Today, March 24, marks the anniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. There will be many observances around the world.
In 1980 when he was assassinated by a death squad, I had never heard of Oscar Romero. I was unacquainted (except in the abstract) with the poor, the oppressed, and the socially marginalized. Within a few years all that would change for me – a profound conversion that would alter my life.
The spiritual subculture that nourished my childhood was equally unacquainted with poverty except in the abstract - and misunderstood it in the abstract. Despite this severe and fundamental limitation, the subculture provided a treasure trove of heirloom spiritual seeds. Some seeds sprouted and flourished in my childhood days, others I badly tended, and still others would wait for later seasons. I’m still unpacking that treasure! Early on I was introduced to Christ, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, the greatest gift to me of all.
Only later would I recognize Christ as poor, oppressed, and socially marginalized. An odd thing to have missed previously, Bible reader that I was. I had done well in my religious studies, but at most I thought those elements were somewhat incidental to Jesus’s biography, let alone the way of faith that grew from it.
Only later would I recognize Christ as poor,
oppressed, and socially marginalized. An odd thing to have missed
previously, Bible reader that I was.
After college, I thought volunteering in the community would be a nice thing to do. I had a caring heart and was handy with linguistics, so why not tutor English? In my first evening classroom sat people from all over, including El Salvador. I got them to draw pictures of their homes so we could name some things. Door, window, roof. Doing fine. Then: Soldiers. Guns. Blood. They would cry, and tremble. What was this about? I didn’t have a clue. In the same group was a lady from Laos. Next to her house she started sketching the same things – guns, soldiers, blood, people running. We named the things in the drawings out loud. I drove home from our little sessions disturbed. I hadn’t planned to teach the word “bullets.” It was 1983 in Wheaton, Illinois.
Oscar Romero started life poor, in a country owned and run by a few coffee-enriched families and their international backers. A sharp kid with a sensitive heart, Oscar inquired about the priesthood, probably without any inkling that it was the only pathway to power and prestige from where he came from in his Catholic country. He did very well in studies, moving along the ranks of church hierarchy. By all accounts this was not his aim, even if it was the result. He had a passion for the inner life of the soul in relationship to God. He grew deeply in contemplation and prayer, nurtured by the Ignatian spiritual exercises. His preaching exuded the love of Christ.
Absorbed almost entirely with his inner spiritual life and his priestly duties, Romero was placidly disengaged with current affairs in his society - notably crushing poverty and the bloody civil war. He showed little interest in movements for social justice, and to the end of his life read virtually nothing from the emerging liberation theologies in Latin America.
Everything changed in 1977, which many refer to as the year of Oscar Romero’s “conversion.” In February, he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. It was one more blow to social activists who hoped for the Catholic church to challenge the atrocities of the US-funded military death squads who terrorized impoverished communities. Quietly, however, with his friend and fellow priest Rutilio Grande who worked to create self-help communities among the poor, Romero began spending time with those who were frightened and grieving. In March 1977, Grande was assassinated. Romero later remembered, "When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path'"
Romero did begin to walk the same path, though he was reticent to call it a “conversion” as others did. For him it was simply a matter of continuing to listen with an open heart to Christ, as he had done in prayer and contemplation. He wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter urging the US government to stop increasing aid to the Salvadoran military – a plea that was ignored. He was called to account by church superiors for disrupting the cozy relationship between civil and church authority in El Salvador. What on earth had happened to the Romero they knew? At one point under questioning in Rome, he answered vulnerably and plainly:
“I was born into a poor family. I’ve suffered hunger. I know what it’s like to work from the time you’re a little kid…. When I went to seminary and started my studies, and then they sent me to finish studying here in Rome, I spent years and years absorbed in my books, and I started to forget about where I came from. I started creating another world…. I was a parish priest for 23 years there, but I was still buried under paperwork…. Then they sent me to Santiago de María, and I ran into extreme poverty again. Those children that were dying just because of the water they were drinking… You know Father, when a piece of charcoal has already been lit once, you don’t have to blow on it much to get it to flame up again. And everything that happened to us when I got to the archdiocese, and what happened to Father Grande and all… it was a lot. You know how much I admired him. So yes, I changed. But I also came back home again.”*
On March 24, 1980, three years into his “conversion,” Oscar Romero was gunned down at the altar while serving communion in a hospital chapel. The night before, he had preached a sermon appealing to soldiers as his own family in Christ: “Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants…. 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.”
Little by little, I learned why my Salvadoran English students were in Wheaton, Illinois of all places, illegally, mumbling over new words. Door. Guns. Soldiers. Blood. Run. I learned about Oscar Romero, and much more. I wrote a letter to President Ronald Reagan, which was ignored (more weapons flowed to El Salvador). No surprise, I wasn’t an archbishop. I wasn’t gunned down either. I never went to Rome, but I did have people curious about what happened to me. It never occurred to me to think of it as a conversion at the time, but so much was changing.
Thanks to my trove of heirloom seeds, I thought of it as listening to Christ.
For Soul Tending
Have you cultivated open-hearted spiritual listening in your interior life, or at the margins of society? Maybe you’ve emphasized one to the neglect of the other, “creating another world” of disconnection. How might you be prompted now?
Scott Dewey directs Centering Way.
*Quoted in an excellent article exploring the intersection of Romero’s spirituality and activism: “Oscar Romero, Religion, and Spirituality,” by J. Matthew Ashley, 2005.
Photo: Image of Oscar Romero on the wall of names commemorating the civil war in San Salvador, El Salvador By Jrh008 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0