Oscar Romero died because he told the truth.

Oscar Romero lives because he told the truth.

From out of his historic crisis he forged a universal truth, and left a postscript for us who follow to read for our own times.

The details of his life are well known to most of us. Romero died as the archbishop of San Salvador in the midst of a civil war that pit a US-armed military oligarchy against disenfranchised peasants who sought the right to farm their own land. But he began as a good Catholic boy who wanted to do good by obeying the rules.

The son of a poor carpenter, he entered seminary at the age of 13. Sent to Rome for theological studies, he was forced home with the rise of Italian fascism. During a layover in Cuba, he was imprisoned for a time on suspicions of espionage. Formative encounters with power, these, but Romero appears to have emerged unchanged in his basic character.

In 1975, Romero became bishop of a small rural diocese. Within a year, five peasants were murdered by the local police. Romero kept his head down, performed baptisms, said Masses, and ran an AA group for the men whose lives had led them to drink. When, three years later, he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador, the country’s left-leaning priests were disappointed; the oligarchs, thrilled.

Romero, the obedient, may have stayed on the sidelines — except that a month after his installation, a close priest friend, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, was assassinated for forming “self-reliance” groups among the poor. This was Romero’s moment. Grande’s death changed the lens through which he saw his flock and the teachings of the gospels. From that day forward, Romero became a voice of justice, a powerful critic of the entrenched forces at work in El Salvador.

Day after day, Romero used his pulpit to preach against the killing of innocent peasants and priests. Week after week, he went on the archdiocesan radio station and delivered what became his famous “sermons”: hour-and-a-half-long briefings on the war, the murders, torture, and disappearances, that the official media wouldn’t dare report. He used his weekly newspaper to rail against violence, lies, and disinformation.

Romero’s miracle is that in a time of unfathomable darkness, he bore the light of truth. He spoke out, and named names. He pointed fingers and had no hesitation in making the powerful uncomfortable. He wrote to American congressmen and to President Jimmy Carter. He articulated the reality that his people were suffering, and offered a context for understanding how, in the midst of unthinkable horror, they could find a shaft of hope.

Romero never spiritualized his understanding of salvation.

He argued that economic reforms were urgent but insufficient. Distributive justice was not enough. Instead, he preached, genuine well-being would involve true democracy and equality, inclusive decision-making, the values of Christian community, and peace.

In his diary, Romero wrote:

The human progress that Christ wants to promote
Is that of whole persons
In their transcendent dimension
And their historical dimension
In their spiritual dimension
And their bodily dimension.
In social relationships

“All practices that disagree with the gospel must be removed if we are to save people,” he wrote. “We must save not the soul at the hour of death but the person living in history.”

Romero believed that God’s word could not be separated from “the historical reality in which it is proclaimed …. It is God’s word because it enlightens, contrasts, repudiates, praises what is going on today in this society.”

Here and now matter. Anguish and agony are not to be surrendered to, but engaged — with humble, determined work creating more just and peaceful conditions.

Toward the end, he was regularly calling on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to refuse orders to carry out acts of aggression against their brothers and sisters.

A staggering 73% of the country’s rural population and 47% of its urban residents sat rapt, week after week, listening.

* * * * *

These are not the works of an ecstatic or a magician. They are the strategies of a man who understood clearly the conditions in which he stood, and the specific ways in which the gospel spoke to them. In speaking of both, he became the voice above the din that the world far beyond El Salvador heard.

As this messenger and witness, he was killed saying Mass on March 24, 1980.

He was called a madman, accused of subversion and communist leanings, of being an agitator. One day Romero told his followers, “I am a man, frail and limited, and I do not know what is happening, but I do know that God knows.” Romero did not ask for the role of hero. But once he set himself on the path of justice, he didn’t flinch.

This is how I want to read his postscript. Even as we venerate him today as our newest saint, Oscar Romero will always be, for me, first and foremost, a martyr. Sainthood runs the danger of putting him out of reach. In a world too inclined to sanitize our heroes, I don’t want to forget the forces of darkness against which he struggled. I want to keep my encounter with him honest.

For, in the end, Romero’s postscript is a question: To what truth am I giving my life?

I do not become a saint or a martyr by aiming for the Nobel Prize of holiness. I do it, if at all, step by small step, one foot after the other, one radio broadcast a day, confronting what is unjust here, in my time; gathering the facts, wondering whether, tonight, the office will be firebombed, the professional lunatic dispatched to assassinate me, the carping critic to cut me down for personal gain.

Romero joins other 20th century martyrs, Martin Luther King, Jr., Etty Hillesum, Simone Weil, Steve Biko, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to name just a few of many. To a person, these individuals reveal a way that isn’t bright and tidy and spiritualized and filled with ecstasy. Quite the opposite. It is a way into darkness. It is the discovery that to participate in the life of Christ is not a position of privilege, is not to be related to the “highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable … but,” as Bonhoeffer wrote from a German prison, is to engage with “the powerlessness of God in the world.”

“The powerlessness of God in the world.” This is a difficult concept. No “good man by our side” business, but rather, to suffer the existential state of being stripped naked of consolation, as alone as Jesus felt in his final moments on the cross. Unarmed, a humble, simple man speaking truth from an altar, Romero the martyr followed the crucified one into the depths of transforming consciousness.
Nikos Kazantzakis has written of such junctures, “It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”

Or as Paul wrote, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

This is the Christ Romero confronted as events ground to their inevitable conclusion. He foresaw his own death. Days earlier he wrote in his diary:

I place under his [Jesus’s] loving providence all my life, and I accept with faith in him my death, however hard it be …. For me to be happy and confident, it is sufficient to know with assurance that in him is my life and my death, that in spite of my sins I have placed my trust in him and shall not be disappointed, and others will carry on with greater wisdom and holiness the works of the Church and the nation.

His death became a fulcrum point on El Salvador’s long path to redemption, the truth embodied in his martyrdom, his challenging postscript.

What truth am I giving my life to? Romero teaches that the light triumphs, but only if I don’t stand on the sidelines, obeying the rules, trying to be good.

My prayer today is that Romero will continue to be a live force in history, not a gilded icon. I pray that his writings and thought become more available, in classrooms and retreats — not the beautiful, oft-quoted piece erroneously attributed to him, but his own humble words, his witness, and his life. I pray that his postscript not fade in the clouds of his glory.