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.

Remembering Oscar Romero in Art

 Oscar Romero is remembered in music and film.[1] We also have seen some of the art about Romero.[2] Now let us look at some of the other art.

Romero mural on country church

There are murals of Romero on the exteriors of churches throughout the country. Many of them are painted by artists employed by a Salvadoran NGO, Equipo Maiz, one of whose missions is to keep Romero’s memory alive. In 2000 I observed one such mural being painted on a country church.

Romero posters @ Equipo Maiz

Equipo Maiz also produces posters and t-shirts with Romero’s image for the celebrations of his life on the anniversaries of his assassination.

Romero bust @ Universidad de Centro America
Romero Chapel, Universidad de Centro America

One also sees busts of Romero at churches. One is outside the entrance to the Romero Chapel at the Universidad de Centro America, not too far from where his friends, the six Jesuit priests, were murdered in 1989.

Romero painting, March 2000

For the 20th anniversary celebrations in 2000 there was a special art exhibit in the capitol city of paintings about Romero. Here is one of the paintings in that exhibit.

Graffiti also needs to be included in the art about Romero. Indeed, it is art of the people. I vividly recall riding in a van in 1989 on the way for my very first visit to the chapel where Romero was assassinated. Graffiti on the white walls sheltering the nearby homes proclaimed, “Romero vive!” (Romero lives!)[3]


[1] Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Music (Oct. __, 2011); Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Film (Oct. __, 2011).

[2] Post: Oscar Romero’s Last Homily (Oct. 7, 2011)(Romero mural near his apartment); Post: Oscar Romero’s Tomb (Oct. 10, 2011)(Romero’s tombs); Post: Oscar Romero’s Assassination Case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Oct. __, 2011)(Romero mural at San Salvador airport; 2010 Romero poster); Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Music (Oct. __, 2011)(Romero assassination painting in church in Ciudad Barrios).

[3] Post: My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989 (May 25, 2011).

Remembering Oscar Romero in Music

In April 1989 I attended a service of solidarity in San Salvador for a Catholic priest who that week had received death threats. The service was in a screened recreational building next to a very dusty soccer field. As we entered, we were handed mimeographed sheets with words for hymns of the people about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had been murdered nine years earlier. Thus began my learning about Romero.[1]

I returned to El Salvador for the 20th anniversary of Romero’s assassination in March 2000. One of the special events was a concert at the National University in the capitol to celebrate the release of a CD of music about Romero. Rock, pop and traditional styles of music were featured, and everyone enjoyed the music. The CD also contained an audio recorded extract from Romero’s famous homily of March 23, 1980. (See Post: Oscar Romero, A Saint for All People and All Time (Oct. 5, 2011).)

Romero CD, 2000
Romero concert, 2000
Romero concert, 2000

On this trip we visited Romero’s home town of Ciudad Barrios where we saw a dramatic painting of his assassination. We also spent time at the station of Radio Romero, which despite death threats broadcasts his words and music about him by a local group.

Romero painting, Ciudad Barrios
Radio Romero, Ciudad Barrios
Romero CD, 2010

For the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination in March 2010 I again was in El Salvador. A new CD of music about Romero was released similar to the earlier one.


[1] See Post: My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989 (May 25, 2011).

Oscar Romero’s Tomb

San Salvador Cathedral, 1989
San Salvador Cathedral, 1989

 

 

My first visit to Oscar Romero’s tomb in the Cathedral of San Salvador was in April 1989. The Cathedral is in el centro with all the noise and hurly-burly of buses and other traffic. The building was not finished. Steel rods protruded from the rough concrete shell of the building waiting for other parts of the structure. (Romero had halted all construction because he did not think it was right for the church to be spending money on its building when the people were suffering from poverty and human rights abuses.) On the steps were women from COMADRES with their bullhorns protesting against the latest wave of repression. Inside, scraps of linoleum were on the floor along with scattered plain wooden benches. In the right transept was Romero’s tomb–plain concrete covered with flowers and prayers of the people. As I stood there, the words “My body broken for you” from the Christian sacrament of communion echoed in my mind. Tears still come when I remember being in that place at that time. (See Post: My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989 (May 25, 2011).)

 

 

 

 

San Salvador Cathedral, 2000
Oscar Romero Tomb, 2000

 

In March 2000 on the 20th anniversary of Romero’s assassination I visited the Cathedral again. The construction of the building had been completed. In a formal sense, the exterior was beautiful with ceramic tiles by the country’s great artist, Fernando Llort, surrounding the main entrance. The tomb had been moved to the crypt and was more formal and elegant. But it had lost its spiritual power for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 2010 marked the 30th anniversary of the assassination when I returned to the Cathedral. The tomb had been moved again, now to a more central and prominent part of the crypt. It was totally covered with flowers, pictures and other things so that it was impossible to tell what the tomb itself looked like. Only when I found photographs on the Internet could I see the tomb itself. At the four corners of the bronze tomb, sculptured figures of Salvadorans are rising from the horizontal image of the dead Romero with his Archbishop’s Mitre. The artist apparently was inspired by Romero’s statement shortly before he was assassinated, “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”  The separate elements of this tomb are beautifully executed, but as a whole it is depressing. All I could think, what an ugly brass four-poster bed. I extend my apologies to Romero and the artist.

 

Oscar Romero Tomb, 2010
Oscar Romero Tomb, 2010
President Obama @ Oscar Romero Tomb, 2011

Oscar Romero’s Funeral

 

Oscar Romero
San Salvador Cathedral

On Palm Sunday, March 30, 1980, Oscar Romero’s funeral mass was held on the front steps of San Salvador’s Cathedral. In attendance were the Papal Nuncio to El Salvador, Cardinal Ernesto Corripio of Mexico and bishops from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, France, Ireland, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. The mass was concelebrated by Cardinal Corripio; Father Miguel D’Escoto, who was the Foreign Minister of Nicaragua; Father Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian liberation theologian; 30 bishops; and 300 Salvadoran priests.[1]

An estimated 250,000 people crowded into Plaza Libertad in front of the Cathedral, whose front steps held Romero’s coffin on an improvised alter. Many people carried photos of Romero with flowers and palms for Palm Sunday. They listened to the mass over loudspeakers.

Cardinal Corripio delivered the homily. In reference to one of Romero’s well-known teachings, “Violence cannot kill truth or justice,” Corripio said, “We cannot love by hating. We cannot defend life by killing.”

The Cardinal was interrupted by a loud explosion near a corner of the adjacent National Palace, which also fronted onto the plaza. It was a bomb. Soliders from the roof and windows of the National Palace started shooting into the crowd.

The people in the plaza starting running away. Many fled to the streets going away from the Cathedral. Others ran towards the Cathedral, but an iron fence prevented many of them from entering. Of the 40 who were killed that day, many had been trampled by others fleeing to safety.

People at Romero Funeral

Somehow Romero’s coffin was moved to the inside of the Cathedral, and Cardinal Corripio and others hastily buried Romero’s body in the tomb that had been prepared in the east transept of the Cathedral.

The Cathedral was packed with so many people they could hardly breathe for the next two hours until they thought it was safe to leave.

That afternoon the government released a statement blaming a popular organization (Coordinating Commission of the Masses) for the bomb and the violence and also alleging that the organization had tried to steal Romero’s body and had held people inside the Cathedral under the pretext of protecting them.

That evening a group of the foreign visitors at the funeral issued a statement that was signed by eight bishops and 16 others. They denied the accusations in the government’s statement and reported that witnesses said the bomb and shooting came from the National Palace.

These attacks on the people, in my opinion, were intended to frighten them from following Romero’s denouncements of human rights violations by the state and others.


[1] Treaster, 26 Salvadorans Die At Bishop’s Funeral, N.Y. Times (March 31, 1980); James Brockman, The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero at 221-23 (Orbis Books 1982); Maria Lopez Vigil, Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic at 416-22 (EPICA; Washington, DC 2000). Romero’s funeral provides the opening scene for Sandra Benitez’s novel, The Weight of All Things (2000). The main character, a nine-year-old boy Nicolas Vereas, and his mother are in the crowd in the plaza to pay homage to Romero. When bullets fly, the mother throws herself on top of her son to protect him and is killed. Nicolas, however, believes she is only wounded, but cannot find her. The rest of the novel describes his perilous search for her.

Oscar Romero’s Assassination

Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia

On March 24, 1980, Monsignor Oscar Romero was delivering what turned out to be his last homily in the beautiful, intimate, modern chapel at a cancer hospital in San Salvador that was across the street from Romero’s small apartment.[1]

A red four-door Volkswagen drove up in front of the chapel. A man in the back seat of the car raised his rifle and fired a single shot through the open front door of the chapel. Romero fell and died behind the altar just after he had said, “May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain–like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.”

The Truth Commission for El Salvador, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have made the following findings regarding the assassination of Romero:[2]

  • On March 24, 1980, Roberto D’Aubuisson had a meeting with three members of his security team: Alvaro Saravia, Eduardo Avila and Fernando Sagrera. Avila said that later that day Romero would be celebrating mass at the Capilla and that this would be a good opportunity to kill him. D’Aubuisson ordered that this be done and put Saravia in charge of the operation. When someone said a sniper would be needed, Avila said he would contact one through Mario Molina, who was another member of D’Aubuisson’s security team. Yet another member of the team, Amado Antonio Garay, was assigned to be the driver for the assassin.
  • Later that same day in the parking lot of the Camino Real Hotel in San Salvador, according to the Truth Commission, the assassin (a bearded man) with a rifle got into a red, four-door Volkswagen that was driven by Garay. A different account of this meeting was provided by Garay himself in testimony in the U.S. federal court case. Upon instructions from Saravia, Garay testified that he drove the car to a house in San Salvador, where Saravia entered and brought out a tall bearded man carrying a long rifle with a telescopic lens. Before the car left, Saravia told the bearded man, “It is better to shoot in the head because maybe he [might] have a bulletproof vest. You have to be sure he got killed.” Saravia told Garay that he would be provided protection by men in another car.
  • The bearded man told Garay where to go, and on the way, the bearded one said, “I can’t believe it, I’m going to shoot a priest.”
  • Garay drove to the Capilla, and the bearded man told him to stop at its main entrance. Garay saw people sitting in the pews of the chapel and a priest speaking at the altar.
  • The assassin then fired a single high-velocity .22 caliber bullet from the rear seat of the Volkswagen through the open entrance door of the Capilla. The bullet hit and killed Romero.
  • Afterwards, upon D’Aubuisson’s order, another member of his security team, Walter Antonio “Musa” Alvarez, received 1,000 colones, and he and Saravia paid the assassin.
  • In the proceedings before these three institutions, the assassin himself was not identified.[3]

[1] See Post: Archbishop Oscar Romero’s Last Homily (Oct. 6, 2011).

[2]  Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 127-31(March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html%5B“Truth Commission Report”];Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp.2d 1112, 1121-23(E.D. Cal. 2004)(Sararvia held liable to relative of Romero for $10 million of compensatory and punitive damages for crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killing for Saravia’s role in the assassination of Romero); Monsignor Romero v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 37/00 ¶¶ 53-54 (Inter-American Comm’n Human Rights, Case No. 11.481, April 13, 2000).

[3]  Truth Commission Report at 130. A Salvadoran newspaper recently reported that the Romero assassin was at the time a deputy sergeant of the Salvadoran National Guard and a member of the security team for former Salvadoran President Arturo Molina. (Valencia, Gabriela & David, The sniper who killed Romero was a former National Guard, Diario Co Latino (Sept. 9, 2011).

Oscar Romero’s Last Homily

 

Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia

At 6:00 p.m. on Monday, March 24, 1980, Monsignor Romero commenced his celebration of a memorial mass for the mother of the publisher and editor of a newspaper that was a voice for justice and human rights in El Salvador.  The service was held in the beautiful, intimate, modern chapel at a cancer hospital in San Salvador that was across the street from Romero’s small apartment.[1]

In what turned out to be his last homily, Romero lead the people in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd . . . . Though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff–they comfort me.” Romero then read the gospel text for the service, John 12: 23-26:

“Jesus [said], ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified . . . . [U]nless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their own life lose it; those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.'”

Romero Mural @ His Apartment

Romero said, “[E]very Christian ought to want to live intensely. Many do not understand; they think Christianity should not be involved in such things. But, to the contrary, you have just heard in Christ’s gospel than one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and that those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives, while those who act out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others will live. . . .”

“We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us. . . . [W]e must try to purify these ideals, Christianize them, clothe them with the hope of what lies beyond. That makes them stronger, because it gives us the assurance that all that we cultivate on earth, if we nourish it with Christian hope, will never be a failure. We will find it in a purer form in that kingdom where our merit will be in the labor that we have done here on earth.”

“Dear brothers and sisters,” Romero continued, “let us all view these matters at this historic moment with that hope, that spirit of giving and sacrifice. Let us all do what we can. We can all do something . . . . We know that no one can go on forever, but those who have put into their work a sense of very great faith, of love of God, of hope among human beings, find it all results in the splendors of a crown that is the sure reward of those who labor thus, cultivating truth, justice, love, and goodness on the earth. Such labor does not remain here below, but purified by God’s Spirit, is harvested for our reward.”

“This . . . Eucharist is just such an act of faith. To Christian faith at this moment the voice of diatribe appears changed for the body of the Lord, who offered himself for the redemption of the world, and in this chalice the wine is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation. May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain–like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.”


[1] Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love: The pastoral Wisdom of Oscar Romero at 242 (Harper & Row 1988); James Brockman, The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero at 219-20 (Orbis Books 1982); Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements at 191-93 (Orbis Books 1985); James Brockman, The Church Is All of You: Thoughts of Oscar Romero at 110 (Winton Press 1984).