Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Martyr in Our Own Time – One of Too Many
March 24 is the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador in 1980. Archbishop Romero for most of his life was a pious, retiring, conservative priest and bishop. Nevertheless, he proved to be a man who could grow in response to the injustice of the social structure of his country, a structure that treated peasants and other poor people as less than human. When his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, S.J. was assassinated shortly after Romero had become archbishop, he came to see more clearly the systemic nature of the oppression and to speak on behalf of the voiceless poor. As he said, “A Church that does not unite itself to the poor … is not truly the Church of Jesus Christ.”
Romero’s words and actions on behalf of the poor were not welcomed by many of his friends and colleagues, let alone by the rich and powerful of his nation. In the face of threats against his life, he declared, “If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty. … A bishop will die, but the church of God — the people — will never die.” Ultimately, a day after his plea to the military, “I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression,” he was shot as he celebrated Mass.
A young Salvadoran agronomist was living with us at the time. She had been working in the countryside and had had the audacity to believe that peasants were human too. After one of her co-workers had been taken away by the death squads, her parents sent her to the United States, ostensibly to study English, but actually to save her life. When she heard the news of Archbishop Romero’s death, she was astounded and appalled. “If they would do that to the Archbishop, then none of us is safe!”
Blessedly, the civil war in El Salvador came to an end, and the death squads stopped spreading terror. Our friend was able to return home safely and resume her life. However, the oppression of the poor in countries around the world has not ended. The assassinations of Christians who work on behalf of the poor continue. Persecution of believers, not just in Islamic countries, but also in Latin America, Africa, and Asia continues. Real persecution. Not a difference of opinion about social policy and how to implement it. Persecution in which churches are bombed and people are killed. Those doing the “dirty work” are not only religious fanatics, they are representatives of business interests who would prefer not to have to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. Some are drug traffickers who will brook no opposition to their trade. Others are members of religious groups, including Christians, who are convinced theirs is the only true faith — others have no right to their own beliefs or lives.
As Christians, we are called to stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Witnesses such as Archbishop Romero speak to us from the past. Yet the violence continues today. Will we open our eyes and ears to notice it? What will we do to support those against whom it is directed?
For more information on persecution of religious believers in our times, please see this workshop by John Allen, Jr. at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress (2012).