Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Saint for the Rest of Us
Each time I walk into the three small rooms Archbishop Oscar Romero called home I am awestruck by their simplicity. The Sisters who ran the Hospital Divina Providencia for poor, terminally ill cancer patients built the little house for Romero on his request after he became archbishop. As you enter through the walled patio, there are small plaques thanking Romero for answered prayers and miracles granted through his intercession. In the first room bookshelves line one wall and hold books with broken spines. I have always wanted to read those books and have wondered if they still meant so much to Romero, even after having eschewed his studious self for one more engaged in the reality of his people. The shelves also chronicle Romero’s life with small snapshots of Romero with family, friends, church workers. The far wall of the first room is a display case containing, among other things, the bloody vestments Romero was wearing when he was shot (you can see the tiny hole where the bullet ripped through his vestments, then his heart), his cedula (national identification card) and other small items that belonged to him. Another wall displays pictures of Romero’s funeral, which turned out to be a nightmarish stampede when the National Guard started firing at the crowds lined up to pay homage to their shepherd outside the cathedral.
An adjacent room holds a swinging hammock where Romero must have sought respite during trying times. A single bed, a nightstand, and a desk occupy the final room, his bedroom. The house quickly feels cramped when visiting with a group.
I have visited Romero’s house eleven times – every time I have visited El Salvador. Each visit has given me new insight into who this remarkable man was and why he has touched my life so deeply. From those books he used to hide behind to the vestments he wore the day of his assassination, his little house is a powerful view into Romero’s journey.
The little house is almost exactly as it was March 24, 1980, the day Romero was assassinated while presiding at mass at the hospital’s chapel. Since then, the house has become a sacred stop for thousands of pilgrims who have made their way to El Salvador, the land of the Savior.
What is always most striking to me is Romero’s desk – very ordered and neat – which holds a tape recorder, into which he spoke almost every day, recording his diary, which has since been transcribed and translated. I can see him sitting there after each exhausting day, relating the events that occurred, his personal thoughts and feelings. I am grateful for that tape recorder: his diary, homilies, letters, and notes provide powerful insight into an ordinary man made extraordinary. They reveal his humanity, his fragility, his fear, his courage, his faith, and tremendous love for his people.
Through study of the life and death of Archbishop Oscar Romero I have seen what happens when a human being unabashedly embraces God’s will for him and how God calls him. His example of faith that does justice is one of the most inspiring in modern times.
Archbishop Romero was killed on March 24, 1980 while saying mass at the chapel at Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador. Although no official investigation of the Salvadoran government has ever reached any conclusions regarding who pulled the trigger, the United Nations-ordered Commission on the Truth concluded that Roberto D’Aubuisson, the deceased founder of the ARENA party and the death squads, gave the order to assassinate Romero.
Romero’s death came after only three years as archbishop. Three years is a remarkably short time to accomplish so much. Though he was undoubtedly a kind, virtuous, and charitable man, priest, and bishop in his life previous to 1977, the last three years of his life clearly had the most impact on his own life, on his country, on the church, and on the world. In a prayer attributed to him, Romero says, “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s work.” This may be true, but Romero’s fraction carries amazing weight.
Romero’s election as archbishop in 1977 was good news for the oligarchy and military, who saw him as a quiet, conservative man who would not continue in the spirit of the previous archbishop, Luis Chavez. Archbishop Chavez “backed the peasants’ right to organize and exert political pressure” and had preached the church’s active role in promoting justice. He was called a communist. As secretary of the Salvadoran Bishops’ Conference, Romero had spoken out against liberation theology and the involvement of clergy members with popular organizations.
One of these priests whom Romero befriended but did not necessarily agree with was Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande. The two had become friends at the then-Jesuit-run seminary, San José de la Montaña. Grande was the master of ceremonies at Romero’s installation as bishop of Santiago de María.
In 1972, Grande and three other Jesuits were assigned to the parish in the town of Aguilares, an extremely poor town which, at that time, had many farmers with very little or no land. In Aguilares, Grande and his associates encouraged the formation of small Christian communities. They shared in the life of the people, eating and sleeping with the impoverished villages two weeks out of four. Penny Lernoux describes their ministry:
This sharing in the life of the poor began gradually to pay off, and with the support of village lay leaders known as ‘Delegates of the Word,’ the priests stimulated the peasants to become, in Grande’s words, ‘active agents of change and to seek such fundamental conquests as unions and the defense of labor rights.’ 
Because of this way of life and teaching, Grande and the others soon became targets of threats by local landowners.
Less than one month after Romero’s installation as archbishop, his esteemed friend Rutilio Grande, SJ, was murdered. Grande, along with a young boy and an old man, were on their way to evening mass in El Paisnal, a village close to Aguilares, when they were shot with high-powered bullets and instantly killed. Their deaths were the catalyst for an extraordinary change in Romero’s view of the church and the society of El Salvador. This conversion led Romero to act in ways courageous and magnanimous.
Jon Sobrino likens this transformation to an internal split, which dissolved after Grande’s death. Romero had not agreed with Rutilio’s pastoral practice and felt that he was too “horizontal” or too oriented to social rather than spiritual change. But when Grande was killed, “the scales fell from his (Romero’s) 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.”
After Grande’s death, Romero more actively spoke out against the injustices being committed against the poor. Sobrino describes this change in Romero as a “conversion . . . in the sense of grasping the will of God and being determined to implement it, and this in the spirit of deep, radical change.” Romero grasped the will of God through the eyes, ears, and hearts of his flock.
Much has been made of Archbishop Romero’s “conversion.” He was sixty years old when he was made archbishop. The dramatic events of the final three years of his life shaped him and his legacy. It would have been easy in some sense for him to maintain the status quo, to do what the powerful expected him to do: remain silent, go about his work quietly, and not speak out. But like Jesus, whose compassion at the suffering of his people led him to act on their behalf, Romero could not be silent. Jesus saw the crowds and, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ (Mt 9:36). As people lined up at Romero’s door to tell him of their missing, disappeared, tortured, or murdered loved one, his heart opened in a way no one imagined and his voice gained strength and courage as he spoke on behalf of the voiceless.
As Romero listened to the people, to advisers, to priests, religious, and laypeople, he used their input and the realities of the time to write four pastoral letters. He drew upon these letters to speak out in defense of the oppressed and to challenge the military and government to stop their oppression of the poor. He took great risks in doing this, but he also became a most beloved shepherd. He took the Salvadoran church to a new level of acceptance and love among the poor. They knew that it was their church, one that for many years had not addressed their needs. Sobrino writes, “What he succeeded in doing was institutionalizing the preferential option for the poor.” Coming from Sobrino, this is the highest of compliments. Sobrino continues by saying that the church must make this option, “placing at the disposal of the poor the resources that the church, as an institution, has at its own disposal.”  Romero did just that. He placed the needs of the poor far above his own, or of the institutional church. He loved the people. “As a result he could risk all that was not love for his people, even the institutional element in the church, even his own life.” He knew that more important than the condition of the cathedral or of his own safety was his faithfulness to the people. 
Romero’s death was 23 years ago. He continues to bring life to El Salvador and to people all over the world. He is remembered, commemorated, and called upon to bring good news to a world that desperately needs it. Jon Sobrino, a leading advocate for maintaining Romero’s legacy has said that the silence of the powerful speaks volumes of Romero’s staying power:
The government, armed forces, most of the political parties, and the oligarchy are afraid of phonetically saying, “Romero.” Why? Because it is a reality. If he were something of the past, they could talk about Romero and say, “Well, he was a good man. Maybe he was a little bit confused.” But they don’t dare to pronounce his name. Even the phonetical sounds of Monseñor Romero – why are they afraid of that? Because saying “Romero” means going back to telling the truth, to denounce atrocities, in the past and in the present.
Few leaders have Romero’s courage in denouncing atrocities and telling the truth. It is a risky business.
Romero’s death made him a symbol of El Salvador, a country whose poor were often found in the streets, tortured and killed. Romero was killed while celebrating the Eucharist, the ultimate symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. Romero imitated the generosity of Christ, giving his life that others might live. Romero is a living symbol of the people and the struggle of El Salvador – his image is on church walls in every corner of the country. In an interview in early 1980, Romero said, “Yes, I’ve frequently been threatened with death, but I must tell you that, as a Christian, I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people . . . A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” The people of El Salvador and people all over the world, continue to remember and celebrate the memory of Romero. They, in turn, have become symbols of him, because they express the reality of his life and death. They continue to live, work, and celebrate, creating a new church and a new El Salvador for which Romero worked and gave his life.
Romero’s sacrifice and commitment to the poor embody what a true church leader is. Sobrino writes, “ . . . speaking theologically, we have in him a concrete model of what a bishop, with a gospel faith, ought nowadays to be like, and an example of how important it is for a bishop to make that faith effective for liberation. That is no small merit to his credit.” There are few whom we can call concrete, all-encompassing models of church leadership. Romero is an example whose good news must be shared.
I am grateful that this good news was shared with me. I, in turn, shared it with many students over the course of eight years teaching high school in Northern California and accompanying students, teachers and other pilgrims on journeys to El Salvador. With them, and in the spirit of Oscar Romero, I heard the stories of the Salvadoran people and they sparked a change in me. They showed me that I had the capacity to live a different life; that Jesus is found among the suffering poor and oppressed; that an abundant life does not mean material wealth but community, faith, hope, and justice. Journeys to El Salvador sent me down a path different than any that I had planned. As the people of El Salvador reshuffled my heart and mind, sparking a deep heartfelt change, I found inspiration in Romero. His words moved me like nothing I had read before. Clearly, this is because he spoke the truth. Who could argue with him? He saw the reality of what was happening in his country and he shouted it from the rooftops. The response was swift: the people embraced him and loved him; the oligarchy arranged for him to be killed.
For me, Oscar Romero exemplifies the essence of Catholicism. He turned his life over to God and prayed for the courage to do God’s will. He loved the church and strove to serve its people with fidelity. He was grounded in the reality of his country and recognized that it shaped his ministry. He came to understand that saving souls was shallow if the body was beaten, tortured and malnourished. He recognized that the Kingdom of God was both on Earth and in heaven and that the glory of God was, in his words, (and adapting those of Irenaeus) “the poor fully alive.” Romero’s faith and courage serve as an authentic imitation of Christ – a fulcrum of the resurrected Jesus in a world too often battered by the crucifixion. In three short years he journeyed from a world of books to a lived reality that impacted people all over the world. As we reflect on Romero’s life and death, we must ask ourselves what we can do with the years ahead of us to follow in Romero’s footsteps, to become leaders in our church and our communities, and to speak loudly for those who have no voice.
Elizabeth (Bea) Scott is a young mother living in Cincinnati, where she and her husband, Steve, are teachers. Bea is a former Jesuit Volunteer and former member of the board of directors of JVC: Southwest. She wrote her MA thesis (in the catechetics program at Santa Clara University) on the martyrs of El Salvador. She has led and/or participated in 11 trips to El Salvador. She taught Spanish and Religious Studies at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco and Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, where she developed a course that integrated Spanish and Religious Studies and culminated in an immersion trip to El Salvador.
 James R. Brockman, SJ, Romero : A Life, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 3.
 Penny Lernoux, The Cry of the People, (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 70
 Brockman, 9.
 Jon Sobrino, SJ, trans. Robert R. Barr, Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990), 10.
 Ibid, 8.
 Archbishop Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, trans. Michael J. Walsh, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994).
 Sobrino, 73.
 Ibid., 73.
 Ibid, 27.
 During his time as archbishop of San Salvador, Romero refused to commit funds to the rebuilding of the cathedral. It stood incomplete for his entire tenure as archbishop, as well as that of his predecessor, Archbishop Rivera y Damas. The current prelate, Archbishop Saenz Lacalle, recently completed the renovation of the cathedral, using some funding from the government of President Armando Calderón Sol, an ARENA leader and close friend of Roberto D’Aubuisson, widely recognized as the man who gave the order to kill Romero.
 Jon Sobrino, SJ., interview by author, 2 April 1997, San Salvador, tape recording.
 María Vigil, Piezas para un retrato, (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1993), 370-371.
 Sobrino, 83.