Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador
The Archbishop who died for the San Salvador peasantry and oppressed – his sacrifice immortalised Roman Catholicism in the post-Vatican II era.
He was murdered on 24th March 1980. There was right and left wing violence going on in his Country, which he condemned even-handedly. It appears it was the right wing land owners and paramilitaries who were behind his murder. He had condemned the suppression of the rural poor by these landowners. The urban weak were also ill-treated.
2. Did Romero Act Correctly?
Arguably, he should have been less trenchant. Did his conscience urge caution? No, he had to speak out to defend those at risk of murder and exploitation by the governing elite, even as the senior Bishop in San Salvador. Clearly the rule of law had fractured and the Courts and police could not stop the mayhem and protect their citizens.
Romero could not have halted the killings singlehanded. What could he do? Register with those who heard him that the unruly defiance of the extreme right and left was contrary to God’s law and should cease. It had become a religious issue due to the extreme gravity of the crisis affecting the Salvadorians. Normally Church leaders would not enter the political fray. Politicians will rightly enter this arena of civil disorder, e.g. Heath at Sunningdale (Ireland) (1970-74), Thatcher with the Anglo-Irish agreement (1985), and Blair with the Good Friday Irish Accords (1995-2000). Civil unrest is mainly for the Courts, Police and the Army, when it is persisting.
4. The Role of the Bishop
Firstly, I commend the reigning Holy Father and Bishop of Rome: Francis I for expediting Romero’s beatification in Rome. Church leaders must tread very cautiously. It is the duty of the Bishop and Pastor to lead his flock. He must also lay down his life for the flock as the shepherd does. Romero was ministering to his flock and offering Holy Mass when shot by the marksman. Romero applied these words of the New Testament to his life. He did not want to die and he lived for honour, peace and justice, above all for Christ Himself. He died for his Roman Catholicism as imbued by his help for the poor, and his condemnation of the murders of those “pauvres” and their cruel treatment. Was there glorification of death in his life and murder? Not in his heart – he died in priestly harness not in battle, provoking trouble, or on “a throne”. Clearly he was a man influenced by the horrors of repression in his own Country and that was his precious diocese – a tiny Country in Central America. He did support liberation theology, we are told, but with an Archbishop of Catholicism what matters is the Holy and Living Sacrifice of the Mass over and above any quasi-political slant to his religion. He stood up for the truth and certain people don’t like the truth. That is why he died. In this tiny Roman Catholic Country, as Roman Catholic Archbishop, he was morally bound to defend his people, not only from oppression, but also downright culpable homicide on a creeping scale affecting many. Even in his death and its manner he revealed the essence of the anti-Catholic threat to his faithful and his Country’s peace.
5. The Death Itself
It is no coincidence he was struck by the fatal bullet as he reached the most Holy moment of the consecration on the Altar of the sacred body and blood of Christ in the Mass. Those who murdered him wished to strike hard at this sacred mystery and defy his authority as Archbishop and priest. They could not care less about Catholicism, and wished “to kill God Himself” in the manner of his brutal murder. They were sacrilegious to the extreme and wanted to aim an arrow at the heart of Christ. They were not playing around by seeking to cause terror to enter the minds and hearts of the faithful in San Salvador. Even the moment of the consecration of the Host was not immune to the desecrating power of their gun. But those murderers would not succeed, even in the short term, in causing intimidation to enter the hearts of those Salvadorian faithful of the Roman Catholic Church.
The process is now underway in Rome thirtyfive years after his murder. Were the culprits brought to justice for their atrocious crime? Catholicism should learn the lesson of charity which bears all things, but nevertheless it is also direct and to the point – it is not weak but strong in heart, or it could not carry this burden. We know this as men and women practising Christianity. We are not meant to go on taking the punches and giving nothing back. We must defend the weak and threatened as we did in two World Wars and ever since. There can be no strength without justice and honesty. This thinking may not be spelt out in the New Testament, but it is implicit in the Gospel. The Catholic Church has defined and developed its creeds, dogmas, mysteries, apparitions, moral theology and pastoral teaching, and the canonisations of Saints: Catholic since Christ ascended into Heaven. The Church does not stand still – it is vigorous and it supported the Nuremberg War Trials death sentences 1945-46 (Pius XII). I cannot think of a more abominable conspiratorial “execution” in post-War modern times than Romero’s death, (other than President Kennedy – 1963). It cries out loud for the death penalty as did the cases of the Nazi War Criminals and their collaborators. I doubt the perpetrators of Romero’s death were ever sentenced to death or tried. Likewise, a number of pre-meditated Provisional IRA murderers in the period 1969-2000 will never be indicted or sentenced to death.
Yes, Life is tough for those who go against God’s law, but that is quite right and proper because God will not tolerate those who take the lives of the innocent and defenceless. The rule of law must be restored and step in to do justice as demanded in the name of God. Romero was a good and virtuous man, but he is no criminal trial Judge and must bow to those who follow him in the path of Catholicism. The Criminal Courts worldwide should speak with one voice to condemn the murderer: (convicted) to death wherever. Archbishop Romero must now leave it in our hands – he has set his noble example once and for all. His murder still calls for the ultimate penalty. The nations of our planet Earth will accept nothing less.