Chapter 9: The Martyrdom of Archbishop Romero, by Moses Billygraham Raj

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Chapter 9: The Martyrdom of Archbishop Romero, by Moses Billygraham Raj

The Historical Context of El Salvador

Introduction: When we go back to the history of El Salvador we can notice its origin and culture. Socially and economically it was deprived by colonialism. History says that around 500 BC. an advanced civilization arose and flourished in parts of El Salvador but after AD. 900 this civilization declined. From AD. 300 to AD. 900 the ‘Maya’ civilization was in existence. During colonization, Columbus’ fourth voyage found this island.

Resources of the Country (Natural): El Salvador is small in size with San Salvador as its capital. Honduras, and Guatemala are in the east and west of El Salvador. Coffee, sugar, cotton and bananas are produced in El Salvador. Around the seventeenth century the Jesuit priests came to El Salvador and educated its people. Moreover they helped the native Indians to improve their agricultural products.

The Political Context: The political disputes began during the closing years of the colonial period. There are everywhere two prominent groups known to everybody -- the Conservatives and the Liberals. Around 1826-29 disputes arose between the two groups in El Salvador. The Liberals could not hold together Central America, so they split this area into five Republics. The goals of the Liberals was to have control over coffee production and export, take over all the lands from the poor peasants and to eliminate the native landers. Most of these Liberals were elites also. President Barrlos invited the Presbyterians to El Salvador for evangelization and the Liberals supported the protestant groups. Thus the Church was involved in politics. Since the protestants were ‘modern’ the Liberals were attracted. From 1912 onwards a number of US marines occupied these regions whereas the Catholics were with the native landers. Some of the priests returned from the Medellin Conference and viewed the whole situation of El Salvador from a liberationist perspective.

U.S. Trade and El Salvador’s Bondage: In the late 1950s the Central American Common Market (CACM) introduced industrialization, centralized planning etc. American tariffs exploited, forced and speeded up the growth of El Salvador for their vested interest in an unethical way. Meanwhile the strong political control of the U.S. over El Salvador started also economic control and as such the latter came into the hands of the Americans rather than into the hands of the native landers.

This situation aggravated the peasants. In 1918 the first labor union was formed. In 1920 the railroad workers went on strike. In 1932 the Regional Foundation of Workers of El Salvador was formed. In the same year there was a mass slaughter (mataza). This became the pivotal event for the peasants to revolt against the Government. In 1960 the U.S. showed its concern for the Salvadoran peasant’s problems and struggles. The American Institute for Free Labor Development concentrated on the urban workers and encouraged the Indians to adapt themselves to "bread and butter".

Liberation Against Power: President Molina reinvigorated the political repression especially directed against the rural and urban masses. The El Salvadorans had become accustomed to paying with their blood and life in the feudal system of exploitation. Molina ordered, for the first time, the lashing out against the Catholic Church, since the priests sided with the poor. This campaign destroyed the radio, the television station, because they were used by the priests. The priests reflected on the Latin American Episcopal Conference in Medellin in 1968. This approach implied an understanding of the Church as the people of God and identification with the sufferings and the hopes of the poor and the oppressed people.

Arrival of Archbishop Romero: It was in this situation that Archbishop Romero was chosen to succeed the Archbishop Cha’vez. The Salvadoran Government and the oligarchy were jubilant, because they thought (even the Vatican) that Romero would maintain good relationship with the Government as well as the oligarchy and, Rome was convinced about this. But unfortunately Romero sided with the aspirations of the poor Christian communities in El Salvador.

Archbishop Romero -- Life Sketch: Romero was born on August 15, 1917, in the town of Ciudad Barrios, in the district of San Miguel; El Salvador. His father was a postman and telegraphist. After his seminary training Romero became an ordained priest in 1942. On February 14 Georgetown University honored him by awarding the doctorate for his resolute defense of human rights. Meanwhile General Romero determined the fate of El Salvador by his ruthless dictatorship. At the outset of his bishopric one of bishop Romero’s closest friends and a priest, Father Grandes’ assassination made a tremendous impact on him. President Molina called bishop Romero to express his condolences on the death of Father Grandes. But this gesture was only a superficial one as it was an attempt to attract Romero to be on the side of the Government. But Romero did not yield.

After this, gradually, Romero began to change. With General Romero in power as President there were massacres, killings, cryings and sufferings everywhere and day after day a number of people disappeared. Guerillas, Government troops and armed people plundered the lives of innocent people. Thus the Government tried to debunk the Archbishop by propagating corruption. But Romero’s moral courage and unbeatable honesty had a hold on the poor masses who had great respect for him. His sermons strengthened the people in their faith and motivated them for liberation-oriented action. Thus the people, the priests and the religious people came to the streets of El Salvador carrying placards and slogans condemning the ‘National Security Policy’ adopted by the Salvadoran Government. At the end of the protest, the army fired at them. Thousands were killed and many wounded. As a result of this the image of the Salvadoran Government went on the decline as respect for human life was neither shown nor regarded. Out of these events two events received world wide coverage. On May eighth the troops mercilessly shot the people at the door of the Cathedral with machine guns and secondly the national security forces machine-gunned a group of students in front of the Venezuelan Embassy. This macabre incident was telecast world wide.

The Prophet of the Poor: Romero raised his prophetic voice not only to denounce the acts of outrage and injustice but also to point the way to conversion, for a change of and reorganization of the country. He faced the country’s crises with great honesty and criticized the National Security Policy, a Policy that was anti-people and anti-Christian. He declared "the Church cannot simply state that it condemns every kind of violence," for there are situations such as that of legitimate defense, in which the use of violence is both necessary and justified. Archbishop Romero’s stance was one of critical hopefulness and unshakeable demands. He called together all the groups and unified them.

The amount of repression that continued caused Archbishop Romero real heartache. The non-cooperation from the priestly circle increased his mental tension. Moreover, everyday he started to receive a number of persons who had been harassed by the violence carried out by the military or paramilitary forces. They came to him looking for help or protection. As the Bishop noticed the increased torrent of pain, and the shedding of innocent blood, his prophetic vocation took an angrier tone. In his famous letter addressed to President Carter of the United States, he asked, in the name of the rights of the people of El Salvador, not to send armaments or support any kind of repressive action by the armed forces. This indeed was a symbol of his courageous attitude. This letter he had addressed to Carter gained worldwide publicity, and this action by Romero embarrassed, the Government of El Salvador, the United States and the Vatican also.

Manner of Romero’s Martyrdom: His opposition to the repressive violence came to a climax in his Sunday homily on March 23. He called firmly upon the troops and the national guards to obey the law of God and not to obey the orders of the officers who might instruct them to kill their own brothers and sisters. "In the name of God and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise daily more loudly to heaven, I plead you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God : Put an end to this repression".

This was the last straw. His enemies anger could not tolerate any more. On Monday, March 24, Romero fell victim of an assassin as he was standing at the Altar. He had just preached that a life offered for others is a sure token of resurrection and of victory. Archbishop Romero’s funeral service was held on March 30. It took place in the Square known as Barrios of San Salvador, in front of the Cathedral doors. Some hundred fifty thousand people attended the service. There were dozens of Prelates, Bishops, Priests, Religious and other dignitaries from around the world. During this service, the papal Representative, Cardinal Corripio of Mexico was preaching. Suddenly, soldiers opened fire and many of them got killed. Thus, the profound moral ignominy of the Salvadoran Government got manifested to the whole world. In the midst of bombs, shooting, bloodshed and horror, the Archbishop was hurriedly buried. He was buried as he had lived. The seeds of liberation, the only path toward the God of Jesus Christ, were sown by the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero.

The Theology of Romero:

God is the prime source of all life, justice, love and truth and the ultimate horizon to which all these reach out. Romero placed no limit to God’s will; his cry was a cry for justice and life and the proclamation of hope for the society and for the oppressed. Poverty and desolation is denial of God’s will, a perverted creation in which God’s glory is mocked at and scorned. Faith in God begins with defense of life here and now. To be absolutely accurate, the living poor man or woman is God’s glory. Sin is indeed something that causes death.

Archbishop Romero believed in the God of the Exodus who, today as yesterday, looks upon the captive and exploited people, hears their cries and then himself comes to free them, and to promise them a new land. Romero did not rely purely on political considerations, but on his faith in God. His sermons were listened to because in them the real situation of the country found expression. Romero’s love for truth was rooted in his faith in God.

Because of that faith, Archbishop Romero encountered God in the midst of the poor, the sure way to belief in God. And, he encountered God from the perspective of the poor. Here I am able to see that the "poor" preached (or became!) the Gospel to the Archbishop Romero.

Archbishop Romero was not only a believer, in addition to having been an Archbishop. Throughout his episcopal ministry, he proved his concrete faith in the God of the poor. He brought faith and episcopacy-personal charisma and the institution -- together.

Romero made the defense of the poor and the oppressed a specific and basic function of his episcopal ministry. He identified himself with them, and the poor came to him as a protector who was duty bound to put the full weight of his episcopal authority at their service. He succeeded in "institutionalizing" the preferential option for the poor. He saw toward the end that to humanize this liberative process, the Church must be present within it. It ought not ignore it or judge it merely from outside. He regarded the Church’s presence in this process as being of the highest importance both for the process itself and for the future of the Church.

Conclusion and Reflection:

Romero’s profound faith in God made him to play a vital role in the Church and in the Society. He saw the struggle of the Church in the society as well as the struggle of the society within the Church. He considered martyrdom as the final service that he could render to the Church and to his country. He said: " If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador". He said this with great humility. He believed that martyrdom was a grace from God, and he did not believe that he had earned it. He offered his blood as the seed of liberation and a sign of hope that was soon to become a reality. At last, he affirmed the fact "... that a Bishop may die, but the Church of God, the people, will never die".

Through this write-up, I understand that the struggle of the people will never go in vain. It is not the authority, but the commitment of one’s faith for the sake of humanity is very important. I also learnt that one’s commitment for the sake of the poor will go beyond the barriers of caste, religion and ethnicity. God’s perspective is the perspective of the poor and marginalized people. In our own context, the Dalit’s perspective is God’s perspective, and Dalit consciousness is God’s consciousness. Thus, liberation is the key-note of the Gospel of Jesus. Serving selflessly is one’s commitment to the society. It is my faith and here I stand. Where one oppressed soul goes without food, clothes or human dignity, I will fight and I will fight to the very end.



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Brokman, James, The Church is all of you, Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1985.

Sobrino, Jon & Romero, S.J. Martyr for Liberation, U.K:CIIR,1986.

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