‘If they kill me, I will be reborn’ – Oscar Romero nearer to sainthood

Oscar-Romero-CISPES

Photo: Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

 

By Tim Shenk and Celina Foran
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
This article appeared here on TeleSUR’s English website on Feb. 5, 2015.

“As a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection.
If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.”

– Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, March 1980

A few days after Monsignor Oscar Romero pronounced these words, a member of the Salvadoran National Police did kill him — at the altar, in the middle of mass. On Tuesday, progress was made toward official church recognition of one of Latin America’s greatest leaders in the struggle for the rights and dignity of the poor.

When Pope Francis ruled on Feb. 3 that Romero was a martyr — someone killed for his Catholic faith — he opened the door for Romero’s beatification, which could happen in a ceremony in San Salvador within months.

Pope Francis is intent on listening to the rural parishes and the churches of the dispossessed in urban slums, and transforming the church into “a poor church, for the poor.” This is not communism, he insists: it is the Gospel.

As many news sources, among them TeleSUR, have competently shared details and salient facts about the Pope’s announcement, perhaps we may proceed quickly to a deeper look at Romero and the material reality that shaped him.

Who was Oscar Arnulfo Romero? What transformed him from a bookish, status-quo priest into the fearless prophet who denounced the behavior of national and international elites and demanded a preferential option for the poor?

Romero’s life and prophetic voice were forged through contact with the suffering — and the powerful organization — of “the least of these” in El Salvador. We see the study of how leaders develop as integral to building a social movement to end poverty today.

ROMERO, A LONGTIME SKEPTIC OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY

Based on nudgings from their flocks, Latin American Catholic leaders in the 1950s began to advocate a more populist approach to the church. In response to the striking inequality and desolation of the poor shadowing industrialization and tyrannical dictatorships, they envisioned a new role for the Catholic Church.

Liberation theologians critiqued the practices of development that led to dependency in Latin America, and they resituated poverty as a social sin, rather than focusing on individual sin.

Local lay leaders and groups later known as Christian Base Communities called the church to be the savior of the poor and encouraged priests to begin programs reaching out to and promoting the dignity of the common people. This movement, termed liberation theology, was so popular that when bishops met at the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, from 1962-65, in a new spirit of openness, they encouraged more critical examination of the situation of the church.

In 1968, at the Medellin Conference of Latin American Bishops, liberation theology was further endorsed as a new generation of priests and sisters on the front lines expressed their concerns and criticisms of the church’s role in society, promoting a new pastoral initiative of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

The philosophy of liberation theology was most famously articulated by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez in his book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (first published in Spanish in 1971 under the title, Teología de la liberación: Perspectivas).

Informed by growing movements and discussions throughout Latin America, Gutierrez’s outline addresses questions raised by both theologians and activists, prompted by their pastoral experience, such as: “what does Christian love mean in a class society? How should the mission of the church be defined? What does Jesus’ saying ‘Blessed are the poor’ mean today?”

In Gutierrez’s major conclusions to these questions, he critiqued the practices of development that led to dependency in Latin America, and he resituated poverty as a social sin, rather than focusing on individual sin.

It was not Romero’s biblical exegesis or scholarship that led him to a personal revolution of values: this came about through face-to-face encounters with injustice and increased contact with the emerging movements of the poor in El Salvador.

Meanwhile, in El Salvador in the late 1970s, 60 percent of the land in a largely agricultural country belonged to 2 percent of the population, and the country was second-to-last in per-capita income in Latin America. A national oligarchy backed by U.S. government aid utilized death squads to gain brutal advantage in what the International Labour Organisation called “the open explosion of the class antagonism between agricultural workers and the landowners” (cited in Dickson).

It was within this context that Romero studied Scripture, preached, and rose in importance in the Salvadoran church. For most of his adult life, despite the rise of liberation theology, he was not moved to align himself with the poor. From 1942 when he was ordained until a few years before his assassination in 1980, he largely ignored the cries and demands of the majorities. It was not, then, his biblical exegesis or scholarship that led him to a personal revolution of values: this came about through face-to-face encounters with injustice and increased contact with the emerging movements of the poor in El Salvador.

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A TRANSFORMATION LED BY THE POOR

Oscar Romero’s brief term from 1974 to 1977 as bishop of the rural diocese of Santiago de Maria significantly impacted his attitudes about the role of the Church through witnessing the suffering — and insight — of the landless poor in El Salvador.  Furthermore, the murder of his close friend Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who worked with the poor in El Salvador, marked a major turning point in Romero’s perspective and allegiances.

When he was named archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, he had not done much yet to call into question his reputation as a humble conservative, skeptical of Vatican II and progressive trends in the church in Latin America.  His appointment was welcomed by the Salvadoran government, who expected him to comfortably maintain the status quo, and was a disappointment to religious progressives.

Thus, it was a surprise to many that soon after his appointment, Romero became outspoken against the injustice, poverty, corruption, and violence confronting his people during the outset of the civil war that would take the lives of over 75,000 Salvadorans.

Crowds gathered to hear him preach in the cathedral and even more listened to his sermons over the archdiocesan radio station. According to John Dickson, broadcasts of his Sunday sermons reached 73 percent of the rural population in El Salvador and 47 percent in urban areas, as well as listeners across Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

As assassinations and disappearances mounted, and as the Salvadoran population became increasingly radicalized by conditions and by applying the message of Jesus of Nazareth to their everyday lives, there could be no turning back for Romero. Backed by Scripture and embracing an unequivocal alignment with the poor and dispossessed, he welcomed backlash if detractors disagreed with his reading of the role of Christians in society. The following is an excerpt from his July 15, 1979 sermon:

“I am glad, brothers and sisters,
That our church is persecuted
Precisely for its preferential option for the poor
And for trying to become incarnate in the interest of the poor
And for saying to all the people
To rulers, to the rich and powerful:
If you do not become poor,
If you do not concern yourselves for the poverty of our people
As though they were your own family,
You will not be able to save society.”

Romero was assassinated at the altar on March 24, 1980, a day after calling the Salvadoran police and military rank and file to obey the higher law of God rather than the orders of their superiors:

“I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God.”

LESSONS FOR TODAY’S MOVEMENT TO END POVERTY

We have much to learn today from Archbishop Oscar Romero and the poor Salvadoran communities who by their faith and action shaped their leader.

More and more people from every walk of life, from people like Oscar Romero to people like the peasants who listened to his Sunday sermons, are awakening to the necessity of a global movement to end poverty.

Today, the world faces monumental challenges, perhaps on an even greater scale than when a global revolutionary spirit led the Catholic Church to embrace the social doctrines of Vatican II in the 1960s. Since the 2008 recession, we have seen higher rates of inequality than anytime since the Great Depression.

In the global north, former welfare states are shaken by austerity and the state repression that comes with trying to maintain social control in unlivable situations. The middle strata of society are in free fall, with labor-eliminating technologies encroaching on heavy industry and professional jobs alike. In the global south, even as GDP rises, displacement and precarity have not lessened. The social rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt, Brazil, and around the globe are fresh in the memories of many.

More and more people from every walk of life, from people like Oscar Romero to people like the peasants who listened to his Sunday sermons, are awakening to the necessity of a global movement to end poverty.

The Catholic Church, for its part, is undergoing significant transformations, again moved by the realities of its congregants. Pope Francis’s pronouncements on inequality and sexuality have marked the Pope’s progressive path, and Tuesday’s ruling on Romero’s martyrdom and the forthcoming timeline for his beatification are strong signals in the same direction. Francis is intent on listening to the rural parishes and the churches of the dispossessed in urban slums, and transforming the church into “a poor church, for the poor.” This is not communism, he insists: it is the Gospel.

There will come a time, probably sooner than we think, when every institution in society will have to grapple with the urgent question of whether to continue in a poverty-producing system or to be part of a “radical restructuring of society,” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted late in his life.

Dr. King, as Pope Francis today, called for the building of “a freedom church of the poor.” These calls challenge the sections of the political left that have abandoned the spiritual aspect of the human experience and have been less connected to the struggles of everyday people because of it. Our faith goes deeper than an intellectual argument: it is what helped our ancestors survive war, slavery and untold hardships, and our souls continue to seek the God of justice and liberation.

Religious faith and the moral authority it holds must be integral in the building of the global movement to end poverty. We have been inspired by the words and actions of Rev. William J. Barber II and the Moral Mondays movement, which has spread from North Carolina all over the United States.

Rev. Barber is joined by an increasing number of faith leaders and social movement organizations endorsing A New Poor People’s Campaign for Today, which draws strength from the legacy of Dr. King and calls for a social movement to end poverty led by the poor.

At the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR), we are also members of the new Poor People’s Campaign. For 50 years, our organization has worked to educate the U.S. public about the role of our country’s government and economic elites in Latin America. In the 1980s, among other things, CUSLAR was part of the campaign, “No U.S. War in El Salvador” that denounced the daily $1.5 million in U.S. aid to El Salvador that gave repressive forces the resources for the murder of Romero and thousands of others.

Today, we also embrace the necessity of a global movement to “concern ourselves for the poverty of our people as though they were our own family,” as Romero said. Because they are our families.

We see our role as helping to raise up leaders with the clarity and connectedness of Oscar Romero to support the right to human dignity for everyone. May Romero be reborn, not only in the Salvadoran people, but in every community where people come together to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God.

Jennifer Wilder and Jason Shenk contributed to this article.

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