Commemorating Archbishop Oscar Romero: Reflecting on His Last Words

Joe Colletti, PhD
August, 2017 

(born August 15, 1917 – assassinated March 24, 1980) 

When the church hears the cry of the oppressed
it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to
and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.
-Archbishop Oscar Romero- 

One hundred years ago Archbishop Oscar Romero was born in Cuidad Barrios, a city in the administrative division of San Miguel, which is located in the eastern part of El Salvador. After enrolling in the national seminary in San Salvador, he completed his studies at the Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained as a priest a year later. 

As a priest, he returned to El Salvador and soon began to see the poverty and injustice that many were experiencing, though it would be several years before he was moved to action. His brief term from 1974 to 1977 as bishop of the rural diocese of Santiago de Maria significantly further impacted his view and attitude about the role of the Catholic Church as he witnessed the suffering of the landless poor. In 1977, the assassination of his close friend Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who advocated for the poor in El Salvador, marked a major turning point in his life regarding advocacy for the poor.  

By the time he became Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, he spoke out against poverty and injustice and against the assassinations and torture of those who spoke out against government suppression of laborers and farmers who were fighting for their human rights. 

The local Catholic Church, with his support, became a place of refuge as church leaders increasingly struggled to end the suffering of their congregations. Government supported mercenaries, which were known as death squads that roamed the country torturing and killing laborers, farmers, and their family members. Soon priests became targets of the mercenaries and dozens of them were attacked and kidnapped and some were assassinated.  

As government suppression increased, so did the convictions and teachings of Romero, which centered on scripture that called the Catholic Church to align with the poor and dispossessed. The following is an excerpt of a sermon he gave on July 15, 1979: 

 I am glad, brothers and sisters,
That our church is persecuted
Precisely for its preferential option for the poor
And for trying to become incarnate in the interest of the poor
And for saying to all the people
To rulers, to the rich and powerful:
If you do not become poor,
If you do not concern yourselves for the poverty of our people
As though they were your own family,
You will not be able to save society.” 

A few days before his assassination, while celebrating mass, he stated in the midst of his sermon 

As a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection.
If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.”

A few days later he was celebrating mass again. Right after he finished his sermon, he was shot to death at the altar. 

The following quote is taken from his last sermon, just moments before he was assassinated: 

Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ,
will live like the grains of wheat that dies.
It only apparently dies.
If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain.
The harvest comes because of the grain that dies . . .
We know that every effort to improve society,
above all when society is so full of injustice and sin,
is an effort that God blesses;
that God wants;
that God demands of us. 

You are encouraged to reflect on Archbishop Romero’s last words.

Comments

I was a Discalced Carmelite monk during the late 70's and early 80's at the height of the persecution of the Church of El Salvador. I prayed for them often and had such great respect for Archbishop Romero and was grieved by his death. He was a true Apostle who gave his life for the Gospel. The word in the Gospels must be made incarnate even if at time to the point of facing death. The forces of darkness want to put out the light of hope, justice, equality, and love. But we must fight against darkness as exemplified through hate, racism, injustice, and violence even if our bodies are made victims. This has been clearly expressed through the hate, violence and death of an innocent woman in Charlottesville, VA as a result of the darkness of hate groups in our nation. But darkness has not won for from death there is resurrection of a greater consciousness among more Americans now than ever. For how can we who profess to be followers of the wounded One fear being wounded.

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