Today is the 36th anniversary of the assassination of Monseñor Óscar Romero, the Salvadoran priest who dedicated himself to serving and fighting for the poor and who was killed for his beliefs. This article was published in our Spring 2015 newsletter following our Community Empowerment Tour to El Salvador in March of that year to celebrate Romero’s life and legacy alongside thousands of Salvadorans. He was beatified by Pope Francis soon after in May. This year, the anniversary of his death falls during Holy Week, an important time for Salvadorans.
Thirty-five years is nearly a lifetime for some of us, and certainly for our children. If it were 1980 today, on the eve of the Salvadoran civil war, looking thirty-five years into the past would have meant peering back to 1945, or the end of the Second World War. This March, a lifetime after Romero was brutally gunned down while celebrating mass in San Salvador, thousands of supporters from across the globe flocked to El Salvador to commemorate his death, and reflect on his life. It seems that the themes of social justice and fairness that the Archbishop preached, and ultimately gave his life for, still permeate our collective consciousness, even if those who now carry on after his passing represent a growing generation scarcely aware of the atrocities he faced.
Monseñor Óscar Romero is likely remembered by most as a fearless advocate for the poorest among us, but he wasn’t always that way. As a young man, Romero personally acknowledged the importance of “loving and elevating the peasant,” even if he didn’t think it was the role of the Catholic Church to do so. He abhorred the prevailing attitudes of class-based supremacy, especially against the rural poor, while serving the upper middle class in his urban congregation. While the Catholic Church itself grappled with the idea of what its role should be in acting upon a “preferential option for the poor,” Romero at first remained silent in the face of escalating violence prior to the Civil War.
In 1968, the Conference of the Latin American Bishops in Medellín, Colombia discussed the existence of “institutionalized sin” as a form of oppression. Such discussions became the basis for liberation theology, a movement that members of the Church, including the previous Pope Benedict, worked to suppress. Some, including Romero himself for a time, felt that liberation theology was too radical. For Romero, however, it took a deeply personal event—the slaying of his colleague Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest—for him to consider the nature of power and its effect on those around him.
Romero is a profile of transformation. In a man who struggled to look inward to his own sin, we also see the importance of looking outward to acknowledge sin that is greater than any one person. Whether one abides by the concept of the Catholic Church as an instrument of social change and politics, it’s hard to deny the need to reflect upon our work and its ability to move the needle toward real social change and justice in the world. In community development, looking inward often involves the nitty-gritty understanding of how our work affects those it’s meant to serve. But it should also acknowledge the placement of that work and community in the larger sociopolitical system.
A lot has changed in El Salvador in the lifetime that has passed between Romero’s assassination and today. But the ingenuity of everyday people in addressing their daily injustices, and their thoughtfulness in working for systematic justice, lives on.
Romero, the day before he was murdered, famously said, “Si me matan resucitaré en el pueblo salvadoreño.” / “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.” In March, EcoViva teamed up with the Chicago Religious Leadership Network (CRLN) to participate in a Community Empowerment Tour to El Salvador to experience the legacy of Archbishop Romero as it lives on in the struggles of the Salvadoran people who work for fairness and social justice. We stayed in Ciudad Romero, a town that was settled by people who had been living in exile during the war, and visited their church with its stunningly beautiful mural. The mural chronicles the community members’ flight from El Salvador to Panama during the civil war, their exile there, the death of Monseñor Romero, and the founding of the town of Ciudad Romero by former exiles. We also met with EcoViva’s partners La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association and learned about their efforts to build a fair alternative economy that respects people and the environment through mangrove forest conservation, diversified organic farming, disaster preparedness, and civic participation. Close to the end of our stay we attended a mass commemorating the late Archbishop and marched through the streets of San Salvador en route to the Cathedral. Our voices joined with those of thousands of Salvadorans as we shouted out, Romero vive!
An earlier version of this blog mistakenly stated Romero was murdered while giving Sunday mass. He was in fact killed on a Monday during a celebratory memorial mass for a woman who had died. Thank you to John Leonard for pointing out the error.