Remembering Oscar Romero at Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey, London, UK
Romero Statue, Westminster Abbey, London, UK

In 1998 Westminster Abbey in London opened its gallery of Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. Their 10 statues are set in outside niches above the main entrance. The Abbey did so to proclaim that the 20th century was one of Christian martyrdom greater than in any previous period in the history of the church.[1]

In niche number 6 is the statue of Oscar Romero. He stands between the statues of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great U.S. civil rights leader and preacher, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazi regime just before the end of World War II for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.[2]

The biographical essay about Romero in a book about this gallery of martyrs is by Philip Berryman, an U.S. liberation theologian and leading authority on Christianity in Central and South America.

Berryman was in El Salvador in March 1980 and heard Romero’s famous homily ordering the military to stop the repression. Immediately afterwards, Berryman said he expressed his amazement at Romero’s boldness in saying what the Salvadoran military officers must have thought was treasonous. The next day when Berryman heard that Romero had been shot, he rushed to the hospital only to find out that Romero had died. Shortly after the assassination, he reports that Ignacio Ellacuria, the Rector of the Universidad de Centro America (UCA), celebrated a mass and said that with Archbishop Romero, God had visited El Salvador.[3]

Berryman recounts the familiar story about Romero’s being conservative and soft-spoken when he was appointed Archbishop in early 1977 and being converted to social and political justice after the murder of his friend, Father Rutilio Grande. To the same point, he quotes another friend of Romero, Jesuit priest and liberation theologian at UCA, Jon Sobrino, who said that when Romero gazed “at the mortal remains of Rutilio Grande, the scales fell from his eyes. Rutilio had been right! The kind of pastoral activity, the kind of church, the kind of faith he had advocated had been the right kind after all. . . .  [I]f Rutilio had died as Jesus died, if he had shown that greatest of all love, the love required to lay down one’s very life for others–was this not because his life and mission had been like the life and mission of Jesus? . . . Ah then, it had not been Rutilio, but Oscar who had been mistaken! . . .  And Archbishop Romero , , , [made] a decision to change.” In short, Grande’s life and death gave Romero a new direction for his life and the strength to pursue it.[4]

Romero, according to Berryman, prepared his homilies in consultation with a team of priests and lay people to review the situation in the country. Then he would write the homily from his notes, the newspapers of the week and the Biblical texts and commentaries. The homilies themselves usually lasted about 45 minutes, mostly devoted to a systematic and thematic reflection on the Biblical texts for the day, but also with Romero’s observations on the human rights violations of the prior week.[5]

Berryman also comments on the strained relationship between Romero and the U.S. government. Early in 1978, for example, Romero met with Terrance Todman, the U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, who urged Romero to have a less confrontational and more constructive relationship with the Salvadoran government. Romero immediately responded that the U.S. and Rodman did not understand what was happening in El Salvador. “The problem is not between Church and government, it’s between government and people. . . . It’s not the church, much less the archbishop! If the government improved its treatment of the people, we will improve our relations with the government.”[6]

The Anglican Dean of Westminster Abbey came to El Salvador for the 20th anniversary of Romero’s assassination in 2000 and participated in a mass at the El Salvador de Mundo (the Savior of the World) traffic circle lead by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles. I cried during the service when Salvadorans passed the peace to me after all my country had done to support the Salvadoran government during their civil war.


[1] Andrew Chandler, Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century (Westminster Abbey; London 1999); Andrew Chandler (ed.), The Terrible Alternative–Christian Martyrdom in the Twentieth Century (Cassell; London 1998).

[2] Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century at 3, 8, 10, 13.

[3]  The Terrible Alternative at 159-60. Father Ellacuria, of course, was one of the six Jesuit priests murdered by the Salvadoran military in November 1989. (See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 2, 2011).)

[4]  Id. at 160, 164-65; Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections at 9-10 (Orbis; Maryknoll, NY 1990); Post: Oscar Romero, A Saint for All People and All Time (Oct. 5, 2011). Jon Sobrino, whom I met at UCA in April 1989, escaped being murdered with his fellow Jesuits in November 1989 because he was lecturing in Southeast Asia. (Jon Sobrino, Ignacio Ellacuria, et al., Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador at 4-9 (Orbis Books; Maryknoll, N.Y. 1990).)

[5]  The Terrible Alternative at 167-68.

[6]  Id. at 170.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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