Today, March 24, we celebrate the feast of Oscar Romero and the many other religious leaders martyred in El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s. Born into the working class in 1917 in San Salvador, Romero apprenticed as a carpenter before completing his seminary and theological training in Rome. In many ways he was a typical Roman Catholic priest: loyal to the institution, powerful preacher, distributor of food to the poor, and frequent visitor to the local prison. Despite the gross human injustices happening in El Salvador at the time, Romero was a typical “company man,” unwilling to follow the liberation theology movement happening in Latin America, instead wanting to keep the church separate from politics and activism. This conservative bent coupled with his commitment to pre-Vatican II ways led to his eventual selection as bishop in El Salvador.
Initially, Romero played the role to the liking of the conservative church and the wealthy and influential in El Salvador. He condemned priests and religious who embraced what he described as Marxist ideals. He regularly wrote about his opposition to this effort, and criticized religious leaders pursing these ideals in the church at large. This staunch opposition to political activism among religious leaders eventually led to the Vatican choosing Romero over other more progressive bishops to become Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977.
But an evolution happened in Romero. Spending time with campesinos, getting to know the Madres (the mothers of the disappeared in El Salvador), and seeing more and more of clergy being arrested, disappeared, and killed started to take a toll on Romero. The tipping point was the brutal murder of his closest friend, Father Rutilio Grande. Grande had teamed up with other Jesuits to organize peasants against wealthy landowners. Until Grande’s death, Romero had thought most of the activist priests singled out had stepped over the line. But the brutal murder of his friend and two innocents sparked something in Romero.
As violence and governmental denial escalated in his country, Romero became an aggressive opponent of violence and oppression of the poor. Although he always led with nonviolence, Romero had no problem publicly and nationally taking a stand for liberation. Unfortunately, his passionate words led to Romero’s final demise; he was gunned down while celebrating the Eucharist. He was the first archbishop to be murdered while celebrating the Mass since Thomas Becket in 1170. Once a company man, Romero died a prophet, advocating for a God of compassion who is in solidarity with the poor and oppressed around the world.**
The challenge with teaching children and adults alike about Romero may be his martyrdom. No doubt, the stories of martyrs are usually fantastic and fascinating. But dying for your faith, particularly as a privileged American, is one of the more difficult witnesses to embrace. So very few of us in America will ever face the possibility of death for our religious convictions. For many of us, especially good rule-following Episcopalians, teaching children about the possibility of dying for your faith feels overly dramatic and maybe even age-inappropriate.
Perhaps the best approach with martyrs is talking about the sacrifice involved in being a Christian. I have never advocated that we could predict whether Jesus would have been a Republican or Democrat. But to suggest that Jesus’ life and witness did not have political consequences would be to sanitize Jesus’ care for the marginalized, oppressed, and poor. We have all faced that stomach-wrenching decision to stay silent or speak up—whether for something small and ordinary or something much larger like the actions of a government. What is the risk involved in keeping quiet? In saying something?
Ultimately, Oscar Romero loved Jesus and he loved all of the people of God’s creation. Romero once said, “I rejoice, brothers and sisters, that our church is persecuted precisely for its preferential option for the poor and for seeking to become incarnate in the interests of the poor…How sad it would be in a country where such horrible murders are being committed if there were no priests among the victims.”
We do not need to scare our children, or even adults, with the ultimate consequence of death. But Romero does remind us that our faith is not without consequences. The risks will vary depending on where God plants us. But being people of faith means that sometimes we will face consequences of following a loving Jesus. The good news is we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses to embolden us and the care of Christ to carry us.
**Biographical notes from Brennan R. Hill, 8 Spiritual Heros: Their Search for God (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2002) and Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998).