By Joshua Smyser-DeLeon
In the 1970s, El Salvador was a divided country. A small number of people held a majority of the wealth and political power while the majority of Salvadorans lived in poverty. The rift between those in power and those repressed began to approach a dangerous breaking point. Voting rights were taken away, peaceful protests were met with government death squads, and those that spoke out against the government were kidnapped. This was the reality Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero found himself in when chosen as the new Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, in 1977.
He was seen as the safe choice when chosen to lead the church in San Salvador. He was seen as a passive man who would maintain the status quo and allow injustice to continue. And there was good reason to expect that he would. In the past, when he was Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador, he was especially unsupportive of clergy who worked side by side with Salvadorans living in poverty to promote economic and social reform.
Initially, Romero tried to ignore the pain of Salvadorans and advised his fellow priests to stay away from this conflict, fearing for their safety. It was not until a good friend of Romero’s, Padre Rutilio Grande, was killed by the government that he began to speak out against the injustices he was witnessing in the country. Once a passive man, Romero spoke with renewed passion when referencing Padre Grande’s murder, saying, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”
Romero began to walk that path by listening to people and bringing attention to the cries of the poor through his Sunday homilies and through radio addresses to the entire country. In his homilies, he called for an end to repression and challenged those in authority, asserting that “It is not God’s will for some to have everything and others to have nothing.” The use of the radio was especially significant because of severe governmental censorship in El Salvador at this time. Romero’s homilies were the only way people were exposed to the truth of what was happening in their nation. This angered and worried the small group of affluent families who held a majority of the political and economic power.
Over time, death threats piled up against Romero, and he started to accept that his days on Earth could come to an end at any moment. Knowing that he could be killed, Romero said, “As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador. A bishop may die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never die.” On March 24, 1980, Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass.
Romero knew the Church was bigger than any one man. The Church is the people, and as people of God, we are called to live in the example Christ left us by acting with justice and serving one another. The seeds Romero planted were growing in the increased empowerment of the people he served. His example reminds us that while we may never know the impact our work will have, we should always dedicate ourselves to continue our work towards peace and justice.