? A pair of underwear worth three colones! Three colones is what they saved every day from each one of them by not giving them any food to eat!"

"That’s not possible, Father...."

The more I told him, the sadder he got.

"Monseñor, why don’t you go to the plantation of this other friend of yours....Go find out for yourself."

He went.

"You were right, Father," he said to me when he came back, "but how is so much injustice possible?"

"Monseñor, this world so full of injustices is exactly what they were talking about in Medellín."

"Medellín, Medellín...."

He listened to the word and repeated it himself. And his lip didn’t tremble. After that day, I never saw that tick reappear. —Juan Macho

‘tHey will have to deal with me!’

THE PLAZA WAS FULL to overflowing. More than 100,000 people were there. Many people who had distanced themselves from the church for years returned to their faith that day. Rutilio’s assassination and the message given by that single Mass were alarms sounding—waking people up.

As the Mass began, I noticed that Monseñor Romero was sweating, pale and nervous. And when he began the homily, it seemed slow to me, without his usual eloquence, as if he was reluctant to go through the door of history that God was opening up for him. But after about five minutes, I felt the Holy Spirit descend upon him.

"...I want to give a public thanks today, here in front of the archdiocese, for the unified support that is being expressed for the only gospel and for these our beloved priests. Many of them are in danger, and like Father Grande, they are risking even the maximum sacrifice...."

Hearing the name of Rutilio, thousands exploded into applause.

"This applause confirms the profound joy that my heart feels upon taking possession of the archdiocese and feeling that my own weaknesses and my own inabilities can find their complement, their strength, and their courage in a united clergy. Whoever touches one of my priests, is touching me. And they will have to deal with me!"

Thousands of people were applauding him, and you could see him grow stronger. It was then that he crossed the threshold. He went through the door. Because, you know, there is baptism by water, and there is baptism by blood. But there is also baptism by the people. —Inocencio Alas


Where the bodies went.

THE ISIDRO MENENDEZ MORGUE was famous. That’s where the bodies went after they were found on the streets, in the ditches, or in the garbage dumps of San Salvador. There were times when there were six, seven, eight of them every day. The garbage truck would pick them up and take them there until someone came to identify them. Sometimes no one came. They were afraid of reprisals.

That’s where they took Father Octavio and the four boys after the National Guard killed them in El Despertar. The news spread quickly through the neighborhood. I went with my father, Beto, who had been a friend of Father Octavio since I was a girl. We went to the morgue looking for our dead.

The entrance was totally militarized. Monseñor Romero arrived the same time we did, and he went in right away, racked with sorrow.

"Where are they? Where are they?"

No one stopped him or anything. The guardsmen just looked at him from the door, curious to see the archbishop going into such a place of ghosts. We went in behind him.

The floor was one big puddle of blood. The five of them were there, thrown on the floor. Streams of blood were still coming out of them. Around them were some of the people from the community that had arrived before us.

"Where is Octavio?"

"Here, Monseñor. This is him." They pointed to him.

You couldn’t tell it was him. His body was completely flattened, his face destroyed to the point that it looked like he didn’t even have one. I had seen Father Octavio in my house eating with my father so many times...and I couldn’t even recognize him.

Monseñor Romero knelt on the ground and held his shattered head.

"It can’t be. This isn’t him. It’s not him...."

Tears streamed from Monseñor’s face as he held him with deep tenderness.

"They ran him over with the tank and smashed his head, Monseñor."

"I can’t believe that they could be so savage," he said.

The guardsmen looked in through the door. Monseñor’s cassock was covered with blood and he was crying, cradling Father Octavio in his arms.

"Octavio, my son, you have completed your mission. You were faithful...."

Marichi came in, completely distraught.

"You don’t have a camera, do you?" Monseñor asked her.

"Not here, it’s at home."

"Go get it. Take pictures of Father Octavio for me, with his face like this, the way they left him."

—Carmen Elena Hernández


‘We’re going to crush you into pieces.’

EVERY MORNING SILVIA and I received all his mail. We opened it for him, went through it and passed it on to him to see what kind of a response he was going to give to each letter.

From early 1979 on, he started to receive anonymous threatening letters on a regular basis. We would pass them on to him as well. They blamed him for everything that was happening in the country: for every strike, every demonstration, every guerrilla action. They called him bad names, and they’d give him until such-and-such a time to change his way of preaching. If not, they’d kill him, they said.

There were insults, nasty comments, complaints—all of them vulgar. "Son of a bitch, we’re going to drink your blood!" They’d say things like that. Or "We’re going to crush you into pieces," "Your days are numbered," and other things I won’t even repeat.

Other letters came without words—just a Nazi swastika or white hand over a black piece of paper. It was already understood that those were death sentences. There were days when it wasn’t just two or three of these anonymous letters, but a whole handful of them!

—Maria Isabel Figueroa


‘I want a little more time.’

THERE WAS A FULL MOON. A little breeze gave some relief to the heat of the day’s work. We were coming back exhausted from a day full of visits to the communities. We were headed back to San Salvador. Barraza was driving, and I was sitting in back with Monseñor Romero. I was leaving the country the next day. This was the last time I would see him, and perhaps that’s why I dared to ask him:

"Monseñor, I’ve heard many people asking you to take care of yourself. Have the threats increased...?"

"Yes, they have. Every day there are more, and I take them very seriously...."

He was quiet for a few moments. I felt a kind of air of nostalgia come over him. He leaned his head back, half-closed his eyes and said to me:

"I’ll tell you the truth, Doctor, I don’t want to die. At least not now. I’ve never had so much love for life! And honestly, I don’t think I was meant to be a martyr. I don’t feel that calling. Of course, if that’s what God asks of me, then there’s nothing I can do. I only ask that the circumstances of my death not leave any doubt as to what my true vocation is: to serve God and to serve the people. But I don’t want to die now. I want a little more time...." —Jorge Lara-Braud


This article is excerpted from Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic, by María López Vigil (UCA Editores, El Salvador, 1993). English translation by Kathy Ogle (EPICA, 2000). Contact EPICA (Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean), 1470 Irving St. NW, Washington, DC 20010; (202) 332-0292;;

Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
This appears in the March-April 2000 issue of Sojourners
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