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Saint Oscar Romero:

A Martyr who Preached a Church that is "Poor for the Poor"

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

One of the main themes permeating the thought of St. Ignatius of Loyola is his exhortation "Sentire cum ecclesia" or "think with the Church." "Sentire cum ecclesia" also means to feel with the Church and to love the Church. It is necessary to cultivate this communion of shared devotion, affection and purpose in a very disciplined way, for not all aspects of the Church are lovable, just as we are not always lovable as individuals.

What did it mean for Archbishop Oscar Romero to think with the Church? Romero's thinking with the Church went beyond intellectual assent to authoritative teaching. To think with the Church is not a matter of the head alone. It is a personal act of identification with the Church, the Body of Christ in history, sacrament of salvation in the world. To identify with the Church means to embrace its mission, the saving mission of Jesus Christ, to proclaim the Reign of God to the poor. To think with the Church is an apostolic act.

Before he became Archbishop, Oscar was a shy, traditional priest, averse to politics and most comfortable inside the walls of his church. Then came the sixties and the world became aware of the struggles of Latin America. Thousands of Catholic priests, religious women and laymen were traveling to remote villages to organize peasants and workers, following the directives of Vatican II and the 1968 Conference of Latin American Bishops, in Medellín, Colombia, which established the preferential option for the poor. That option or movement asked all Catholics to act against the structural problems that kept so many people in poverty. Medellín asked Christians to help the poor form Christian Base Communities, where they would talk about and engage in the struggle to dignify their lives. Those living on the peripheries of life now had religious support to organize and defend themselves against the landowners, the oligarchy, the wealthiest people in one of the most unequal regions in the world, and against their repressive military apparatus.

Romero had a real aversion to politics that eventually earned him the appointment as Archbishop. By then, the military, which had been ruling the country since 1931 was chasing, capturing, torturing, and killing priests who organized peasants in the rural areas, especially in the coffee farms owned by the wealthy. One month after Romero's episcopal ordination, one of those priests, Rutilio Grande, one of Romero's closest friends and a Jesuit who headed a rural parish, was killed by state agents.

The newly ordained Archbishop showed his anger over this senseless murder. He cancelled Sunday Mass throughout the country and convened the Salvadoran Church in the cathedral for a single Mass during which he publicly blamed the government for Grande's death and demanded justice. A couple of months later, he refused an invitation to the inauguration of the new President, General Carlos Romero, a first for a Salvadoran Archbishop, and refused to meet with Government officials if they would not investigate and prosecute the crime against Fr. Grande.

Then from March 1978 onward, Romero sat in front of a microphone almost every night offering his reflections on a variety of subjects, from his regular ecclesiastical duties to the political turmoil and violence that were engulfing El Salvador.

The power of the Gospel is revealed in particular historical circumstances. In San Salvador in 1980, to think with the Church meant following the pastoral direction set forth by the Second Vatican Council in "Lumen Gentium" and "Gaudium et Spes," by Blessed Paul VI in "Evangelii Nuntiandi," and by the Latin American bishops at the conferences of Medellin and Puebla. But there was more. "Sentire cum ecclesia: or thinking with the Church demanded discernment that was attentive to the particular circumstances of the local Catholic community and to the specific needs of Salvadoran society.

Romero was not a theologian and never considered himself part of Liberation Theology, a radical Catholic movement born of Vatican II. But he shared with the liberationists a vision of a Gospel meant to protect the poor. "Between the powerful and the wealthy, and the poor and vulnerable, who should a pastor side with?" he asked himself. "I have no doubts. A pastor should stay with his people." Yes, it was a political decision, but justified theologically. All of Romero's writings include extensive biblical references, Church documents, and Papal quotations to support his assertions.

Oscar Romero maintained a lifelong devotion to the Vicar of Christ on earth. His devotion to the successors of Peter did not carry over to the Vatican's diplomats and bureaucrats. For Romero, to think with the Church meant not to think with "the powers of this world." Romero listened to them, talked with them, but refused to align himself with them. In an informal interview granted during the 1980 Puebla Conference in Mexico, Romero spoke of having the mind of the Church, he said: "St. Ignatius would present it today as a Church that the Holy Spirit is stirring up in our people, in our communities, a Church that means not only the teaching of the Magisterium, fidelity to the pope, but also service to this people and the discernment of the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel." Through his life, ministry, and martyrdom, Oscar Romero taught us that thinking with the Church meant to be rooted in God, loving and defending the poor, and out of fidelity, paying the price for doing so. He laid down his life for his friends.

Thirty-five years later - in 2015 - the Church confirmed that Romeo made the right decision as he was proclaimed "Blessed." The Church, led by Pope Francis, declared that Romero was a martyr, killed because of "hatred of the faith." He did not die for getting his hands and reputation dirtied in politics, as many of his ecclesiastical critics charged, but because he faithfully followed the Gospel of Jesus Christ Three years later, in 2018, it is fitting and providential that Oscar Romero is declared a Saint by a Pope from South America who preaches a Church that is "poor for the poor."

Blessed Romero

“I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, "Thou shalt not kill." No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”

— Archbishop Oscar Romero, The Last Sermon (March 23, 1980)
It must prevail the law that says not to kill
March 23, 1980

If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people
March 1980

Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my blood be the seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be a reality.
March 23, 1980

Many would like the poors to say that it is God's will to live poor. It is not God's will that some have everything and others have nothing
September 10, 1978

Justice is like a snake; It only bites those who are barefoot
March 1980

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Programs about Romero

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Blessed Romero's Martyred Friend: Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande

Archbishop Romero Declared Martyr

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Beatification for Oscar Romero: Vatican Connections, Feb 6 2015

Getting Ready for Archbishop Romero's Beatification - Daily Perspectives

Oscar Romero's cause unblocked: Vatican Connections, April 26, 2013

Romero's Documentary