A dangerous man

a universal saint

by Joe Bollig

Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero (left) is considered by some in El Salvador to be a very dangerous man — a feat all the more remarkable since he’s been dead for 28 years.

It wasn’t that the bespectacled, learned churchman had ever harmed anyone. Indeed, during El Salvador’s brutal civil war, he was a constant voice for peace, justice and the dignity of the poor.

Any mention of these, however, was considered “dangerous” by the entrenched Salvadoran oligarchy, so a right-wing death squad assassinated the archbishop while he was celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980, in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.

Killing a man, however, is much easier than killing a witness.

No law of forgetfulness

That’s because, said Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez of San Salvador, Archbishop Romero’s words are ringing out stronger and louder today — and are touching more hearts — than they ever did when he was alive.

Most the time when someone dies, Bishop Chavez explained, they are gradually forgotten. But with Archbishop Romero, it’s just the opposite.

“Every year, more people love him,” he explained in an exclusive interview with The Leaven on March 27. “In this particular situation, the laws of forgetfulness don’t exist. It’s a miracle.”

Few people alive today knew Archbishop Romero as well as Bishop Chavez. The archbishop befriended Chavez when the latter was a 14-year-old minor seminarian in the Diocese of San Miguel, in eastern El Salvador.

“I met Romero when I was an adolescent,” said Bishop Chavez, “and I worked with him when I was a seminarian. We became friends. That is the reason why I speak about Romero, as a witness of his life, because I was very close to him.”

Bishop Chavez was in the Kansas City area to deliver a reflection at a prayer service held March 28 at Visitation Church in Kansas City, Mo., to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Romero. The event was co- sponsored by the archdiocesan office for social justice, Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, the Benedictine Sisters of Atchison, and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, among others.

“I am here to share my experience, and [my thoughts on] how his life and teachings inspire everybody everywhere,” explained Bishop Chavez.

“You know, Romero is a martyr,” he added. “For me, he is the most important martyr in the 20th century — the most [widely] known in the world.”

Conversion vs. evolution

Archbishop Romero wasn’t an anonymous cleric before he was elevated to lead the see of San Salvador. Indeed, while he was rector of the minor seminary in San Miguel, Father Romero was nationally known for his radio ministry.

Bishop Chavez, who assisted him before and after he was ordained a priest in 1970, remembered even then that Archbishop Romero had a voice as powerful as his spirituality.

“I was very impressed with his [devout] life,” said Bishop Chavez. “Romero was a man of prayer, very devoted to his ministry, very devoted to poor people. He was an incredible preacher. When he became our bishop, the whole country knew who he was as a preacher and his commitment to issues of justice, peace, and reconciliation. People would say Romero is the voice of the voiceless.”

The real Romero, said Bishop Chavez, was very different from the churchman portrayed in the 1989 movie “Romero,” starring Raul Julia.

In the movie, Archbishop Romero is presented at first as an almost timid, theologically constricted, apolitical church bureaucrat — a “safe” choice acceptable both to the Salvadoran oligarchy and the Vatican.

As the movie progresses, the archbishop is in a sense “converted,” finding his “prophetic voice” after the murder of his friend, Father Rutillo Grande.

But Bishop Chavez, and other people who knew Archbishop Romero well, tell the story a bit differently.

Archbishop Romero did indeed change between the time he was a seminary rector and bishop in San Miguel, and later archbishop of San Salvador. This, however, was more a maturing of the faith and tendencies he already had — not, as the movie would suggest, something totally new.

“Every Wednesday, I would talk to Romero for the radio program, and I put the questions to him,” said Bishop Chavez. “One program, I asked him, ‘Monsignor, people say you are converted. What do you think about that?’

“I remember very, very well his answer. He told me, ‘I think it’s not a conversion but an evolution.’”

“He was always open to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration,” said Bishop Chavez. “Romero was ready to do what the Lord was ready to ask him. When he was in San Miguel, he was different. But when he became archbishop, he became conscious of many problems in the country as spiritual problems.

“He became conscious of injustices, and he said, ‘We need to change the structures.’”

Given Archbishop Romero’s theologically conservative leanings, Bishop Chavez considers this “evolution” or “perpetual conversion” as proof of his sanctity.

“If you read his homilies, you will find his doctrine was traditional, but in social issues he was very prophetic [and] very brave,” said Bishop Chavez.

The shadow of death

Archbishop Romero once told Bishop Chavez that, “for me, the most important thing is human life,” but also that, “it seems my vocation is to go around picking up bodies.”

“During his ministry, we had about 200 murders a month caused by death squads,” said Bishop Chavez. “Incredible!”

Between 1980 and 1992, out of a population of almost 7 million, an estimated 75,000 people were killed, thousands disappeared, and approximately one million persons were displaced.

The government and a leftist guerilla movement, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLS), fought each other openly and covertly. Shadowy right-wing death squads killed at will, and the Salvadoran Army committed notorious massacres — notably, 1,000 people in the village of El Mozote.

The church was just as vulnerable as anyone else. The same year Archbishop Romero was murdered, four American women (three nuns and one laywoman) were abducted, raped and murdered by soldiers. In 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered at their home.

Other priests died as well — some of them personal friends of the archbishop. He knew the danger he was courting, but he refused to let it silence him.

“Just reading the words of the Bible does not cause problems,” Bishop Chavez remembers hearing Archbishop Romero say, “but putting it into practice does.”

And, “It is not the fault of the sun if it illuminates ugly things.”

“This is my job,” Archbishop Romero once said, “to illuminate reality, because I am a minister of God. We are all sons and daughters of God. Everyone has the dignity of a son and daughter of God.”

But to the powerful of Elf Salvador, such talk was an intolerable challenge. They decided, as others once decided of Archbishop Thomas Becket, to “rid themselves of this troublesome priest.”

Bishop Chavez will never forget the day his friend and role model died. The young priest was concluding Mass at a seminary in San Salvador when someone rushed in and told him Archbishop Romero had been wounded. He rushed directly to the hospital — one of the first priests to arrive. Archbishop Romero was there, dead, still in his blood-soaked Mass vestments.

A saint and martyr, or what?

Almost immediately, a wide-ranging consensus developed in El Salvador and beyond that Archbishop Romero was a martyr and prophet — perhaps even a saint. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have both stated that the archbishop is a martyr.

The Vatican’s congregations, however, are moving more slowly.

According to Bishop Chavez, an examination of the archbishop’s writings has revealed a solid, traditional faith. The only novelty discovered, he said, was a faith “practiced in the flesh of reality.”

“Rome put us two questions when the canonization process began,” said Bishop Chavez. “The first question was [about] the political context during his ministry, because if you want to understand [Archbishop Romero], you have to understand the reality of El Salvador at that moment.

“The second question was, ‘Why do you say he is a martyr? What are the reasons for his death — political reasons or evangelical reasons?’ We answered the two questions deeply.”

Bishop Chavez believes that Archbishop Romero’s canonization is in the home stretch — but a very long home stretch.

“[Archbishop Romero] has even now powerful enemies,” he said. “Many people say Rome is waiting for the death of his enemies, because of their power. I don’t know if they are right, but as you know, it has been 28 years since his martyrdom.”

However, as Archbishop Romero has demonstrated, it is much easier to kill a man than it is to kill his witness.

“I am quite sure that Archbishop Romero will be declared a saint by the church,” Bishop Chavez. “Romero is a universal saint — for all people, even for non-Christians and nonbelievers.”


About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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