It will have been only 35 years this March 30 that an assassin’s bullet through the heart ended the life of the archbishop of San Salvador as he celebrated Mass in 1980.
The late-20th-century martyr for Gospel justice shouldn’t be forgotten by 21st-century Catholics, and author Kevin Clarke helps us all to remember that with his brief but powerfully written life of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Clarke’s book, “Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out,” is one of the newest in the series of biographies that Liturgical Press in Collegeville is publishing, “People of God: Remarkable Lives, Heroes of Faith.”
It captures the essence of Romero and the societal sins of upper-class Salvadorans and members of the military who, as Clarke writes, were either complicit or blindly implicit in the archbishop’s assassination.
A hard-line traditionalist as a priest, Romero was thought by his nation’s wealthy elite and by the bishops of El Salvador to be “one of them” when he was named to the archbishop’s chair by Pope Paul VI.
For Romero, Vatican II had been an earthquake and the liberation theology of the Latin American bishops’ at Medellin an aftershock, in Clarke’s words. His reputation was that of a strict conservative, but before he was appointed to San Salvador he had already begun to turn away from the status quo that made so few rich and left so many in his country’s in desperate poverty.
As bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de Maria, he visited Tres Calles, a village where six men and boys had just been buried. They had been dragged from their beds, tortured and murdered with bullets and machetes by the National Guard.
On the way back, Romero ran into another incident: the body of a boy was found in a roadside ditch. He too had been tortured and murdered.
He told a priest companion, “We have to find a way to evangelize the rich, so that they can change, so that they convert.”
Clarke notes: “What is telling about the Tres Calles moment for Romero is the beginning of his understanding that what was wanted from the wealthy to give to the poor was not mere material charity, but a conversion of the heart that would allow them to understand that what the poor of El Salvador need most was not a crumb from their table, but a seat at it; not charity, but justice.”
Romero protested the massacre to the local Guardia commander, and in what would turn out to be foreshadowing, the officer shrugged and advised the bishop, “Cassocks are not bulletproof.”
Romero saw that the so-called “political” work of the “liberation” clerics he had previously been suspicious of was “a natural, spiritually sound and even required outgrowth of their pastoral work,” and was supported by recent Church teaching.
Then his friend Father Rutilio Grande was murdered in a hail of bullets. Clarke notes:
“The killing of this Jesuit priest was the signal of an abrupt rupture, for the old Romero was cast off completely and a new Romero emerged: empathetic, soulful and courageous.”
Romero took on the powers that be, using the archdiocesan radio station and newspaper to report the repression and violence, news that wasn’t available from the media controlled by the elites. He refused to participate in government ceremonies or official events or to attend events in which he might be photographed socializing with El Salvador’s political or military leaders. He went further, raising money to feed campesinos hiding in the mountains and arranging to hide victims of political violence at the national seminary.
Although he was accused of being a Marxist, he tried to convert both the powerful and those seeing change. He preached to elites, “Do not make idols of your riches; do not preserve them in a way that lets others die of hunger.”
He also met clandestinedly with guerrilla leaders to try to persuade them of the power of Christian nonviolence in the face of oppression.
Clarke explains well the geopolitical situation of the time — the fear of communism spreading in Latin America — that had both the United States and the Vatican supporting the status quo in El Salvador.
When, at the Vatican, Archbishop Romero tried to explain that his country’s revolutionaries were not communists but campesinos “defending their people against sometimes incomprehensible violence and the life-crushing force of economic and social oppression,” he was reprimanded. Clarke writes:
“After being battered by Cardinal Sebasiano Baggio, secretary of the Congregation of Bishops, he endured more admonishments from the secretary of state office, where a curial operative suggested Romero remember the ‘prudence’ with which Jesus Christs conducted his public life.’
“ ‘If he was so prudent, then why was he killed?’ Romero wanted to know.”
Killing Romero demonstrated how far some are willing to go to protect their status and privilege, and an important point Clarke brings out is how the man’s inhumanity to man kept escalating, with government-backing death squads not satisfied merely to kill. The viciousness turned from brutality to depravity, with, for example, a priest’s face being shot off.
In the end, Archbishop Romero’s death led to 12 years of civil war in El Salvador, ending only in 1992. Tens of thousands of Salvadorans were killed, primarily (85 percent) murdered by their own military, according to a UN Truth Comission.
As the slain archbishop’s cause for sainthood moves forward finally, readers of this 137-page biography will understand why, and perhaps be perplexed as to why it has taken 35 years.