Perhaps the most famous statement made by Archbishop Oscar Romero was the reply to a Mexican journalist who asked him, a couple of weeks before his death, if he was afraid of being assassinated. He answered: “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. I tell you this without any boasting, with the greatest humility.” These words, which were read aloud in Westminster Abbey during the ceremony dedicating his statue, and those of the nine other 20th-century martyrs, have certainly come true, not only in El Salvador but in many other parts of the world. Though it is now 25 years since he was shot while celebrating Mass in the small chapel of the Divine Providence hospital for cancer patients, where he lived, his memory is still very much alive and will be celebrated by massive crowds in San Salvador during the week after Easter. Delegations will come from numerous foreign countries, but perhaps more impressive still will be the visible devotion of hundreds of thousands of poor Salvadorans who will flock to the capital from all over the country.
In the light of this popular devotion, it is hard to understand why the Vatican has dragged its heels for so long. Romero’s cause, with all the necessary documentation, has long been in Rome; miracles are not lacking and he is already officially a “Servant of God”. If ever there was a clear case of universally acclaimed martyrdom and sanctity, it is the case of Romero. He himself explains in one of his early sermons as archbishop what it means to offer one’s life: “To give one’s life is not just being killed by someone; to give one’s life is to have the spirit of martyrdom, to give through one’s duty, in silence, in prayer, in the faithful performance of one’s obligations, in that silence of daily life, to go on giving one’s life, like the mother who, without fuss, with the simplicity of maternal martyrdom, gives birth, suckles her child, helps it grow and looks after it with love. This is to give one’s life.” What has perhaps changed in our day is the nature of the truth to which the modern martyr is called to give witness. As Karl Rahner has argued, the classical concept of martyrdom, which is fundamentally conditioned by the odium fidei (hatred of the faith), needs to be widened to include those who have been killed by an odium iustitiae (a hatred of justice). And he cites Romero as an obvious example.
One has to ask why it is there is still such a high level of devotion to Romero among the ordinary people who have long ago canonised him. I would like to emphasise the following three reasons.
First of all, he was a simple and humble man who not only remained in touch with the poor, but went out of his way to listen to and learn from them. As his vicargeneral Mgr Urioste explained, at the age of 60 he went back to school. But his teachers were not university professors or professional theologians. They were the simple uneducated peasants who flocked into his office from all over the country to explain their situation to him and seek his understanding and support. He was always ready to receive them and gave them priority over the many VIPs who also sought to see him.
Secondly, as several incidents in his life show, he was always ready to admit his mistakes and ask forgiveness for them. He sought advice from many people and, being a man of deep prayer, spent hours on his knees in the presence of God before deciding on a particular course of action or what to say in his weekly homilies, listened to by thousands all over the country. But once his mind was made up, he was fearless in speaking out, denouncing corruption and evil with no regard for his own personal safety. As he put it: “If I denounce and condemn injustice, it is because this is my duty as pastor of an oppressed and downtrodden people. The Gospel enjoins me to do this and, in its name, I am ready to go before the courts, to prison and to death.” Finally, his message is still valid today and just as much needed as it was 25 years ago. The core of it, as he repeated many times, was the call of the Latin American bishops at Medellin, and repeated at Puebla which he attended in 1979, for “the conversion of the whole Church to a preferential option for the poor with a view to their integral liberation”. In a country torn by violence and bloodshed, he saw quite clearly where the root of the problem lay: “I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to the violence, we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, the exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.” From this it follows that it is the duty of the Church and all its members “to know the mechanisms that generate poverty, to struggle for a more just world, to support the workers and peasants in their claims and in their right to organise, and to be close to the people”.
The present situation in El Salvador has hardly changed in this respect and, though open hostilities have ceased, the suffering of the poor and discrimination against them continues. The wealthy countries, represented by the G8 and the international financial institutions they control, impose harsh structural adjustment programmes on debt-ridden and defenceless nations which have no option to accept and endeavour to implement them, knowing full well that most of their own citizens will be the first to suffer. Recent declarations and political statements would have us believe the situation has changed or is in the process of changing. But it is only two years since the Latin American bishops made the following statement, which Romero would have certainly signed: “A market economy that encourages indiscriminate consumption, lack of respect for the environment, inequitable distribution of wealth and a superficial culture based on ‘having’ and ‘enjoying’ more than on ‘being’, destroys people and fosters lifestyles that are contrary to freedom, justice and the welfare of those who are poorest.” So what Romero has to say about being a genuine follower of Christ is still pertinent and relevant today. I believe his message is for all of us. He doesn’t mince his words: “It is inconceivable to call oneself a Christian without making, like Christ, a preferential option for the poor.” And again: “A Christian who defends unjust situations is no longer a Christian.” Or: “The wealthy person who kneels before his money, even though he goes to Mass, is an idolater and not a Christian.” And finally, he gives us this warning: “It is a caricature of love to cover over with alms what is lacking in justice, to patch over with an appearance of benevolence when social justice is missing.” Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston is a former Provincial of the British Jesuits. He has worked for many years in El Salvador and is now based in Barbados