Saints without the St.

Oscar Romero

The story of a martyr bishop

The cause for the beatification of the Archbishop of San Salvador, assassinated 18 years ago as he was saying Mass, is going ahead. The Synod for America gave its longest burst of applause in his memory. An interview with Gregorio Rosa Chávez, who was one of his closest collaborators and is now auxiliary bishop in the capital of El Salvador

by Stefania Falasca


     It was 6.30 on the evening of March 24, 1980 when Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated before the altar of the small chapel of the hospital of Divine Providence as he was saying Mass. A shot through the heart just as he was about to elevate the bread and wine for the sacrifice.
     Romero was born in Salvador, in Ciudad Barrios, in the quarter of San Miguel, in 1917. At 12 he began to work for a carpenter, and then went to the seminary while still very young. He finished his studies at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he received a licentiate in Theology. It was in Rome that he was ordained during the Second World War. A brilliant career in the Church was awaiting him on his arrival back home: rector of the interdiocesan seminary of San Salvador, then general secretary of the Bishops' Conference and executive secretary of the Episcopal Council for Central America and Panama, then titular bishop of Tambee and three years later in 1970, auxiliary bishop to Monsignor Luis Chávez y Gonzales, Archbishop of San Salvador. After a period in charge of the diocese of Santiago de Maria, Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, succeeding Monsignor Chávez. When he took over the archdiocese on February 22 1977, the social conflict had taken on all the aspects of civil war: the killing of campesinos was everyday news, the massacres committed by paramilitary organizations protected and sheltered by the oligarchic State (in that same month of February General Carlos H. Romero was fraudulently proclaimed winner of the presidential elections). The appointment of Monsignor Romero as archbishop was welcomed by the authorities and the establishment of the country. Public opinion saw him as a moderate conservative.
     He had hardly taken up his post before becoming acquainted with bloodshed: two of his priests were murdered. Romero demanded an inquiry into the events that had led up to the death of the priests and set up a permanent commission for the defence of human rights. Meanwhile crowds began flocking to his Masses, especially those on Sundays. Monsignor Romero became an authority listened to and loved by the people. The diocesan radio was tuned into more than any other station. And as the massacres were becoming ever bloodier, and governments changed, not least through coups, attacks against the Church intensified. Priests were imprisoned and expelled, a bomb went off in the offices of the archdiocese's Catholic newspaper, though it was within the Church itself that conflict exploded.
     There was a storm of accusations and attacks from certain prelates against the archbishop. Among other things he was accused in May 1979, in a document signed by several bishops and sent to Rome, of inciting "the class struggle and revolution" by his pastoral activities. Monsignor Romero had written in a pastoral letter: "When the Church comes into the world of sin in the intention of saving and liberating, the sin of the world enters into the Church and splits it, separating the genuine Christians of good will from those who are Christian only in name and appearance."
     The cause for Romero's beatification is now under way. His entrails, gathered up and buried immediately after his death and before the body was embalmed, are still miraculously intact. During the Synod for America which took place in Rome last December, the in memoriam speech of Gregorio Rosa Chávez, Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador, was found very moving. We decided to ask Rosa Chávez, who spent many years at Romero's side, about a highly critical period, not just for the Church in Salvador but for the whole of the Latin-American Church. We discussed Romero's personality with him and the events leading up to his martyrdom.

Gregorio Rosa Chávez

     What stage has the cause for the beatification of Monsignor Oscar Romero now reached?
     GREGORIO ROSA CHÁVEZ: The diocesan phase of the process was solemnly closed on November 1, 1996. The results and the material collected were presented to Rome, which gave an overall positive judgement, while still requiring more detail on historical matters such as the context in which Monsignor Romero was called to perform his ministry, and on the circumstances of his death, on why he was killed.
     Might the process suffer some delay?
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: If the cause were to stop the blame, in my view, should be laid at the door of us Salvadoreans. The greatest enemies of Romero's cause are in Salvador. Those same people who hampered him while he was alive, who wrote him anonymous letters accusing him of being a Communist, and who unfortunately are still against him.
     It is a fact that Monsignor Romero had enemies within the Salvadorean Episcopate. One of the bishops went so far as to accuse Romero in front of the Pope, during the latter's visit to Salvador in 1996, of being responsible for the death of 70,000 Salvadoreans ...
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: That's why it's important to give a satisfactory answer to the first requirement of the Holy See, to clarify the historical context in which it was his lot to serve.
     What was the historical context?
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: The situation was very polarized and it was hard not to fall into some form of ideology. Certain of the difficulties that Romero experienced with the nuciature and with certain of his fellow bishops have to be seen in that context. It even led to the bishops of Salvador not meeting together over a long period, something that greatly distressed the archbishop, as he faithfully witnesses in his diary.
     The reasons for Romero's death have also to be gone into. Why, in your opinion, was Romero killed?
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: It's a bit like asking why they killed Jesus Christ. The killing of Monsignor Romero is like the killing of Jesus. They also said of Jesus that he was killed for political reasons. Power undoubtedly has this way of defending itself, wanting to disguise its sin.
     You lived alongside him for a lengthy period. What do you remember about him?
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: When I met him I was still a boy and Romero was already a priest. We were born in the same diocese. I went into the seminary when I was 14. Romero was a priest in San Miguel, the third largest city in the country. A quiet, friendly place where people knew each other. In 1965 he was asked to look after a junior seminary. He was a very austere priest, of deep spirituality, sound doctrine and with a special love for the poor. But in the early days he wasn't favorably impressed by, had a sort of resistance to, the documents of the Conference of Latin-American bishops at Medellin in 1968. He considered them too political. But he had a change of view when he came to San Salvador, first as auxiliary bishop, and then finally as archbishop.
     He had just been appointed archbishop of San Salvador when a priest friend of his was brutally murdered, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande. Some people say it was that death that changed Romero, so much so that there was talk of a "conversion" from conservative to opponent of the regime... Is that true?
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: Father Rutilio was a great friend of Romero's, he was the master of ceremonies at his episcopal ordination. He was killed on March 12, 1977. Romero had been Archbishop of San Salvador for just a few weeks. Later that May the death squads killed another priest, Father Alfonso Navarro. That was the situation Romero found himself faced with when he arrived in the capital. And from then on his actions and words in defence of the poor and against power became ever more explicit. Once during a radio interview I asked him: 'Monsignor, they say that you have been converted'. And he replied: 'I wouldn't speak of conversion but of evolution, one can't close ones eyes to such things'. I think he was right. His faith, his spirituality, his steadfast doctrine were always the same. The situation in which he had to work had changed. From a familiar, provincial situation he had landed up in San Salvador. There, in immediate contact with the economico-political power center of the country, he saw with his own eyes the social sin, the structural injustice, the formation of the death squads. There were weeks in which hundreds of people were being slaughtered by the death squads. The corpses were left mutilated and disfigured hanging from trees in streets and in places where people passed, in the intention of sowing panic. Romero said: 'My vocation seems to be that of picking up corpses'.

Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador assassinated on March 24, 1980 as he was saying Mass

     His defence of the poor became so strong that eight days before his death he explicitly condemned the military junta, the army and the oligarchy of the country for being in league with the interests of North America and declared that "Carter continues to send them every kind of aid"...
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: He even wrote an open letter to the US president in which he asked him to suspend arms shipments to Salvador. He suffered tremendously from his awareness that structural injustice and geopolitical interests were leading to war, a formal, explicit war. Romero had an extremely clear awareness of the precise historico-political moment that Salvador was going through, and not just Salvador. To pass him off as a rabble-rouser is a disgusting operation. In his hopes of preventing violence breaking out, Romero backed every chance there was for dialogue. For example, in October 1979 the young generals who had toppled the government asked him to give his backing to the coup. Together we prepared a document that circulated around the country which, without compromising Romero's own freedom of judgement, invited people not to prejudge the military's efforts to re-establish justice and social peace. Romero said: 'This attempt might save the people much suffering. We must wait and judge by results, wait and see if promises are kept'.
     Romero was basically blamed for turning himself into a tool of the left...
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: Commenting on the meeting with the nuncio of Costa Rica sent by the Holy Father to deal with the problem of the split among the bishops, Monsignor Romero says clearly in his diary: 'My backing for the popular organization in no way signifies sympathy for the left or, even less, that I don't see the danger of infiltration, which I know to be quite real, but I also see that with us anti-Communism is very often the weapon the economic and political forces use to perpetuate their social and political injustices'. Monsignor Romero had a very clear view of the real situation. His successor, Monsignor Arturo Rivera Damas, pointed to three underlying causes for the violence in Salvador. Apart from injustice and the ideologies of right and left, what lit the fuse was international geopolitical interests fighting it out in our small country. In a context of polarization the defence of the poor, that men like Romero backed not out of fondness for socialist ideas but out of simple fidelity to their vocation, was taken for connivance with socialist ideology.
     That is what emerges from his diary also, where one can see that his passion for the poor is just the reflection of a steadfast, simple faith...
     ROSA CHAVEZ: The diary is the key to his life. The faithful mirror of his pastoral heart. In it one sees a pastor concerned for his flock, ready to give his life for it, not because he had converted to a Marxist sociology but because then, as always, not to be on the side of the poor was a betrayal of the Gospel. He puts it quite clearly in his diary when commenting on a difficult meeting he had had with his fellow bishops in the episcopate: 'Notwithstanding this partiality and this prejudice against me, he [one of the bishops] insists that I must concede as much as possible. And that has always been my intention, I have always tried to let secondary and marginal things go by the board, but I certainly cannot yield in substantial things when what is at stake is fidelity to the Gospel, to the teaching of the Church, and to this ever so patient people whom they fail to understand'. Monsignor Romero was very traditional on matters of doctrine, of faith, and very open on social questions.
     A certain ecclesiastical culture tends on the other hand to set the two aspects in opposition. Romero witnesses to the teaching of Tradition: when one lives in steadfast attachment to the faith of the Apostles one is bold in defence of the poor and in condemning injustice...
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: When Romero came to Rome in June 1978 he knelt at Paul's tomb and said the following prayer: 'It has always been my prayers before the apostles' tombs that have given inspiration and strength'. Some days later, after a visit to St Peter's, he wrote in his diary: 'There at the tomb of Saint Peter, I prayed with the Apostles' Creed, asking the Lord for the fidelity and clarity to believe and preach the same faith of Saint Peter apostle'. And again: 'I went again to St Peter's Basilica and at the altars that I love dearly of St Peter and his successors of this century, I begged insistently for the gift of fidelity to my Christian faith and for the courage, if necessary, to die as all these martyrs died, or to live consecrating my life in the way these modern successors of Peter have'. Romero was always a man of meditation and prayer. One often noticed him slipping away from a meeting into the chapel to pray.
     The pages dealing with his visits to Rome are among the finest in the diary. What do you recollect about his experience of meetings with popes and the Curia?
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: Romero was firmly attached to the magisterium of the Church. He was an attentive reader of the writings of the popes and had an extremely retentive memory. He would always insert into his own writings and sermons quotations from the popes, from Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, which he had no difficulty in learning by heart.
     In Rome in 1978 he met Paul VI and in 1979 John Paul II...
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: Romero was a great admirer of Paul VI. Commenting on his visit to Rome in 1978 he speaks of him with great gratitude and deep feeling, certain that he had found understanding and brotherly help in Peter's successor. The visit to John Paul II, during which the Pope exhorted him to 'stick only to principles', reminding him of the situation in Poland, occurred in the context of other meetings with officials of the Holy See. Romero speaks with enthusiasm of some of these meetings, that with Pironio for instance, but one has the impression that he was more comforted by his Rome visit of 1978. In a situation where ideology was rampant, even within the Church, his concern for the poor and for the people was misunderstood and hindered.
     And his relations with John Paul II?
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: There was too little time between the election of John Paul II and Romero's death. They had few occasions to meet and communicate. I was involved in the preparations for John Paul II's two visits to San Salvador and I can testify to the fact that on both there was resistance to the Pope's visiting Romero's tomb. And it was always Rome that insisted that a visit to the tomb be included. My view is that the Pope is convinced that Romero is a martyr of the Church. He has described him as 'a zealous pastor who gave his life for his flock'. And during his second visit, in the speech in which he spoke of Romero, he added a phrase that wasn't in the official text: 'I rejoice that his memory is alive amongst you'. But the Pope is also worried that political groups have used Romero's name to back their causes. That is why in his 1993 speech in Salvador he asked for his memory to be respected, that the pastor be respected.
     What is the present situation in San Salvador? How do the people view the incumbent archbishop? Is it true, as some people say, that he is gradually getting rid of the people who were close to Romero?
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: Salvador is a country where peace has been signed but where there is still no reconciliation. The roots of injustice have remained untouched, the numbers of the poor have increased and unemployment and insecurity have grown. There are no death squads, but for a great many people it just seems that death takes longer... As for the present archbishop, Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, after some problems at the start, there has been a change. He is gradually meeting the communities, discovering the sincere faith of the people, the Christian life of a great many extraordinary people in our diocese. He is discovering, in touch with the real Church, a different situation than what some imagined. And he has involved himself with clear intention in the cause of Monsignor Romero.
     And to end, what are your hopes for this cause for beatification?
     ROSA CHÁVEZ: I hope Romero is recognized as a martyr. And that is also the wish of the people who loved him and continue to love him greatly. When one reads the prayer to Jesus that he wrote a month before his death one sees the image of a life being offered, in an awareness of the attendant danger. 'So concrete,' he writes, 'is my consecration to the Heart of Jesus which has always been a source of inspiration and Christian joy in my life. So I place the whole of my life in the loving arms of Providence and with faith in Him I accept my death, however hard it may be.' The circumstances of his death still stun me today. His last Mass in the hospital chapel was a Mass for the dead: Romero read the lesson, it was the Gospel of John where Jesus says: 'The hour has come that the son of man be glorified'. I ask myself whether he knew in that moment that he was going to be killed. His sermon seems a testament, in which he compares himself with the grain of wheat which opens in the soil to give life. And so some people think that while he was preaching he saw his killer. Reading his last words, he almost seems to be asking the killer: 'Allow me to die when I go to the altar to offer the bread and wine'. And in fact he was able to finish his sermon and was killed at the start of the offertory, himself becoming the host of his sacrifice. It is a precious image, and his whole life and death can be seen in the light of it. He lived and died a priest, a pastor in love with Jesus Christ and his flock.