We are rejoicing and the world is rejoicing because of the beatification of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated while celebrating Mass in 1980. We pray that the world will now be better able to hear his voice.
Pope Francis declared Archbishop Romero a martyr for the faith. He is also a martyr of charity, killed for his love and defense of the poor.
As so many rejoice and remember the life and death of Monseñor Romero, we must also remember that the United States participated not only in his demise, but in the deaths of thousands of civilians in El Salvador through our support for the Salvadoran military during years of cruel repression.
In addition to the death of Oscar Romero, who spoke from his heart and his faith of love and God’s care for the poor and justice for the oppressed, the great tragedy of El Salvador was the loss of a generation of civilian and democratic leaders. They were murdered. All international agencies and church groups indicated that they were murdered by the government forces of El Salvador.
We were living in El Salvador when Oscar Romero became Archbishop. We had moved there with our two children to learn the Spanish language, live with the poor, and participate in basic Christian communities. The authors met with the people in their homes, assisted in the leadership of a group and participated in the weekend retreats.
Many of the people in these groups lived in dire poverty, in cardboard houses with no water, gas or electricity and had to cook in front of their one-room cardboard house on an open wood fire. Open sewers lined the streets. Many members of those base communities were killed.
We were in El Salvador when several hundred people were gunned down and buried in mass graves because they protested the fraudulent presidential election. We were there when two priests were killed because of their activities on behalf of the poor, Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ, and Fr. Navarro. Mark attended Fr. Rutilio’s last Mass shortly before he was assassinated. Fr. Bernard Survil, the priest we went to work with, was interrogated and deported back to the U.S.
Support for the murders came from the wealthy landowners, the business community, and government officials. The people were killed in the name of stopping communism. Those of whom we are speaking were not communists.
Seeking to improve one’s life, trying to break the stranglehold of poverty, wanting to avoid the death of your children from malnutrition is not something that is inspired by Communism.
Many Catholic and church leaders took seriously the call to stand with the poor. They joined the poor in their attempt to deal with the very serious problems of malnutrition and poverty. When church leaders spoke out against human rights abuses and violations, they were accused of having Communist leanings or being duped by the Communists. Their efforts were not Communist-inspired any more than the Gospels are.
Massive human rights violations occurred in the attempt to subdue a whole nation of people bent on achieving liberty and justice for all.
The killing was successful. Many voices of liberty and justice were buried.
Another tragedy involved the United States. The United States government sent with-out cost to the Salvadoran government many of the guns that were responsible for the murder of the citizenry of El Salvador.
During our time in El Salvador in 1977 the people listened to Archbishop Romero on the diocesan radio station and could be seen with their ears glued to their radios. Walking through the colonias of San Salvador, it seemed as if there existed only one radio station in the country. This voice helped to unite the people in their death struggle.
Romero spoke beautifully and forcefully on biblical themes and religious ideas in support of the poor and oppressed and against violence. For this he was murdered.
Oscar Romero was not a Communist. He was not a Marxist. He was a traditional churchman who heard the cry of the poor.
After we left El Salvador and came to Texas, and the Salvadoran refugees began pouring into Houston, it was because we were there when the death squads were killing leaders that we opened Casa Juan Diego to save the people.
Many of the refugees who fled to the United States went to Los Angeles. It was there that the young people learned about gangs and the roots of the gang violence in El Salvador are to be found.
President Obama recently spoke in support of the beatification of Monseñor Romero. In his speech he did not acknowledge the role of the United States in support of the death squad killings in El Salvador and specifically of Roberto D’Aubuisson, who is known to have ordered the assassination of Oscar Romero.
It is very possible that if those leaders who were killed in the seventies and eighties were still alive, the refugees who continue to flee to the U. S. from the violence in El Salvador would not have to come to the U.S. and be deported.
May we the people of the United States examine our national conscience as we rejoice in the raising of Oscar Romero to the altars.
As the Bible says in Matthew 25, when the Lord comes again he will judge the nations on how we have treated Christ in the poor.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, June-August 2015.