He was born the son of poor farm workers and he grew up hungry and deprived and he was like the millions of poor who don’t know the root causes of their rural poverty. The poor struggle to overcome those sufferings and hardships as they bury the pain within them and strive to forget and survive and find a better world for themselves and their children.
The corrupt leaders of family dynasties are the oppressors of the poor. They have always lived in sumptuous luxury and ignore the deprivations of the poor. The poor are wretched of the earth. Oscar Romero was one of them. His parents saw the only chance for him to have an education and escape poverty was to send him to the seminary to be a priest in El Salvador. This is what Oscar Romero said about himself:
“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 the seminary and started my studies, and they sent me to finish studying here in Rome, I spent years and years absorbed in my books, and I started to forget where I came from. I started creating another world. When I went back to El Salvador, they made me the bishop’s secretary in San Miguel. I was a parish priest there for 23 years, but I was still buried in paperwork. . .”
As secretary to the bishop, he never met poor people or saw the reality of life in the cities or the countryside. He had suppressed the childhood memories of pain and hunger. He became an archconservative. He was considered a safe traditional priest who would disturb no one and he was recommended by the Papal Nuncio to be made a bishop. When he was assigned as bishop to the rural diocese of Santiago De Maria, he was exposed to the world of poverty and military and police oppression of the poor.
“. . .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, those campesinos killing themselves in the harvests,” he said.
There was a massacre of peasant farmers in the village of Tres Calles that truly shocked him. He protested the killings to the president in a letter, who at the time was Col. Arturo Molina, who headed a military dictatorship. He lives on as a mass killer in historical disgrace and shame.
Bishop Romero wrote to the president: “. . . the way in which a “security force” had wrongfully acted, as if it had the right to mistreat and kill. … [I went there] to console the families that had been attacked … by a squad of National Guardsmen. On the way to their homes, I stopped to pray by the body of a still-unburied victim who had been shot in the head. His wife and mother were beside him, weeping. When I arrived at the houses that had been invaded by the armed forces, it broke my heart to hear the bitter laments of the widows and orphans who, sobbing inconsolably, told me about the attack.”
It was then that his conscience and awareness of social truth began to slowly awaken. He came back to the capital and was still considered a very conservative bishop and was chosen to be elevated as archbishop of El Salvador. Most of the progressive, socially committed clergy and Catholics were shocked and disgusted. They were unaware that Archbishop Romero was growing in the knowledge of the social teaching of the gospel. He was evolving as he said and he was beginning to apply it practically. He reconciled with the socially progressive Jesuit priests who he had previously criticized and asked them to start a diocesan radio program on human rights. He was realizing the extent of the human rights violations by the military that was oppressing the poor.
When his best friend Fr. Rutilio Grande was brutally murdered by the military, it propelled him to speak out all the more forcefully against the killing of the poor and the defenseless. His conversion was complete. He had changed from a conservative to an activist archbishop. He spoke to protect the priests and religious and church lay workers who were falsely branded and marked as communists and subversives plotting to overthrow the government. Several priests and sisters were murdered, which was a warning and threat to all the people and a ploy to justify the militarization of the country and maintain the rule of the elites and landlords.
Archbishop Oscar Romero was now the voice of the voiceless and he preached justice, spoke out against murder and killing, taught the sacredness of life and the rights of the people. He stood against the aggression, violence, and murder that were all around El Salvador. He received death threats but ignored them. In one powerful homily that was broadcast, he told the police and soldiers they should not obey unjust orders to kill.
“Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God… It is time to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. In the name of God, therefore, and in the name of these suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
Two days later when he was celebrating Holy Mass, an assassin shot him dead as he held up the sacred cup. He died for his faith and last week Pope Francis declared him a martyr and a saint.