I first encountered Archbishop Romero when I was an Anglican priest living in England.
In 1998, the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey commissioned a series of sculptures to occupy 10 empty niches on the west front of the abbey to commemorate 20th-century martyrs. Their choice of martyrs was deliberately international, multi-racial, ecumenical, and knowingly controversial.
So Martin Luther King Jr. stands next to Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia. Joining them is St. Maximillian Kolbe, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Presbyterian missionary Elizabeth John. Other witnesses are an Anglican from Papua New Guinea, a Chinese evangelist, and two archbishops: Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum — murdered under Idi Amin’s regime — and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Romero was born into an poor El Salvadoran family and entered minor seminary at the age of 13. Showing promise, he went on to study in Rome, where he was ordained in 1942. He returned to El Salvador, serving as a parish priest, then auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, bishop of Santiago de Maria, and finally, in 1977, he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador and leader of the country’s Catholics. His appointment was greeted with dismay by some liberation theologians because of his reputation as a conservative safe pair of hands.
A month after taking office, Romero’s close friend, progressive Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, was assassinated. It was to change Romero’s life. He said later, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I, too, have to walk the same path.’ ”
He then began to speak out against the human rights abuses of the right-wing revolutionary government, writing to US President Jimmy Carter and, in February 1980, saying in a speech at the Catholic University of Louvain, “In less than three years, more than 50 priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs — they were murdered. Some have been tortured and others expelled [from the country]. Nuns have also been persecuted. The archdiocesan radio station and educational institutions that are Catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been attacked, threatened, intimidated, even bombed … you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christians, to the campesinos, catechists, lay ministers, and to the ecclesial base communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands ….”
A month later, Romero was gunned down while saying Mass in a quiet convent chapel in the suburbs of San Salvador. His funeral was a massive affair with crowds of more than a quarter of a million people. The service turned into a protest that erupted in violence, and the archbishop immediately became a martyr for those on the left who had initially mistrusted him.
Amid the high emotion aroused by liberation theology, I was one, conservative by nature, who assumed that Oscar Romero was a Marxist. It was difficult to avoid that conclusion once he had become a poster boy for the left-wing cause. Twenty years later, as a Catholic priest, I retained the same doubts about Archbishop Romero. Then I had the opportunity to take teams of American high school students on mission trips to El Salvador.
My first impression was that Romero was, indeed, part of the Marxist band of Catholics. Some of our hosts in El Salvador who were from the landed classes expressed their distaste for Romero, the memory of his death still strong in the country. How could he be anything but a Marxist when we saw his profile painted as propaganda graffiti next to busts of Allende, Marx, and Che Guevara? Furthermore, Rome seemed cagey about Romero’s martyrdom. Was he a martyr for the faith, or was he murdered as an act of political violence? Did he pay the ultimate price for being a follower of Jesus Christ or for being a follower of Karl Marx?
On further investigation, I discovered that Pope St. John Paul II consistently stood up for Romero. Despite opposition, he visited his tomb in San Salvador cathedral in 1983 and included him in a list of modern martyrs venerated during prayers in the millennium Jubilee. Although the whisperers said Romero’s cause was delayed because of suspicions about his allegiance to liberation theology, Rome always denied this was the case.
On my mission trips to El Salvador, I took the students to visit the site of Romero’s martyrdom and visit his modest apartment, transformed into a museum full of his belongings, including his broken eyeglasses, breviary, and bloodstained vestments. My conviction was that Archbishop Romero was not a liberation theologian or Marxist, but a good and faithful pastor who stood up valiantly against violence and corruption. Although the perpetrators of violence in his case were right-wing death squads, he spoke out just as firmly against left-wing violence. He may have been friendly with some who were sympathetic to liberation theology, but he was also closely linked to the conservative movement Opus Dei.
After his martyrdom, Archbishop Romero was hijacked for the leftist cause. Their championing him may have caused the process of his canonization to move slowly, but anyone who looked into his life soon realized he was simply a faithful pastor who stood up for the poor and the persecuted. In this, he was standing with the whole Church, which has always had a preferential option for the poor.
The Catholic Church’s objection to liberation theology is not that it stands for the poor, but that that it filters the gospel of Jesus Christ through an exclusively Marxist revolutionary lens. The danger of liberation theology is that the saving gospel of the Lord is reduced to the class struggle and armed revolution. Helping the poor and fomenting social change replaces the saving message of Jesus Christ and his Church. In other words, liberation theology replaces the eternal message of salvation with an ideology that seeks only to make this world a better place.
Like all heresies, liberation theology is not completely wrong; rather, it is incompletely right. A heresy is a partial truth or a distortion of the truth. In this case, the Church’s love for the poor and compassion for the suffering replaces the primary mission of the Church, which is the salvation of souls. In other words, they have put the second great commandment (to love your neighbor) in front of the first (to love God). As a result, priests become social workers, politicians, and revolutionaries rather than the pastors of souls.
Archbishop Romero kept his priorities right, and the fact that he was shot while saying Mass, and not during a political protest, says it all. He was on the side of the poor because he was on the side of Jesus Christ. He criticized oppressive governments because he saw in those they persecuted the suffering Christ. He spoke out for peace and justice, but first and foremost, he called people to the peace and justice that can only come through a deeper and more complete devotion to the Prince of Peace.
In his diary on 4 February 1943 Romero wrote, “In recent days the Lord has inspired in me a great desire for holiness…. I have been thinking of how far a soul can ascend if it lets itself be possessed entirely by God.” His love for the poor, his simple life, and his final martyrdom confirms that Oscar Romero had the right priorities: First to love God, and in response, to love his neighbor.