Oscar Romero, Presente!
by John Dear
CommonDreams.org , March 24, 2005
"I have often been threatened with
death," Archbishop Oscar Romero told a Guatemalan reporter
two weeks before his assassination on March 24, 1980. "If
they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats
come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God
for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood
be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality."
Oscar Romero was killed twenty-five years
ago today, but he lives on in El Salvador, Latin America and even
in the United States, wherever people give their lives in the
nonviolent struggle for justice and peace. He gave his life for
that struggle in the hope that the outcome was inevitable, that
justice would be done, that war would be abolished, that truth
will overcome, and that love and life are stronger than hate and
Romero's journey took him from the spoiled
life of a quiet, conservative pious cleric whose silence blessed
decades of poverty into a prophet of justice, "the voice
of the voiceless" in war-torn, politically explosive El Salvador.
He represented no political party or ideology, only the suffering
people of El Salvador, and became a stunning sign of God's active
presence in the world, of the struggle for justice itself.
After his friend Jesuit priest Rutilio
Grande was brutally killed for speaking out against injustice
on March 12, 1977, Romero was transformed overnight into one of
the world's great champions for the poor and oppressed. At the
local mass the next day, Romero preached a sermon that stunned
El Salvador. Like the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., Romero
defended the work of Grande, demanded justice for the poor, and
called everyone to take up Grande's prophetic stand for justice.
In protest against the government's suspected participation in
the murders, Romero closed the parish schools for three days and
canceled all masses in the country the following week. Over one
hundred thousand people attended the Mass at the Cathedral in
a bold call for justice. While the government and military were
concerned, the campesinos were inspired to stand up for a new
As more priests and church workers were
assassinated, Romero spoke out more intensely, even publicly criticizing
the president on several occasions. As the government death squads
began to take over villages, attack churches, and massacre campesinos,
Romero's protest became loud. In the growing climate of fear and
war, his word of truth in a culture of violence and lies was nothing
less than a subversive act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Within a period of months, everywhere
Romero went he was greeted with applause. His Sunday homilies
were broadcast nationwide on live radio and heard by nearly everyone
in the country. Letters poured in from every village, thanking
him for his prophetic voice and confessing their own new found
As Romero gained strength in his role
as spokesperson for justice and truth, and as he exhorted the
Salvadoran people to the nonviolent struggle for justice and peace,
he never lost his simple faith and pious devotion. From this devotional
piety which he shared with all Salvadorans, he paved a new way
into active Gospel peacemaking. He preached about God's preferential
option for the poor, justice and peace. In his opposition to the
government's silence, he refused to attend the inauguration of
the new Salvadoran president. The church, he announced, is "not
to be measured by the government's support but rather by its own
authenticity, its evangelical spirit of prayer, trust, sincerity
and justice, its opposition to abuses."
As more and more people were arrested,
tortured, disappeared and murdered, Romero made two prophetic
institutional decisions which stand out for their rare Gospel
vision. First, on Easter Monday, 1978, he opened the seminary
in downtown San Salvador to all displaced victims of violence.
Hundreds of homeless, hungry and brutalized people moved into
the seminary, transforming the quiet religious retreat into a
crowded, noisy shelter, make-shift hospital, and playground. Second,
he stopped construction on the Cathedral until, he said, when
justice and peace are established. When the war was over and the
hungry were fed, he announced, then we can resume building our
cathedral. Both moves were unprecedented and historic and cast
judgment on the Salvadoran government.
Romero's preaching escalated each month
to new biblical heights. "Like a voice crying in the desert,"
he said, "we must continually say No to violence and Yes
to peace." His August 1978 pastoral letter outlined the evils
of "institutional violence" and repression, and advocated
"the power of nonviolence that today has conspicuous students
and followersThe counsel of the Gospel to turn the other cheek
to an unjust aggressor, far from being passive or cowardly,"
he wrote, "shows great moral force that leaves the aggressor
morally overcome and humiliated. The Christian always prefers
peace to war."
Romero lived simply in a three room hermitage
on the grounds of a hospital run by a community of nuns. He associated
on a daily basis with hundreds of the poorest of the poor. He
traveled the countryside constantly, and assisted those who suffered
most. He frequently commented that his duty as pastor had become
the task of claiming the dead bodies of priests and campesinos
and to defend the poor by calling for an end to the killing. One
Salvadoran told me, on one of my many visits to El Salvador, how
Romero drove out whenever necessary to a large garbage dump where
bodies were often discarded by the government death squads. He
looked among the trash and the dead bodies for relatives of family
members whom he accompanied. "These days I walk the roads
gathering up dead friends, listening to widows and orphans, and
trying to spread hope," he said.
His last few Sunday sermons in late 1979
and early 1980 issued strong calls for conversion to justice and
bold denunciations of the daily massacres and assassinations.
His plea to the wealthy elite who supported the death squads was
pointed and prophetic. "To those who bear in their hands
or in their conscience, the burden of bloodshed, of outrages,
of the victimized, innocent or guilty, but still victimized in
their human dignity, I say: Be converted. You cannot find God
on the path of torture. God is found on the way of justice, conversion
Every day, Romero took time to speak
with dozens of persons threatened by government death squads.
People came to him to ask for the help or protection, to complain
about harassment or murders, or to find some guidance and support
in their time of grief and struggle. Romero received and listened
to everyone of them. His prophetic voice became stronger and angrier
as he learned of their pain and suffering.
In February 1980, when Romero heard that
President Jimmy Carter was considering sending millions of dollars
a day in military aid to El Salvador, Romero was shocked. Deeply
distressed, he wrote a long public letter to Carter, asking the
United States to cancel all military aid. Carter never responded
to Romero, and sent the aid.
On March 23, Romero exploded with his
most direct appeal to the members of the armed forces:
"I would like to make an appeal
in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those
in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You
kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order
to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that
says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order
against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law.
It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences
rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights
of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the
person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want
the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing
when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of
God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise
to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I
order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!"
The next day, March 24, 1980, Romero
presided at a special evening mass in the chapel of the hospital
compound where he lived, in honor of someone who had died one
year before. He read from John's Gospel: "Unless the grain
of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain.
But if it dies, it bears much fruit "(Jn. 12:23-26). Then
he preached about the need to give one's life for others as Christ
did. Just as he concluded his sermon, he was shot in the heart
by a man standing in the back of the church. Romero fell behind
the altar and collapsed at the foot of a huge crucifix depicting
a bloody and bruised Christ. Blood covered Romero's vestments
and the floor of the church, and he gasped for breath. He died
Romero's funeral was the largest demonstration
in Salvadoran history, some say in the history of Latin America.
The government was so afraid that they threw bombs into the crowd
and opened fire, killing some thirty people and injuring hundreds.
The funeral Mass was never completed and Romero was hastily buried.
Today, we remember Oscar Romero as a
saint and a martyr, but also as a prophet of justice, a friend
of the poor, and a peacemaker. He became the martyred shepherd
of the Third World, the spokesperson of the poor and oppressed,
not only of El Salvador, but all of Latin America, calling us
all to conversion, disarmament, and justice.
Romero calls us to live in solidarity
with the poor and oppressed, to think with them, feel with them,
walk with them, stand with them, and become one with them. From
that preferential solidarity, he summons us to join his prophetic
pursuit of justice.
Romero denounced violence on all sides
and called for a new culture of justice and peace where there
is no more killing, no more hunger, no more bombings, no more
poverty, and no more guns. He said the most important task we
can undertake in a culture of war is to publicly announce the
good news of peace, even if that announcement disrupts our lives,
even costs us our lives.
He invites us to join the struggle for
justice, and to proclaim the truth of peace regardless of the
consequences. Speaking the truth today, as Romero did twenty five
years ago, means denouncing Bush's war on Iraq, opposing corporate
greed and the ongoing U.S. war on the world's poor, and resisting
the U.S. nuclear weapons industry. It means fearlessly naming
our wars and violence as sinful, idolatrous, and demonic, and
upholding a new vision of nonviolence.
So today we remember Oscar Romero, speak
out for justice and peace, and join with our Salvadoran sisters
and brothers in their resurrection chant. Oscar Romero: Presente!
John Dear is a Jesuit priest, activist
and author/editor of 20 books, including most recently, "Living
Peace" and "The Questions of Jesus," both from
Doubleday. His booklet, "Oscar Romero and the Nonviolent
Struggle for Justice," is available from www.paxchristiusa.org.
He lives in New Mexico, where he organizes a campaign to close
Los Alamos. For info, see: www.johndear.org
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