SAN SALVADOR — Moments before his life was to end while celebrating Mass, Blessed Oscar Romero spoke to the small congregation in front of him at the Divina Providencia hospital chapel in San Salvador about the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist.
“May this Body that is immolated and this Blood, which is sacrificed for men, also nourish us, so that we can give over our body and our blood to suffering and pain, as Christ did; not for ourselves, but, rather, so as to bring forth a harvest of justice and peace in our land,” he reminded Massgoers on the evening of March 24, 1980, a day he mainly spent in recollection with Opus Dei priests.
The 62-year-old archbishop started his final Offertory, and as he began to remove the corporal from the chalice, an assassin, sponsored by members of El Salvador’s military and affluent political establishment, aimed his rifle through the open doorway of the chapel and fired the bullet that pierced the priest’s heart.
More than 37 years have passed since Blessed Romero received a martyr’s death at the altar. But now, the Vatican is studying a miracle attributed to Blessed Romero involving the healing of a pregnant woman who was expected to die with her 7 month-old unborn baby. The Salvadoran bishops have petitioned for Blessed Romero’s canonization two years after he was beatified as a martyr killed in odium fidei (“hatred of the faith”).
During his three short years as archbishop of San Salvador, and in the years following, the real legacy of Blessed Romero has been obscured by political myths that began in El Salvador. On the political right, many politicians and their ecclesial allies in the Church slandered him as a “communist” for his vocal proclamation of the Church’s doctrines on human life and dignity, particularly regarding the poor and oppressed in El Salvador, and accused him of pushing a Marxist influenced “liberation theology,” despite Blessed Romero’s public opposition to it. At one time, many on the political left, and their ideological allies in the Church, had condemned Blessed Romero for his opposition to political violence, called him a “traitor” and “sell-out” for working with El Salvador’s government when he thought it helpful, and rejected his message that El Salvador’s salvation was possible through the conversion of all hearts to the Gospel, not through politics.
Despite their opposition to him in life, after his martyrdom, the political left claimed Archbishop Romero as one of their heroes, while the political right marginalized Romero as a proponent of a “liberation theology,” which promoted economic, social and political change generally derived from Marxism or socialism, who was killed for political reasons, not because of his faith.
St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis all stated during their pontificates that Blessed Romeo was a martyr for the faith. According to Blessed Romero’s postulator, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, Benedict XVI gave the green light in December 2012 for the Vatican to move the cause out of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and on to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Blessed Romero’s journey toward canonization is allowing the truth of the archbishop’s life to break free of the myths that surround him and reveals a Catholic whose path to martyrdom came from his faithful “Yes” to where God was calling him to be, despite his own weaknesses, struggles and disappointments.
Msgr. Richard Antall, a U.S. priest who served 20 years as a missionary in El Salvador, starting in 1986, told the Register that Blessed Romero was ultimately a “sincere priest who really had a lot of suffering and emotional pain, and not a lot of support” as he sought to keep El Salvador out of civil war. He had his faults — those who liked him admitted he had a difficult personality and struggled intensely with decision-making — but he was also devoted to Our Lady Queen of Peace, and as a young priest, he had been very involved with the Legion of Mary and the Cursillos de Cristiandad. Much of Blessed Romero’s formation and spirituality was Ignatian, but he also relied upon Opus Dei priests for spiritual direction and retreats.
“There is a great photo of him with [Servant of God] Father Patrick Peyton during a rosary crusade,” the priest said, referencing the friendship between Romero and Holy Cross Father Peyton, who founded the Family Rosary Crusade in the 1940s.
He added that Blessed Romero’s personal secretary, Msgr. Jesús Delgado, revealed the archbishop believed the ideal death for a priest was serving God at the altar.
“He had the death he wanted,” Msgr. Antall said.
Ordinary Path of Holiness
Damian Zynda, author of Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Disciple Who Revealed the Glory of God, told the Register that Blessed Romero’s life was focused on answering a question he wrote down in his spiritual diary while studying for the doctorate he never completed in Rome: “How far can a soul ascend if it allows itself to be possessed by God?”
“That was the continuous vision that propelled him to holiness,” said Zynda, who studied closely Blessed Romero’s spiritual journey for her own doctorate in systematic theology.
“He was an ordinary man with a very informed conscience,” she said, and “faithful within the disciplines and doctrines of the Church.”
According to Zynda, Romero would spend an hour in prayer in the early morning and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours throughout the day. He kept a Holy Hour, went to weekly confession, made a daylong retreat monthly and sought spiritual direction.
After his death, it was discovered that he kept a “discipline” — a self-flagellation tool — by his bedside drawer.
At the same time, Blessed Romero’s path to holiness included a lifelong battle with personality and mood disorders. Early on, a confessor told Blessed Romero he struggled with scrupulosity; a doctor later diagnosed him with what is today known as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. OCD burdened him with “this tremendous amount of fear,” Zynda said, and gave him a nervous breakdown. Blessed Romero, however, eventually decided to seek psychoanalysis and long-term therapy, which deepened his personal intimacy with God.
Martyr’s Tipping Point
Blessed Romero’s pastoral concern for the poor began as bishop in the rural Diocese of Santiago de Maria, where he came face-to-face with their suffering, including the government-sanctioned violence that ravaged them. He would go identify the men and women murdered by El Salvador’s oligarchy, comfort the victims’ families and worked behind the scenes to ask the government to resolve human-rights abuses.
According to Thomas Kelly, a theology professor at Creighton University, Blessed Romero had been considered a safe choice for archbishop, who would not upset Church-state relations in El Salvador. But the murder of Blessed Romero’s friend Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande by a Salvadoran government death squad proved to be a turning point in his life, just weeks after his installation as the archbishop of San Salvador.
Father Rutilio, whose cause for sainthood is also open, took direction from the Second Vatican Council’s documents to become both “evangelizing and engaged in the social issues of the community,” according to Kelly. Father Rutilio had told the Salvadoran peasant families that their miseries were not the will of God, as they had long believed, but were caused by sin and injustice in members of society, and they could be the agents of change.
His martyred friend had given Archbishop Romero “a model for what a prophetic church person looks like.” Father Rutilio’s last words before a hail of bullets ripped into the car were said to be: “We must do what God wants.”
In his homily at the priest’s funeral Mass, Blessed Romero encouraged his priests to “embrace this precious inheritance” of Father Rutilio’s witness to the Gospel. Archbishop Romero knew that by using his pulpit to speak against the continuing injustices in El Salvador and the tyranny of the government and oligarchy, he risked his safety. But every Sunday in his homilies, Romero raised the plight of the “disappeared,” men and women whom the government or its allies abducted and secretly executed.
“I think Romero knew where this was going to end,” Kelly said.
Martyrdom Is for Everyone
As the real Blessed Romero becomes more known, so does his holiness as a model for ordinary men and women. Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez in March 2015 said “the journey that Monseñor Romero made is the journey that every one of us is called to make as Christians.”
“Each one of us is called to follow Jesus in our own way and to reach out to our neighbors in need. Each one of us is called to seek the face of God — in the face of the poor, the immigrant, the prisoner, the sick, the hungry, the lonely.”
Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, a history professor at Roma Tre University in Rome, said that Blessed Romero’s martyrdom came from his obedience to God’s will for him in El Salvador, living in solidarity with the poor as their bishop, giving attention to their suffering, and being “the voice for those who had no voice.” Remaining faithful to his mission meant staying in El Salvador.
“Romero chose to remain [in El Salvador] not because he wanted to be a hero, but because he felt it was his responsibility to stay with his people,” he said.
Blessed Romero’s meditations, della Rocca added, also showed he viewed martyrdom as a calling for all Christians, by giving their total assent to God’s will in the ordinary course of their “simple normal lives,” such as the mother who makes sacrifices daily for her children.
For Romero, he said, martyrdom was not just for a few, but was a possibility “for all Christian people.”