Oscar Romero

A Man of Hope

"Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty."

People become heroes because of something courageous that they did in their lifetime. Oscar Romero was determined to do what was right and true. He demanded peace, peace found in human rights and basic dignity. He told the world about the people who had been tortured, slaughtered and the people who had simply disappeared in El Salvador. He told the truth and, because of this, like many other great leaders, he was assassinated. One single bullet made him a martyr. His life was taken, but his voice would never be silenced.

Oscar Romero was born on 15August 1917, in a small town in the mountains, east of El Salvador, which was a small Central American republic. He was the second of seven children. When he was only 13 he left school and declared his vocation to the priesthood. He was apprenticed to a carpenter before going to the seminary.

He went to a seminary in San Miguel, then to the capital San Salvador and from there to Rome. He was ordained in 1942 and in January 1944 his bishop recalled him to San Miguel and he soon became the secretary of the bishop. He held this position for 23 years. In San Miguel his work went well and his reputation grew. He established many new organizations and inspired many people with his sermons. These were broadcast by five local radio stations and therefore heard across the city.

Romero became a beacon of hope in a country ravaged by poverty, injustice, and sorrow. As with many Central American countries, El Salvador was a national security state, a country where the military is accountable to no one. There was no peace. In the face of this injustice, Romero took it upon himself to use the Church as a light of hope and to challenge the oppressors.

In 1970, he became the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. In 1974, he became the bishop of a rural diocese, Santiago de Maria. Three years later, in February 1977, he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador. But something extraordinary happened to Oscar Romero. Soon after becoming archbishop, the man who confessed in his journal in 1970 that among his faults was a "lack of courage in speaking out and defending opinions" seemed to discover in himself a new determination and strength. This came from the events that took place in that month. Soldiers in the town square of the capital attacked a crowd of protestors. Then on 12 March 1977, a friend of his, Father Rutilio Grande, was murdered. When Romero heard of his friend's death, his first instinct was to try and track down the killers and get justice. He quickly realized the truth. The people who had killed Grande had been recruited and controlled by the government and military; they also thought they could control the archbishop of San Salvador. He noticed that there was not an official enquiry into Grande's death. It was then that he realized that power lay in the hands of violent men. This had a dramatic effect on his life, changing him into a fierce activist against injustice.

Romero refused to appear in any public ceremonies with Army or Government personnel until the true nature of his friend's murder was brought out and true social change began. Never had such a high-ranking church leader as Archbishop Oscar Romero made such a bold move. He knew that his friend, Fr. Grande, had been killed because he always spoke out bravely on behalf of the poor.

Archbishop Romero soon became the voice and conscience of El Salvador. His words and actions crossed state borders and were heard internationally. His fight for human rights led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. He spoke words of peace, but they were a threat to the harsh policies of the government. When the world becomes a witness, it is harder to terrorize, torture and murder.

Nine months before Romero's death, in a private audience, Pope John Paul said to Romero "courage and boldness should be tempered with the necessary prudence and balance". Romero reflected on this in his diary later that day. He wrote "one must be willing to give way in accidentals in order to achieve peace, but never in one's convictions about faithfulness to the Gospel. From then on, he decided that faithfulness to the Gospel meant that he would speak out firmly, boldly and consistently against the injustice of the country's leaders no matter what they would do to him.

In the middle of all the hatred and fear around him, he preached the gospel of justice and reconciliation. He reminded his people, the rich and the poor, of the Gospel message about the dignity of every man and woman. Each was loved by God and was a member of the human family. It was a message, he said, that should be lived in the lives of all Christians. It was everyone's responsibility to work for the good of society. Romero reminded them that human or material liberation meant nothing, in reality, only true liberation is grounded in the love of God.

'Archbishop Oscar Romero foresaw his very probable and imminent death.

He felt terror at it, as Jesus did in the garden.'

On March 24, 1980, at 6:25 p.m. Romero was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Sister's hospital where he lived. A single shot from the back of the chapel struck him, the bullet shattered through his chest killing him instantly. Romero died, but his words, deeds, and actions remained very much alive. His last words were, "You have just heard the Gospel that we must not love ourselves so much that we hold back from plunging into the risks that history demands of us. Those who surrender to the service of people through the love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies. The grain of wheat only seems to die. If it were not to die it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because the grain of wheat dies. The earth allows itself to be sacrificed, broken; only in being broken does it produce the harvest".

At the heart of our faith is the compelling idea that it is only in the abandonment of our most treasured comforts that we find the deepest security, only in poverty that we find true richness, only in death do we find new life. The life of Oscar Romero triumphantly bears out these signs of contradiction. Today, El Salvador remains a country of misery and injustice. Yet Romero's spirit lives on and his teachings remain. The people of the world must remember him and continue to strive for the realization of his dream: truth, justice, dignity, and human rights.

Sarah Crowley
Year 9 Pupil
St. Michael's Convent School,
Barnet, North London.