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Saint Oscar Romero, a Doctor of the Church?

At Casa Juan Diego we received with great joy the news from the Vatican that Blessed Oscar Rome will be canonized on October 14, 2018 in Rome, alongside Pope Paul VI, who gave Monseñor Romero unconditional support in a difficult time in El Salvador.

In 2015 when Archbishop Romero was beatified, Pope Francis declared him a martyr for the faith and a martyr of charity, killed for his love and defense of God in the poor.

Mark and I were personally aware of the holiness and prophetic witness of Oscar Romero, who was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador on February 3, 1977. We had arrived in El Salvador at the beginning of that year to live with the poor, work on learning Spanish, and learn about the small basic Christian communities.

Bible Subversive?

Shortly after our arrival national elections were held and after protests and questions about election fraud, the government declared a state of siege. The new rules under martial law stated that everyone had to be in their homes at 9:00 p.m. each day and meetings of over five people were prohibited. People who gathered to read the Bible could be shot instantly, no questions asked.

When we had arrived in El Salvador, we had been surprised when the soldiers inspecting the contents of our car spent much time discussing whether we would be allowed to keep the children’s Taize Bible included in our belongings. We had our children, Jennifer and Joachim, with us on what turned out to be a challenging several months. Bibles were already clearly suspect.

Oscar Romero was named Archbishop at this time when the whole country was tense amidst violent repression after the elections and the protests.  The campaign of terror against their own people in El Salvador came in response to the biblical reflections in small groups by Catholic priests and laity.

Many Catholic leaders had taken seriously the call to stand with the poor. They joined the people 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.

Wealthy landowners and businessmen allied with the government had felt threatened by the organization of the base Christian communities.These groups followed the “Observe, Judge, and Act” method of the Young Christian Students, Young Christian Workers, and the Christian Family Movement, originally developed and popularized by Cardinal Cardjin of Belgium many years earlier to help individuals and their families to live the Christian faith in everyday life. The reflections on current realities in the light of the Gospel in these groups in El Salvador naturally led to the idea of a small increase in wages for the vast numbers of poor people, especially the campesinosin the countryside, could barely survive on what they received for their labor. As the people began to ask for safe working conditions and something more closely resembling a living wage, the ire of the wealthy grew, and the alliance of the government of El Salvador and wealthy landowners grew stronger than ever.

Fr. Bernie Survil had welcomed us to his parish in San Salvador. He introduced us to one these biblical reflection groups and we attended their meetings. Soon he was deported back to the United States. (At time foreign priests known to be advocates for justice and peace were deported. Later priests were killed.) We continued to meet with the group for a few times in spite of the prohibition against meetings and the warnings, but one of the mothers in the group reported that her son who was a policeman had told her the groups must stop meeting. They were ordered to shoot such groups on sight.

The group stopped meeting.

Death squads roamed the streets.

Fr. Rutilio Grande killed.

Rutilio Grande, SJ, one of the leaders in catechizing the people and preparing other priests in working with the small communities, was assassinated on March 12. Mark Zwick had attended his last Mass, where he spoke strongly in condemnation of the violence against the people and in defense of the Gospel of Jesus. Fr. Rutilio said that if Jesus were to come to El Salvador he would be arrested as a subversive.

Speaking of Faith in One’s Historical Reality May Be Dangerous

After his friend Fr. Rutilio was killed, and during the terrible times that followed, Archbishop Romero met with poor people (the majority of Salvadorans) all over the country.

Oscar Romero insisted that we cannot segregate God’s word from the historical reality in which it is proclaimed. And proclaim it he did, in weekly sermons broadcast all over the country by the Catholic radio station, bringing the truth of the Gospel to the poor and shining its light on the terrible realities of the time – the repression, the tortures, the killings. We heard those homilies as we walked through the streets of El Salvador. One could not trust anything that was printed in the newspapers at that time. Real information was only available through that radio station and the Archdiocesan paper.

As Monseñor said on February 18, 1979, “To try to preach without referring to the history one preaches in is not to preach the gospel. Many would like a preaching so spiritualized that it leaves sinners unbothered and does not term idolaters those who kneel before money and power. A preaching that says nothing about the sinful environment in which the gospel is reflected upon is not the gospel.”

For his preaching, his defense of each person being arrested risking being “disappeared” and tortured, he received criticism and death threats from the rich and powerful. His response: “We should not wonder that a church has a lot of cross to bear. Otherwise, it will not have a lot resurrection. An accommodating church, a church that seeks prestige without the pain of the cross, is not the authentic church of Jesus Christ.” (February 19, 1978)

As the threats increased and it became clear that martyrdom was a very real possibility, as it had already been for so many, Romero promised to remain with his flock:

“I want to assure you – and I ask your prayers to be faithful to this promise – that I will not abandon my people, but together with them I will run all the risks that my ministry demands.” (November 11, 1979).

Archbishop Romero was a prophet nonviolence. In March of 1980 in what would be his last homily, he made a special appeal to the military and the guardia and to individual soldiers: “No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.” Shortly after he spoke these words he was killed while celebrating Mass.

Doctor Of the Church?

Even though Monseñor Romero did not receive support from his brother bishops in El Salvador, but rather criticism from them as well, he was very much a man of the Church. His sermons and writings are filled with references to the Scriptures, to what Pope Paul VI was saying at the time, to the documents of the Second Vatican Council and to the various meetings of the bishops of Latin America in CELAM. He was a pastor and teacher.

Only recently we learned of the movement over the past year toward the cause for Monseñor Romero to be declared a Doctor of the Church. According to the blog Super Martyrio, the idea was presented at the University of Notre Dame last year by Fr. Robert Pelton (responsible for the outstanding documentary Monseñõr: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero). Two months later the idea was taken up by the nuncio from the Vatican to El Salvador. Archbishop Kalenga announced to the 2017 meeting of CELAM (The Latin American Episcopal Council) held in El Salvador that year that he would promote the recognition of Romero as Doctor of the universal Church. Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez of El Salvador has also argued in favor of proposing Oscar Romero for Doctor of the Church.

Monseñor Romero received honorary doctorates from Georgetown University and from the University of Louvain and from universities in Central America.

If Romero is named a Doctor, he will be the first Latin American Doctor of the Church a “pastoral doctor,” a voice for the poor and prophetic nonviolence.

Tragedy Of Oppression In the Name Of Fighting Communism

Oppression in El Salvador worsened after we left (still in 1977), and guerrillas organized to combat it. The United States continued to send money to “fight off Communism” at whatever price and Salvadoran soldiers received military training at what was then called the School of the Americas in Georgia.

Sending money to send the repressive government was not a partisan politics issue from the U. S. perspective. It seems remote at this moment in history, but at that time leaders in the United States were terrified that all of Central America would be taken over by Communists. Sadly, what they supported was worse.

Zwick Family in El Salvador

When we arrived in El Salvador, the people had joyfully expressed to us their hope that Jimmy Carter, who had just become President of the United States, would carry out his commitment to human rights and would help Salvadorans. A year or so later, Archbishop Romero wrote to President Carter to beg him, as a human rights advocate and a Christian, not to send money to the Salvadoran government. Very soon after he sent the letter, Archbishop Romero was gunned down at the altar as he was celebrating Mass. At his funeral snipers opened fire on the congregation, killing at least 30 people. Unbelievably, President Carter then sent five million dollars to assist that repressive government. Even though Carter cut off aid for a while after the four Churchwomen were raped and murdered, President Ronald Reagan increased financial assistance for another twelve years of the bloody, violent civil war.

Oscar Romero answered all that talk of communism and accusations that he himself might be a communist or, from the other side that he might not be radical enough, on June 3, 1979:

“It’s amusing. This week I received accusations from both extremes – from the extreme right, that I am a communist, from the extreme left, that I am joining the right I am not with the right or with the left. I am trying to be faithful to the word that the Lord bids me preach, to the message that cannot change, which tells both sides the good they do and the injustices they commit.”

One might say that he predicted on July 15, 1979, what could happen even after the war ended if hearts were not changed:

“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, unless you become poor, unless you have a concern for the poverty of our people as though they were your own family, you will not be able to save society.”

Gang Violence Today Grew Out of the Central American Wars

A generation grew up in the violence that went on in a civil war for twelve years after Romero’s assassination and the aftermath is now horribly visible in the gangs (maras) which terrorize Central America.

Just before I went to Mass on a recent Sunday, I saw a news segment on local Houston news about the terrible MS-13 gang which causes terror throughout Central America and even in some cities in the United States. The emphasis of the news program was on arrest and deportation of gang members, although coverage included the forcible recruitment of twelve-year-olds to the gangs, the lack of hope for youth there, and the almost unbelievable levels of unemployment. The program reported how long lines of people formed whenever a job opening was announced even though there were only five jobs available.

We know from those who have been able to arrive in Houston over the past several years that everyone is at risk from the gang violence. The young people cannot refuse to join a gang when they are pressured to do so, or to become a girl friend to a gang member. And they cannot leave the gang.

The Houston news program did not mention that the gangs were formed when so many youth fled El Salvador during the late 1970s and early 80s during the violence and in Los Angeles formed their own gangs to defend themselves.

I carried these concerns with me to Mass that morning. I thought of all the people trying to escape the gang violence, the large numbers of Central American refugees in the streets and cities of Mexico where people are helping them, and the families trying to come to the United States. to find safety and peace.

As I prayed, I remembered the time when my husband Mark and I and our two children lived in El Salvador and the most terrible violence erupted, with death squads who attacked and tortured people, killing them instantly or leaving them to bleed and die. The cruel violence was visible to all, adults and youth and children. Salvadorans cautioned us about making any political statements or criticisms while we were there because of the orejas (ears of spies) on all sides ready to turn people in and target them for extinction. The domestic spy organization was called ORDEN.

Generation of Leaders Killed

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.

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 lay church and democratic leaders. Along with a number of priests, they were murdered by the government forces of El Salvador.   As we remember the life and death of Monseñor Romero, we must also remember that the United States participated not only in his demise, but also in the deaths of thousands of civilians in El Salvador through our support for the Salvadoran military during years of cruel repression.

There is also a movement toward canonization of the holy martyrs of El Salvador.

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.

Oscar Romero’s Legacy

When Oscar Romero was named Archbishop of San Salvador, some rushed to tell us of their dismay. Surprisingly, though, to those who thought he was the wrong person to become Archbishop of San Salvador because they was thought he identified with the rich and the middle class, Archbishop Romero became the constant voice in defense of the priests and the poor all during the conflict, a voice for peace and against violence, until he was killed in 1980.

In a country closer every day to civil war, where human rights abuses were overwhelming, Archbishop Romero fearlessly spoke the truth. He listened to poor and humble people tell their stories. He attended parish celebrations and confirmation throughout the Archdiocese and listened to parishioners. He challenged the wealthy landowners for their exploitation of seasonal workers. He confronted the military for their torture, killings and terrorization of the rural population.

As persecution of the Church and criticism of the Archbishop grew in 1980, he responded:  “To the oligarchy I repeat what I said before: do not look on me as a judge or an enemy. I’m only the shepherd, the brother, the friend of this people, the one who knows of their suffering, of their hunger, of their affliction. In the name of their voices, I raise my own to say: do not make idols of your riches, do not preserve them in a way that lets others die of hunger. One must share in order to be happy.” (January 6, 1980)

I thought at that Sunday Mass of the courageous and profoundly spiritual sermons of Archbishop Romero that we heard on the Catholic radio station every day as we walked through the streets in El Salvador – and the patently false articles in the newspapers attacking the Archbishop and the priests. I remembered the day that Mark attended Rutilio Grande’s last Mass and Fr. Rutilio’s assassination shortly thereafter. I knew Mark was with me at that recent Sunday Mass as always when we sang the Gloria and the Holy Holy with all the angels and saints – as well as those who lost their lives in Central America at that time. The refugees and migrants who have taken refuge at Casa Juan Diego were there as well in the Communion of Saints.

What Can We Do?

There was a history of violence and repression against the poor and indigenous for centuries in in Central America. But we in the U. S. bear a burden of blame for the legacy of extreme violence from the more recent Central American wars – in Guatemala and Honduras as well as El Salvador.

Instead of seeking to deport as many Central Americans as possible, we should be asking forgiveness for the U.S. role in the suffering of so many, helping to rebuild their countries (along the lines of Archbishop Escobar’s pastoral letter), and receiving those seeking asylum before more youth and families are killed.

We could follow the words of Oscar Romero a week before his martyrdom:

“God in Christ dwells near at hand to us.

Christ has given us a guideline:

‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat.’

Where someone is hungry, there is Christ near at hand. ‘I was thirsty and you gave me to drink.’

When someone comes to your house to ask for water, it is Christ, if you look with faith.

In the sick person longing for a visit Christ tells you, ‘I was sick and you came to visit me.’ Or in prison.

How many today are ashamed to testify for the innocent!

What terror has been sown among our people that friends betray friends whom they see in trouble!

If we could see that Christ is the needy one, the torture victim,

the prisoner, the murder victim,

and in each human figure so shamefully thrown by our roadsides

could see Christ himself cast aside,

we would pick him up like a medal of gold

to be kissed lovingly.

We would never be ashamed of him.

How far people are today – especially those who torture and kill and value their investments more than human beings –

from realizing that all the earth’s millions are good for nothing,

are worthless, compared to a human being.

The person is Christ,

and in the person viewed and treated with faith

we look on Christ the Lord.”


(Quotes are from Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love.)



Video: Monseñor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero.

Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love. Compiled and translated by James R. Brockman, S.J., Orbis


Pastoral Letter of Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador: I See the Violence and Strife in the City.    


Romero Trust www.romerotrust.org.uk. Archbishop Romero’s sermons and writings can be found at this site.


Houston Catholic Worker, July-September 2018, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3.