‘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.’
( Taken from Monsenor Romero’s last public Sunday Homily March 22 1980.)
Monsenor Romero must have known that with these words he was putting himself in mortal danger.
That Sunday evening in the house of Major D’Abuisson , the leader of the Death Squads his assassination was planned. Already it was in the national press that a mass for the mother of a journalist was to be celebrated in the Divina Providencia cancer Hospital by Romero where he lived .
After his homily an assassin, whom Monsenor Romero most likely saw, fired one fatal bullet which pierced his heart .
That night it is related that the sound of champagne bottles being uncorked was heard in the Escalon rich district of San Salvador.
However, Mons Romero’s murder was to mark the end of peaceful resistance to the repression which the pueblo was suffering. A guerilla war ensued for over 10 years with the death of over 75,000 people, most of whom were civilians.
El Salvador was blessed with such a prophetic pastor as Mons. Romero but as with prophets their voices are violently silenced.
Finally 38 years after his assassination his words are again heard ‘ If you kill me I will arise in my people’.
The geo political context and stage onto which Mons. Romero emerged
The 1960s were a decisive moment in the history of Catholicism.
Firstly with the period of the Vatican council 1962 -1965 emphasising an opening to the world -
‘on the joys and the hopes the grief and the anxieties of the people of this age especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted - these too are the joys and hopes the grief and anxieties of the followers of Christ’ (Opening sentence of 'Gaudium et Spes‘)
Then in 1968 the Bishops of Latin America in Medellin Columbia proclaimed Gods preferential option for the poor blessing what became known as the Theology of Liberation.
As soon as the Bishops left Rome conservative forces in the Vatican reasserted their power and succeeded in stalling any radical reforms as envisaged by the Vatican 2 Bishops.
In Latin America other forces began to reassert themselves against liberation Theology .
In 1969 The New York Governor Nelson Rockerfeller was sent on a Presidential fact finding mission for Richard Nixon to Latin America on 4 occasions to 20 Latin countries where he was received with massive demos and outright hostility by the people.
He reported that the Catholic Church in Latin America had stopped being a trusted ally of the US and on the contrarywas transforming itself and raising the consciousness of the people. It recommended giving support to fundamentalist Christian groups.
In 1982 key members of the Reagan administration foreign policy team put together what is known as the Santa Fe Document where opposition to Liberation Theology became a vital part of US foreign policy -
‘Liberation Theologians use the Church as a political arm against private property and productive capitalism ‘
!984 a second Santa Fe document urged the President to establish links with conservative sectors in the Catholic Church and to continue efforts against the theology of liberation and to intensify efforts to support Pentecostal and Evangelical groups in Latin America.
A gathering of all the chiefs of staff of Latin America Nov 14-17 in 1987 in Argentina again reiterated the subversive quality of liberation Theology and commented that there was a Marxist penetration of Catholic theology and practice.
The confluence of US and Vatican policy
In 1982 the US government opened up its first Vatican embassy with a brief visit at the time by US Pres. Ronald Reagan.
Then a significant meeting occurred in Alaska on May 2nd 1984 . Both planes landed in Alaska for refuelling. Pope JP2 was on his way to South Korea and Thailand and President Reagan was returning from China delaying there for a day to meet the Pope. A White house spokesperson said the issues discussed were East west relations, Poland and Central America. Some commentators interpret what happened here in Alaska this that a swap was done for JP2 to be free to act on Poland and Reagan not to be criticised over his policy on Latin and central America.
Three months later the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith under Joseph Ratzinger issued its first very condemnatory instruction ‘on certain aspects of Liberation theology’. It included statements like ‘the source of injustice is in the hearts of men and only via interior conversion can injustice be eliminated’ and omitted to mention the influence of structural injustice in society . It criticised base Christian communities as lacking the ‘capacity for discernment’.
So into this context stepped Mons Oscar Arnulfo Romero
With the murder of Rutilio Grande who was working with the sugar cane workers Mons became more inflamed with the Spirit of Justice . He wrote to President Carter demanding an end to American arming of the Salvadoran Armed Forces who were using them to murder his people. It is documented that his homily arrived at the Vatican every Monday morning courtesy of the Italian US embassy. His first visit to the Vatican was a cordial one with Pope Paul VI. He had a further two visits to Pope John Paul 2 in the Vatican which were less than cordial at times. A Vatican Apostolic visitator had been sent to San Salvador to investigate the work of Mons. Romero and the visitator recommended Mons. Hand over his powers to an Apostolic administrator. This was discussed between Pope Paul 2 and Mons. Romero.
So 38 years later it took the presence of a Latin American Pope to unblock the forces that were preventing his official recognition by the Church as a saint.
Pope Francis had already being preparing the ground. Only 6 months into his pontificate Pope Francis invited the father of liberation theology the Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican for discussions and he has spoken of his wish to ‘create a poor church for the poor’.
His beatification of Romero against both resistance in the Vatican and especially from El Salvador is a further sign that he has broken ranks with Pope John 2 and Pope Benedict on Liberation Theology and on the creation of a less European centred church. Even in El Salvador the official title given to Mons. Romero was a ‘ martyr to love’ with no mention of justice or the poor .
Finally Monsenor Romero has been vindicated as a true follower of Jesus who travelled the roads with the oppressed and was killed for his witness to justice.
Brendan Butler attended the beatification of Monsenor Romero in San Salvador on 23 May 2015; this is his talk delivered to the WAC AGM on 6 June 2015