Oscar Romero: The saint I knew

Thousands of believers in El Salvador celebrated the imminent canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero on Oct. 13, 2018, with a procession that marched to the Cathedral of San Salvador, where the remains of Romero are interred. – AP PHOTO/SALVADOR MELENDEZ

IF YOU LIVE LONG enough, someone you knew might become a saint. Not just saintly, but a real Roman Catholic saint, ready to be immortalized in stained glass.

It just happened to me. As a young reporter in El Salvador during the late 1970s, I came to know the country’s highest-ranking cleric, Archbishop Oscar Romero. A few days ago Pope Francis elevated him to sainthood. The process of choosing saints has always been shaded by politics and corruption, but this was a wonderful choice. No one I ever met deserved sainthood more.

Romero was shot dead while saying Mass in a church, which makes him as pure a religious martyr as can be imagined. Yet the campaign to make him a saint was long and difficult. Previous popes did not want to associate themselves with Romero. He had challenged the right of the United States to support his country’s army, which was rampaging through the countryside and sponsoring death squads. In the eyes of passionate anti-Communists like Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, that made him a leftist and therefore unworthy of sainthood. Yet when Pope Francis officially elevated him last Sunday, he wore around his waist the bloodstained rope belt that Romero was wearing when a sniper cut him down on March 24, 1980.

I first met Romero when a Salvadoran friend brought me to have dinner with him. He lived in a bare dormitory cell adjacent to a Catholic hospital. Our dinner was communal, at a long rustic table we shared with priests, nuns, and hospital workers. Anyone who did not know him would have been unable to recognize who in the dining hall was the country’s archbishop.

In our conversation that evening and others we had over the next couple of years, Romero never said anything that would mark him as a leftist. In fact, he was deeply apolitical. He was misunderstood because the killings he denounced were carried out by a right-wing regime. Leaders of the regime, though, did not misunderstand him. Neither did their supporters in Washington. His uncompromising denunciations of the military made him a dangerous enemy. He combined unique moral authority with a fierce determination to use it as a weapon of peace. That angered militants who believed counter-insurgency war was the only way to maintain long-entrenched structures of power in El Salvador, protect the country from a communist takeover, and keep it within the American sphere of influence.

Romero was bishop of the smallest and least significant diocese in El Salvador when the country’s archbishop died in 1977. He was known as a friend of rich landowners. They were thrilled when he was elevated to his new post. But events were moving quickly in El Salvador. Protests against the country’s brutally unjust order, some organized by Marxists who admired Fidel Castro’s Cuba, were escalating. In response, the military unleashed a wave of repression. Just two weeks after Romero became archbishop, a death squad killed a popular Jesuit priest who had supported protesters. Six weeks later another priest was killed. This electrified Romero. He could not avoid realizing that the same force responsible for killing peasant farmers was also killing priests.

One day about six months before Romero was assassinated, I traveled with him on a long and bumpy jeep ride to a remote town called Arcatao. People crowded around him. In the local church, he gave a sermon condemning the “idolatry of riches” and “men who use power as if they were gods instead of servants of the people.” On the way home he told me, “El Salvador is on the brink of a civil war.” The cause, he said, was “social injustice, which is institutionalized by the repression of the people and preventing them from participating in political life.”

As the army intensified its killing spree, Romero’s rhetoric became more urgent. He begged the United States to stop supporting the Salvadoran army. In what would be his last sermon, he went even further. “I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army,” he said. “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!” A few days later, as he was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the hospital where I first met him, he was cut down by a single rifle shot.

Salvadoran officers organized the killing. Officials in Washington issued routine condemnations, but they knew Romero’s death would make their job easier. No longer would they have to listen to this troublesome priest. The civil war he predicted broke out soon afterward. More than 50,000 people died as El Salvador became a Cold War battlefield. It has never recovered.After one of Romero’s sermons, I mingled with worshippers as they left the church. “He’s the only hope we have, a kind of saint,” one told me. Now Romero is not just a “kind of” saint, but a real one. His canonization is a permanent blessing on El Salvador. It has lifted many spirits. That does little, however, to ease what Romero called “the true reality of the suffering and poverty of our people.”

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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