The military in El Salvador might have made Oscar Romero a martyr, but they could never silence him.
Inspiration can often be found in unexpected places, but that was not a thought I entertained when I first arrived in war-torn El Salvador some years ago.
By the late 1980s, the decade-long Salvadoran civil war had taken a toll. Tens of thousands had been killed. The military pervaded. Human rights abuses were rife. Fear, like bombs and armaments, had become the norm.
Yet in spite of the suffering, I discovered the amazing spirit and resilience of ordinary people and their communities, and the extraordinary inspiration they derived from Oscar Arnulfo Romero – Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980. (Although an archbishop, he was called Monsignor Romero.)
I left El Salvador years ago, yet the people’s stories, and that of their beloved pastor Monsignor Romero, remain as inspirational now as they were then. Why? Because in spite of the state organised repression and violence, Monsignor Romero – as with many from the Ecclesial Base Communities – took a stand for justice.
He demanded an end to torture and disappearances, to violence and inhumanity.
When Monsignor Romero, became Archbishop of San Salvador, he was not expected to change the status quo. But being a good shepherd, he tended to his flock and listened to their stories. Romero was also deeply affected by the murder of his good friend, Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, soon after he became Archbishop.
War can be counted by the number of people killed or injured, or the amount of military spending, but what can never be measured is the level of fear. In war zones, it often feels as if the civilian population are forced to breathe fear in. What a weapon it is – an effective mechanism of state control. In a context like this, to speak out is extremely difficult because whatever you say might be the last words you utter.
It was in this atmosphere that Romero’s Sunday morning homilies were broadcast from the cathedral on the radio. So popular was the broadcast – the most listened to program on the radio in El Salvador – that people walking along the streets and laneways of the poor areas in the capital barely missed a word Romero said, as house after house tuned in, and the archbishop’s words rang out.
What would Romero say this week? Which part of the national reality would he speak about? Who or what would he denounce? For poor peasant people in the countryside, it was through the archbishop’s weekly homilies that they discovered what was really happening in the country.
Many of the people I worked with at the Ecclesial Base Communities had personal tales of their beloved pastor.
Ana Ortiz, was a young girl from the mountains of Morazán when, due to war, her family was forced to flee. Ana made it to the city, while her parents ended up in a refugee camp just over the Honduran border.
Ana’s oldest brother, Padre Octavia, was the first priest to be ordained by Monsignor Romero, and was one of the first priests to be killed when, on 20 January 1979, the military rolled a tank into the retreat centre where Padre Octavio was, in the parish of San Antonio Abad in the country’s capital. (Ana’s other four brothers subsequently died in the war.)
When the government reported that Padre Octavio’s retreat centre was a guerrilla base, Monsignor Romero immediately denounced the accusation as a lie.
Driven by his faith, and belief that ‘the ones who have a voice must speak for those who are voiceless’, the archbishop spoke out against the atrocities, senseless killing and torture. (Monsignor Romero was often called ‘the voice of the voiceless’.)
Maria Isabel Figueroa, a Salvadoran religious sister and personal assistant to Monsignor Romero, once told me how, realising that his homilies were making him a military target, he told his driver – who was married with children – not to accompany him one particular day. In spite of the threat to his own life, Romero’s concern was for his driver’s safety.
On 24 March 1980, while celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence, Romero was gunned down. A martyr, he shared the fate of many of his people.
In El Salvador there are sacred places: the spaces where people used to be, before they were killed. The chapel at the Hospital of Divine Providence, or the rooms just across from the chapel where Monsignor Romero lived, are examples.
People come from all over the world to pay their respects and say a quiet prayer, remembering the spilt blood and the broken body.
Before his death, Romero said that if they killed him he would rise again in the Salvadoran people. (What truth there was in those words!)
The Salvadorans have long called him Saint Romero of America, and in 2015 Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was officially beatified.
Although we live on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, decades after Romero, we can still be inspired by such a mighty response to injustice: a response fuelled by faith, and by the plight of those who suffered.
Romero was a man for his times. The inspiration and challenge his story offers us, is to be a person for our times: to respond with compassion, to stand up for justice, and to recognise humanity in each and every person.
That’s the beauty of inspiration. It can take us where we never dreamed we would go.
Click here for what has become known as the 'The Oscar Romero Prayer'.