Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel in El Salvador in 1980. With the 40th anniversary of his martyrdom coming in March 2020, Romero is recognised as a saint. To many poor people in El Salvador and elsewhere, he still walks beside them in their struggle.
In the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, a number of Judaean separatists – caricatures of political activists too concerned about dogma to take action – walk away from the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount muttering: “Blessed are the meek? What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.”
The first time I watched the Warner Brothers film Romero, starring Raul Julia, I was disappointed. I wanted Romero to be an action hero; a man of passion and drive, confronting evil-doers and risking his life. I couldn’t believe that the character I saw on screen could ever motivate people the way I’d heard the real Monseñor Romero did.
Raul Julia played him according to his established reputation, bookish and bespectacled, and always seeming to be a spectator, while others risked their lives and – in the case of his friend Fr Rutilio Grande – lost them. The only action scene was when Romero was arrested and imprisoned, and that, I was told, didn’t even happen in real life.
On the basis of this evidence, I complained to a friend: “He never once actually took a stand against the evil in society. He just took a lot of little steps, and ended up in the wrong place and was killed for it.”
And she replied: “Maybe that’s the point.”
The bare facts about the man’s life give little away that would shed any light on the impact he had in his three years as Archbishop of San Salvador, or the even greater impact he has had in El Salvador, Latin America and around the world in the 35 years since his assassination.
He was born on August 15, 1917, in Ciudad Barrios in eastern El Salvador, ten miles from the border with Honduras. His father was a telegrapher and postmaster and owned a few acres of land. Young Oscar Romero was apprenticed to a carpenter around the age of 12, but he left to study for the priesthood and was ordained in 1942.
In 1970, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador and then Bishop of Santiago de Maria in 1974. He didn’t stand out as particularly subversive, so the Vatican him appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. He was assassinated on March 24, 1980.
María Julia Hernández worked with Oscar Romero during his three years as Archbishop of San Salvador. When she first heard that Oscar Romero was to be the new Archbishop she was devastated.
There was a progressive movement sweeping through parts of the Catholic Church in Latin America after in the 1970s. Yet Monseñor Romero was renowned for his conservative approach and was seen as a major opponent of the radicals.
But María Julia recalled an incident in his first week in office, when Romero summoned her and a group of other young people and told them, “I need your help.”
She said: “In that meeting what struck me was his humility. I immediately felt like the moment in the Gospel when Christ told his apostles to follow him. I didn’t know how to, but I said ‘yes’. In that moment, hearing him, my life changed. It was a moment of choice, and I chose through the message of Monseñor Romero.”
The first task he gave the young recruits was to secure funding for the rebuilding of the archdiocesan printing press. It was a new field for them all and the job took some time. Eventually, they managed it and rushed to the Archbishop’s office to tell him. They were told Monseñor Romero was in the countryside, so they drove out to find him saying Mass under a tree.
He looked surprised to see them and continued Mass before gathering the campesinos afterwards to talk to them and listen to their concerns. María Julia and the other visitors from the city were left on their own until Monseñor Romero sent another campesino to bring them to his house and look after them.
Returning to San Salvador in the car with them, he asked with more than a touch of irritation why they had come. They found it difficult to explain and he said: “You have to understand that my people come first.”
María Julia later found out that, although he had always appeared to be opposed to progress in public, behind the scenes he was already urging the country’s president and his fellow bishops by letter to make a stance against the violence that was beginning to overtake the country. But it took the death of his friend Fr Rutilio Grande for the public and private faces of the man to come together.
Romero had been Archbishop for only one week when Rutilio Grande was gunned down at the wheel of his car on the road to his rural parish. The new Archbishop immediately declared that there would be only one Mass that day in the whole of the Archdiocese – and that would be for Fr Grande and the two people killed with him, an old man and a boy.
He said: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path’.”
When it came to his moment of choice, he didn’t set himself up against anyone – the authorities or the military. He simply chose a side, the side of the poor – “his people”.
In the years before he became Archbishop, he had struggled to “be meek”, but being meek really was the problem – it took away his ability to take action about anything. On his own, he was just one ineffectual man, and it was only when he positioned himself with the poor people of El Salvador that he gained the ability to use his meekness as a be force for good. His humility became his towering strength.
Monseñor Romero lived under constant threat of death in the last months of his life. He was so certain he would be killed that he was rarely able to sleep at night, but he famously made this prophecy: “If they kill me, I will rise in the Salvadoran people”.
Meanwhile, members of the Salvadoran clergy took up different weapons – firearms or intellectual weapons.
In November 1999, I was in El Salvador for the tenth anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Several of the Jesuit Martyrs were fine theologians. They were at the cutting edge of thinking for the Church at that time. One – Ignacio Ellacuría – would go on national television and debate the state of the country with opponents of progress and top journalists and, to their extreme annoyance, he would win.
He was an expert and would win his discussions with logic and shrewd arguments. It was a cerebral approach and it seemed he enjoyed the intellectual cut and thrust, taking people on and beating them.
People came to San Salvador from all over the country to attend the Mass in honour of the Jesuit Martyrs – many of them country people from the most rural areas. There was great respect for the memory of the martyrs, but talking to them, I realised that Romero was still alive to the poor people of El Salvador, and to them he belonged.
I was told during my visit that the Jesuit Martyrs had “their brains blown out”. It struck me that symbolically, it was their “cerebralness” that was targeted and destroyed. At the same time, I understood that Romero had been shot through the heart, a symbol that fitted neatly into my thinking: the heart relates to love and he was a man known for his compassion.
We met María Julia again towards the end of our visit, and she took us to the hospital chapel where Monseñor Romero was murdered. She talked us through a reconstruction of that day, walking us through the evidence, showing where the gunman stopped his car, where the shot was fired and where Monseñor Romero was stood behind the altar when he was hit.
She told us that although he was killed by a shot to the chest, actually his heart was unharmed. They buried his heart in the garden of his tiny cottage – a stone’s throw from the chapel where he died. Several years later, it was unearthed and found to be perfectly preserved.
Romero was also an intelligent man, but he took his lead from “his people”. He gave up what is strength and power in human terms and gambled that, paradoxically, he’d get it back – and more – in spiritual terms.
He was meek, not hand-wringingly humble, but someone who strove with some success to conquer his natural human instinct for selfishness. And he lives on in his people; in them, he has inherited the earth.