Reviving the Truth, Making It Heard

The life & death of Oscar Romero

This article, based on a talk given at the Jesuit University (UCA) in San Salvador, originally appeared in the March 23, 1990, issue of Commonweal. It was translated by Eugene Palumbo.


For me, it is both easy and hard to speak of Archbishop Romero. It is easy in the sense that I knew him, dealt with him, and could see the profundity of his life, the spirit of union with God that was the root of his entire existence—not just in his years as archbishop, but in his first years as a student, in his early priesthood, and in all the rest of his ministry.

But it is hard because his death still overwhelms me. He was a great man, a great priest, a great bishop, murdered because of the ignominy of this country, the injustice in this country, and the hatred of those who will stop at nothing, not even at the altar.

Archbishop Romero’s homilies have already been published, and this year, at the tenth anniversary of his death, we will also be publishing his journal, which he taperecorded each night. But there’s also something else which, I believe, is a great treasure: the notes he made during his retreats, where he opened his soul before God, before himself, and before the events of the times.

In one of his retreat notebooks there is the phrase, “I will dine with him.” This comes from the Apocalypse (3:20). In the New Testament the Apocalypse is the book of the martyrs. And it is about the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero that I wish to speak. I think the Apocalypse is the only book in the entire New Testament that speaks of the martyrs and of martyrdom. Of course, the Gospels speak of Jesus as the one who gives his life, who hands over his life, and he is, you might say, the prototype of the martyr. As we know, two kinds of accusations against Jesus appear in the Gospels. One kind is religious: that he claimed he was God. The other is political: that he was subverting the people. The accusation of being “political” is as old as Christianity, as ancient as Christ. There’s nothing strange or surprising about it, and it was one of the accusations that was also made all the time against Archbishop Romero.

In the Letter to the Hebrews we learn that without the shedding of blood there is no redemption, there is no salvation. John, in the Apocalypse, is distilling all the thought of the church of that time about martyrdom. He is writing at a time when the church was being persecuted in some places, and the aim of the Apocalypse is to buoy up persecuted Christians. It describes Jesus as the faithful witness, that is, as the martyr.

The martyr is the faithful witness. Our word “witness” comes from a Greek word which means “martyr.” Where we see “be my witnesses in all places,” in Greek it says “be my martyrs.” Later the word “martyr” began to be applied to those who, because they were witnesses, gave their blood for Christ and the faith. I would say that death is not a biological event but a theological event: the death of a Christian is a theological event, and that is how we should see it. That is how Archbishop Romero saw it, and that is how it’s seen by those who are faithful witnesses to the truth.

In the Apocalypse (6:9ff.) John says, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?’” This is the definition of “martyr” John gives. The Roman Empire didn’t care if the early Christians were defending the divinity of Christ or the Trinity; it cared about the fact that they didn’t adore the idols, that they were subverting the empire.

John also says the martyrs protest to God: “Lord, when will you do justice... ?” (6:10). We might direct ourselves to God at this moment as well. After such torrents of blood have been shed, after seventy thousand people have been murdered, including seventeen priests, four nuns, and an archbishop, where is justice? In this country, this democratic, Christian country, we carry on as if nothing had happened. Other countries, right here in Central America, that are not democratic or Christian haven’t killed a single priest or nun.

In response to those who ask, when will there be justice, John sees that the persecution is going to continue, that people will continue to die, but that it’s necessary to continue witnessing to the faith, because for the Christian death should be a vocation. Just as death is a theological and not a biological event, so too for the Christian who gives and wants to give himself in true witness, death is a vocation, a call. The last reference I’ll make to the Apocalypse (from chapter 3) is to the phrase we found in Archbishop Romero’s retreat notes: “And I will dine with him.” Verses 19-20 say: “Take heart and be converted. I am at the door and calling; if someone listens to my voice and opens the door, I will enter and dine with him. I with him and he with me.”

Yet we should be very clear on one thing: we are not to seek martyrdom. What we should aim for is a life of witness. We should seek a life which really gives the kind of witness that’s needed, but we should not seek martrydom itself.

We should also be very clear on what the criteria are for determining who is a genuine martyr. The first is that God is present as the root and summit of the person’s life. Second, the person has been connected with other people. That is, we’re not just talking about a vertical relationship with God, about a person who’s spent his or her whole life singing alleluias, and has known God only in that way. We’re talking about someone who has also discovered God in other people. This is absolutely necessary. Third, the giving over of one’s entire life to the Christian ideal—that your whole life revolves around the ideal that Christ offers us. And the fourth, I would say, is the acceptance of death for the faith itself.

These four elements were present in the life of Archbishop Romero. It’s been said that the degree to which a tree flowers depends on how deeply it's rooted in the ground. That was Archbishop Romero—someone who flowered because he was so deeply rooted in God. For him God was the absolute. He made God the infinite in his life. He tried to communicate all this to others, to share it with them. What most impressed one about Archbishop Romero was his capacity for encounter with God, his ability to root his life totally in God. That was the source of his strength and his vitality. A journalist once asked him, “Where do you get the strength to carry on in spite of everything?” Archbishop Romero answered, “You ask at an opportune moment, because I’ve just returned from my retreat. That’s where I find the energy and the strength.”

I saw this myself on many occasions. I remember one time, in December 1979 at the Hospitalito [the Divine Providence Hospital, where Archbishop Romero lived, and was later killed]. It was early in the morning, at breakfast time, and the archbishop was being visited by Cardinal Lorscheider of Brazil and a member of the civilian-military junta which, at that moment, was governing E1 Salvador. At one point, Archbishop Romero got up and left. Now, I knew those men had come there to see him, not me, so eventually I got up and went looking for him. I went to his apartment, but he wasn’t there; I went to the visitors’ room, the kitchen and the garden, but he wasn’t there either. Finally, it occurred to me to look in the chapel, and there he was, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, which was exposed. I went up to him and said, “They’re waiting for you.” And he said, “That’s okay. They can wait. I’ll be coming.”

I think that Archbishop Romero never said anything, never did anything, without first consulting with God. That’s why he was sure of what he said. He didn’t care what the accusations and the threats were, he was sure of the things he’d said because he had been in dialogue with God about them. This was a man who had discovered that the root of his existence, of his whole being—as a person, as a priest, as a bishop—was God.

I remember another time when we went to Rome together. As soon as we got there, after traveling all night long, he invited me to go to the Basilica of St. Peter. The confessional altar, where the tomb of Peter is said to be, is right at the entrance to the basilica. He knelt down right there and began to pray. I knelt too, but after ten minutes I got up. But he continued for another twenty minutes, totally absorbed in prayer.

When I’m asked, what was it about Archbishop Romero that I most admire, I’ve always answered: the sanctity of his priestly life, his unity with God, his interior life and spirit, because everything else that he was came from all that. For me, that’s the kind of person who is really convincing; someone like that can really bring people along, not just by words but by the person’s life itself, which gives this witness.

Archbishop Romero was very faithful to his spiritual life. He went to confession every week, and he consulted with his spiritual director. He sought out guidance for what he was doing. Like all holy men and women who have felt the mystery of sin, he felt the mystery of our freedom, which is capable of saying “yes” but also of saying “no.” He had the humility to seek God with patience. All this is something which appears very rarely, and that is what made Archbishop Romero capable of being a prophet.

Now, prophets aren’t innovators, and Archbishop Romero was no innovator. The prophets are those who speak of the eternal things, as they apply at the moment. The prophet always speaks of God and of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The prophet speaks of respect for life, and that is older than the first page of the Bible. The prophet, then, in a certain sense is the great conservative, the one who wants to conserve the great values that God has given us.

Archbishop Romero spoke like this, and when he did he was accused of getting involved in politics. There’s nothing that makes me think more of how unjust and stupid people can be. He spoke out about all the people who had been tortured, massacred, and hurled into rivers. That isn’t getting involved in politics; that is speaking of the Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill. Every prophet, every bishop, every priest is obliged to speak out like that. The prophet is the one who is faithful to God, who says, God is asking this of me, and I’m going to do it, while others say, “Who knows, this could be dangerous, and you know, you’ve got to be prudent.”

We speak a lot about the virtue of prudence, but not so much about the virtues of fortitude and justice. The prophet is imprudent because God was imprudent, because Jesus was imprudent. Because if our Lord hadn’t said what he said, they wouldn’t have crucified him, either. As a prophet, Archbishop Romero was able to cleanse the language. He revived the truth, made it heard, and many believe that is why he was killed. The truth, in countries like ours, will always have such consequences. There were those who couldn’t tolerate the truth Archbishop Romero proclaimed, just as there were those who couldn’t tolerate the truth that Jesus proclaimed.

It is the absolutizing of God which enables us to see other people and their situations clearly. St. Mark tells the story of the blind man cured by Jesus who, when asked if he could see, replied, “I see people, but they look like trees.” He couldn’t see them well. When we’re not capable of seeing people in their true situations, we’re seeing them as trees. The people are suffering, going hungry, being repressed, enduring so many other things, but for us they can be like trees, like things. But the prophet is one who sees people and their situations as they really are, who feels intimately the things that are going on around him and isn’t able to just let them continue. He is the one who suffers those things, just as Jeremiah and Isaiah and all the true prophets suffered.

The prophet is one whose very existence is a sign, and who lives the values of the Kingdom in his or her personal and community life. He or she is also one who carries on in faith, in spite of all misunderstandings. It was like that with Archbishop Romero. Many of us—for fear or whatever other reason—criticized him, judged him, abandoned him. It reached the point where one day he said, “even if I wind up all alone, I’m going to carry on.” And even today we’re still afraid to have a picture of him or a book about him in our houses.

I don’t want to conclude without mentioning some things he wrote during his last retreat. He died on March 24, 1980, and February 25 of that year he began his last retreat. And this [Msgr. Urioste holds up a simple schoolchild’s notebook]—I even tremble when I touch it—is where he wrote his notes during that retreat. He wrote about his death—let us say, he wrote about his martyrdom.

In one place, for example, he says, “I feel afraid of violence. I’ve been warned about serious threats against me for this coming week.” That is to say, he felt fear, just as Jesus did in Gethsemani. The scripture writers tell us that this, even more than the crucifixion, was the most difficult part of Jesus’ Passion, when he saw there in Gethsemani all that was going to happen to him.

Archbishop Romero was convinced that he was going to be killed. And nevertheless he writes, honestly and humbly, “I feel afraid of violence. I fear the weakness of my flesh, but I ask the Lord to give me serenity and perseverance.” In other words, he’s in no way disposed to take even one step backward, even though he knows that if he carries on, he’s going to be killed. He was offered the chance to leave the country, he was offered all kinds of positions in various places, but he said, no, I’m going to stay here.

In another place he writes, “Father Azcue came and heard my confession.” Father Azcue was his last spiritual director, and on the day he was killed, Archbishop Romero went to have Father Azcue hear his confession. Later, Father Azcue said Archbishop Romero had told him that day, “I want to feel clean before God.” The faithful witness wants to feel clean before God and, of course, before the people. And on this same page in his retreat notebook, he criticizes himself for “not being careful enough about my confessions and my spiritual life,” and then he remakes his life plan, and among the specific things he mentions are, “Get up at midnight to pray.” He also mentions “disciplines,” by which he means punishing himself physically (I think this must mean mortification of the flesh), things like fasting on Fridays, things that you and I don’t do but which were vital for him. They helped make him who he was.

On this same page in his retreat notebook, he writes, “My other fear is about the risks for my life.” He feared, he knew, he foresaw his death. He was receiving all kinds of threats at that time, even public ones. The ads in the newspapers against him in those days were, in effect, threats. But there were others that were even more clear. And there was another sign that he was certain he was going to be killed.

When a bishop dies a group of priests is in charge of naming an interim successor to serve until the new bishop is named. Now, Archbishop Romero had said he wanted three more priests added to this group. And I remember one day at the Hospitalito—we were having a meeting there, and it was about ten or twelve days before he was killed—and he asked us, “Have you done the paperwork to have the three priests added?” We had not. He stood up and said, “Do it, and do it now!” Later on, after his death, we remembered that incident, and we said to ourselves, “Well, he knew...”

On another page in his notebook, he wrote, “It’s hard for me to accept the violent death which, in these circumstances, seems very possible. The papal nuncio of Costa Rica has warned me about imminent dangers for this coming week. My disposition”—and here remember the criteria we mentioned earlier for a genuine martyrdom, especially the accepting of the Christian ideal and the willingness to give one’s life for the faith itself—“should be to give my life for God, however it should end. The grace of God will enable us to live through the unknown circumstances. He aided the martyrs and, if it should be necessary that I die as they did, I will feel him very close to me at the moment of breathing my last breath. But more important than the moment of death is to give him all my life and live for him and for my own mission.” He is not seeking out martyrdom. He sought to live a life of witness.

Later he writes, “In this way I make concrete my consecration to the heart of Jesus, which has always been the source of inspiration and Christian joy in my life. And I put all my life under his loving Providence, and with faith in him I accept my death, however difficult it may be.”

He doesn’t offer his life for something in particular. “I don’t want to state an intention, for example for peace in my country or for the flowering of our church.” Why does he take this position? Because he has his roots deeply in God, even at the moment of his death. “Because,” he says, “the heart of Christ will know how to give my life the meaning it requires.”

He ends with these words: “To be happy, for me it is enough to know for sure that he is in my life and in my death. And in spite of my sins, I have put my trust in him and I will not be confounded,” he quotes a psalm. “And others will carry on the work of the church and the country with more wisdom and more sanctity.”

So he dined with the Lord, and now he’s with him and with our church and with our country. He’s also with the poor, whom he defended so much and for whom he died. I always say that Archbishop Romero was martyred for his love for the poor, for defending them, and for the magisterium of the church. That magisterium is very clear: it says the church should make a preferential option for the poor. To really love the poor requires concrete actions. 

 


Related: "Romero Remembered" by Robert E. White
"Saint of Salvador" by Patrick Jordan

Topics: 

Share

About the Author

Msgr. Ricardo Urioste was named vicar general of the Archdiocese of San Salvador by Archbishop Oscar Romero and was one of Romero’s closest collaborators.