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On the Death of Archbishop Romero

by Jon Sobrino Monday, May. 08, 2006 at 2:09 AM

Changing the course of history.. Remembering past victims and henchment can help us recognize the victims and henchment of today..Solidarity means bringing the crucified people down from the cross.


By Jon Sobrino

[This commemorative address twenty-five years after the death of Archbishop Romero is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,
http://www.ci-romero.de/seiten/ueber/romero/romero_2005_sobrino.html. Jon Sobrino is a Salvadorian priest and former advisor of Archbishop Romero.]

In the collective consciousness at the end of the century, bishop Romero enabled people to draw a deep breath of relief that human existence is possible and a feeling of gratitude that there are people not bound to shortsighted self-interest.

The worldwide effect of Romero was doubtlessly favored by a collaboration of rare factors. The bishop appeared in public when El Salvador and its church were themes in world news: massacres, murder of priests, “Be a patriot, kill a priest,” Romero’s letter to Carter, his last words “In God’s name, stop the repression!” and much more.


Many things change in the course of history while other things remain the same, for example the basic needs of human existence. However there was something in bishop Romero that keeps him alive in our memories as an exemplary person and Christian. We could say there was something “meta-paradigmatic” in bishop Romero, something that goes beyond all paradigm changes. Romero’s credibility, truthfulness and compassion are impressive across the ages.


In a world of lies, the prophet Romero is a symbol of truth, that truth that half of humanity is hindered in life by poverty. This truth is denied, repressed and manipulated a thousand times in favor of the oppressors and to the disadvantage of the oppressed, yesterday blatantly through official declarations of governments in El Salvador and the US and through armed forces, politicians and the oligarchy and today more subtlely in that grater freedom of speech is conceded while truth is basically suppressed. In such a time, “truth is like fresh spring water flowing down from the mountain” (Rutilio Grande). Romero is the symbol.


In a world full of cruelties, Romero is a symbol of justice and comfort. Yesterday brutal massacres characterized this world. Today everyday poverty (the gross domestic product in El Salvador today is less than before the war), everyday violence (10,000 victims of violence in 1995 and another 10,000 in 1996) and everyday contempt of the majority of the people dominate. In such a brutal world, compassion, justice, love and affection are like balsam healing the wounds of the injured and animating them to act. Romero today is the best symbol for this sympathy with the poor. Neither the game of democracy nor macro-economic data offer such justice and such comfort.


In a divided and contradictory world split between rich extravagant spenders (for example, the multinationals and finance capital) on one side and the poor Lazaruses content with the scraps on the other side; in an inhuman world in which only self-interest counts, not concern over the family of humanity, in which political leaders do not lead but exploit the people and lure them to false paths (Hosea) – in such a world, Romero becomes a symbol of a good shepherd near the little people who “knows his sheep.” Bishop Romero is still treasured as the one who knew the simple people and they knew him. Romero today is the voice of those without a voice. No other candidate can replace him.


In an estranged world dummified by modern circus games, in a world that makes everything into an industrial commodity (nature, vacation, sports, music, fashion, funerals of the prominent), in a world that makes the motto “business is business” into its guiding principle and therefore instrumentalizes or makes everything into money – in such a world, Romero becomes a symbol of joy in life arising out of the encounter between people. His saying “Being a good shepherd is no trouble with this people” came from joy in life in encounters with campesinos.


In a world of cheap arrangements that seeks to avoid tensions and conflicts where cruelties and compassion are provoked, in a world that only takes seriously self-interest, that scoffs at persistent engagement leading to true happiness where faith and ethics urgently press – in such a world, Romero becomes a symbol that one can be an engaged person and Christian to the end, to martyrdom.


In a world where faith in the God-mystery is not only denied but even worse trivialized and banalized, in such a world, Romero becomes a witness for faith in the God of Jesus, in the God of life, in the God of the victims of injustice, in the God “in whom the poor find compassion.” Romero is a believer who holds all of us before the eyes of the God of Jesus so we humans can be more than human as Augustine says.

The world and the church need such a person. In a church with exaggerated verticalism and authoritarianism, Romero appears as a bishop near the people without being populist. In a church full of fear where saying what one thinks truthfully is risky, Romero appears as a brotherly and sisterly shepherd who turns to everyone and rejoices being together with everyone. In a church that is sometimes out of touch with reality and often lives in a self-arranged world screened from reality, Romero appears as a believer of flesh and blood who adjusts to the real world. In a world where dogma and law often have the last word, Romero appears as once who gives the last word to the simple people, giving life to the poor, compassion with the victims and their God.

He understood the faith of the simple people very well. Romero gives courage and strengthens hope and life. Through his exemplary life as a person and Christian in El Salvador, he shows us the way.

This bishop must be made visible for everyone so he becomes the light that shines in the darkness and encourages resisting heartlessness. The canonization of Romero presses. To recall one of Jesus’ sayings, “If the church is silent, the stones will cry out.”


Bishop Romero is a well-known martyr, perhaps the best known, but not the only one. Like Jesus according to the Letter to the Hebrews, he is the elder brother in an unending cloud of witnesses. Martyrdom in Latin America and vast parts of the continent has gained a truly global significance.

Veneration of Romero can be an occasion to reflect again about the reality of El Salvador. Remembering past victims and henchmen can help us recognize the victims and henchmen of today and find the direction for building a just society. The church office’s veneration could lead to recognizing impunity and rash amnesty laws as errors and reflecting about a proper administration of justice. This veneration could help us understand that “changing the course of history is necessary.” All this is utopian but proclaims important and necessary desires.

More pointedly, Romero’s church office veneration will restore the dignity of many victims. This will deeply comfort many relatives of the victims since this dignity is now recognized as hallowed by God. Many relatives are very religious persons. Remember, bishop Romero like many others was slandered and insulted during his life. Their sincerity and their Christian faith were denied. They were accused of all kinds of untrue abnormalities. “Bishop Romero sells his soul to the devil,” a headline of a daily paper exclaimed at that time. The truth commission was sensitive to such accusations and demanded restoring the dignity of victims. A memorial honoring Romero could be erected one day. A canonization would be very important. God’s restoration of dignity would be acknowledged. All martyrs share in the dignity implied in canonization.

World institutions including the United Nations have no interest in recognizing this “globalization of martyrdom” since they are constantly subject to political pressure. The Catholic Church could do this. Perhaps in some symbolic way – dreaming is allowed to me – all the churches could be involved in this canonization. Latin America’s countless martyrs and he huge band of martyrs of the poor could be acknowledged in some way in the canonization of Romero.

Realizing this utopia is hardly self-evident. Still visualizing how Romero identified with poor people, above all with the victims and their martyr existence during his life is vital. “I want no personal security as long as personal security is not granted my people.”


While a trivialized form of faith and life is globalized today, while consumerism and egoism, contempt and exclusion of hundreds of millions or billions of people are globalized, pointing to another kind of globalization is very important, to the globalization of truth, engagement, love and tenderness.

We must “reverse the history of inhumanity” and found a family of humanity where we can live as God’s sons and daughters. We must realize the solidarity called “the tenderness of the peoples,” something that has moved and illumined people intensely since time immemorial. Because solidarity is generous and tender, many solidarity committees have chosen Oscar Romero as their patron saint. Starting from bishop Romero’s life and martyrdom, I’d like to present three thoughts about solidarity.


Solidarity as assistance does not mean giving alms to ease the distresses of daily life. Solidarity means taking a basic option for life, bringing the crucified people down from the cross. Thus solidarity “re-acts” like the Good Samaritan to he suffering of the whole people, exploited, disfigured and fallen by the wayside.

Bishop Romero was the bishop of the poor. “Death and blood tear God’s heart,” he said often. After assuming the archbishop’s office, the suffering of the victims tore his heart. H could not sleep soundly any more.

In May 1977, the army occupied the village of Aquilares for a month and committed countless attacks and murders. When the army withdrew from Aquilares, Monsignor Romero went there and began his sermon: “My mission is to stop the acts of violence and pick up the corpses.” That is a surprisingly new definition for the office of bishop. He criticized the army “for transforming the village into a prison and a torture chamber.”

When a crucified people provoke solidarity in this way, the person is completely transformed. Solidarity is not a mere assistance any longer for easing distress or soothing one’s conscience. Solidarity is also not a paternalist assistance that helps the crucified people from a distance. Rather solidarity penetrates our whole existence and commits us forever. Once I heard a young North American say “Solidaridad? – para siempre” – “Solidarity forever.”

El Salvador’s poor completely defined the life and mission of bishop Romero. He was faithful to them to the end. Asked just before his death what he would do if war broke out, he replied with full conviction: “I will continue even if I only absolve the dying and pick up corpses.” That is solidarity to the end.


Solidarity always follows a concern. However this is ambiguous. Solidarity should not be confused with an alliance that the powerful make with each other to defend their common interests against others. They do this again and again in war- and peace times. This has nothing to do with solidarity since such alliances defend particular interests. Solidarity defends the interests of the weak, the interests of those with little or no power. Still something important should be added. Goals and desires necessarily depend on persons and groups who lead the way to the future. Justice should be the goal. But for solidarity, the poor show the way to the future.

Though easily ignored, this was a basic insight for bishop Romero. He undoubtedly had more sympathy for peoples’ organizations than for the government or the armed forces. Only the simple people had his immediate support. He said concisely: “What helps the simple people decides whether this or that political project is right.”

Interpreting solidarity in this sense in the future as support for the cause of the poor is very important. In other words, being in solidarity may not be made dependent on whether a popular movement or revolution is successful. Rather solidarity is oriented in the fact that the poor are always crucified.

Bishop Romero proclaimed this quite bluntly. Just before his death, someone asked him: “What would solidarity look like today?” Bishop Romero spoke of prayer and economic aid. He pointed to the prerequisite for everything: “Do not forget that we are persons.” Thus solidarity means being a person together with the poor. Solidarity can have legitimate political motivations but defending and supporting human existence is its deepest root.


Solidarity begins with supporting the cause of the poor. Those offering this support often discover they are supported by the poor and receive more than they give. According to the words of the Apostle Paul, solidarity consists of encouraging one another and organizing relations so persons can give and receive.

This is not as simple as it seems. It is not simple especially for the ethnocentric first world that normally exploits the crucified people, does not want to know this and lives in denial and repression. Some solidarity movements even run the risk of supporting concerns in the wrong way. They give the impression that the liberation movements of the third world solve the problems of some idealists in the first world since these idealists find no possibilities for their utopias at home. Therefore turning to bishop Romero and asking what he gave and what he received from the crucified people can be very helpful.

Romero gave everything to the poor. This was not first of all economic aid. Rather he devoted his time and knowledge and the weight and influence of his office as archbishop to the poor. Through all this, he said the truth to the poor and awakened dignity, trust and hope in them. He proved his love to them to the end. All this is well known. We do not need to dwell on this here.

To really understand the solidarity of the bishop, asking what he received from them is useful. Firstly, the poor undoubtedly changed him; they converted him. “The simple people are a prophet for me,” he said once. “I believe a bishop always has much to learn from the simple people.” Secondly, the crucified people kindled a light for bishop Romero’s mission and his kind of evangelization like that servant of god in the prophet Isaiah whom God made the “light for the nations.” This light showed bishop Romero the way through all the darkness. Thirdly, the poor gave him the strength to remain steadfast against the many cruel attacks and possible murder. He could only lay down his life for them because they loved him. Lastly, the poor gave bishop Romero hope in life, delight in life and joy in life. “Being a good shepherd is not hard for such a people. The simple people urge us to service since we feel called to be their voice and defend their rights.” All this filled him “with deep satisfaction” as he said himself.

We have emphasized Romero’s solidarity because our contemporary world offers everything but not solidarity. Our contemporary world wants us as consumers and pragmatists at the price of ignoring others. We should refuse them and let them perish in misery since otherwise we cannot advance in life. For this reason, we bitterly need to focus on the ways of solidarity and follow those ways.

Jesus also has his witnesses today. Monsignor Romero, the compassionate, merciful and just bishop who lived solidarity, is one of these witnesses. He embraced the poor in his heart and the poor have him in their hearts forever. Therefore I’d like to say of bishop Romero: “He was God’s Good News for the poor of this world.” Therefore he is still present in books, pamphlets, films, poems, popular songs and solidarity committees. Ignacio Ellacuria identified the reason for this miracle of resurrection: “In Monsignor Romero, God went his way through El Salvador.”

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