Nothing is as important to the Church as human life, especially the lives of the poor and oppressed. Jesus said that whatever is done to the poor is done to him. This bloodshed, these deaths, are beyond all politics. They touch the very heart of God.
Blessed Oscar Romero, Bishop and Martyr
March 16, 1980
About twenty years ago my family and I were privileged to host an exiled Guatemalan labor lawyer named Marta Torres. She was visiting Juneau to speak about her personal experience and about the struggle to defend human rights in her native Guatemala. She had provided legal assistance to workers in the 1970’s who were trying to form a labor union at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Guatemala City.
Over a period of about five years the union was violently suppressed and the union organizers (and anyone brave or foolish enough to try to join the union) who weren’t arrested and killed were forced to flee the country. Because, of course, in Guatemala and nearby El Salvador and throughout Latin America in the 1970’s and 1980’s, anyone trying to organize workers or work for a more equitable distribution of agricultural land or even teach poor children and adults how to read and write, were denounced as communists and subversives, deserving to be tortured and murdered.
Marta shared with us that while she became involved in labor advocacy because of the Catholic faith she had been brought up in, it was the impoverished and exploited workers trying to organize their union who truly introduced her to Jesus and to the liberating joy and power of the Gospel. They understood that Jesus had been a worker, a carpenter, from a poor family, just like them; and, that Jesus invited all people into a new way of life of sharing and solidarity, of sacrifice and generosity, of forgiveness and joy that the world and its ways cannot give. They understood that when Jesus confronted the idols of greed,
indifference, repression and violence, he was arrested, tortured and put to death to terrify and intimidate anyone who would challenge the powerful and the violent. The powerful made Jesus “disappear,” but the love of God proved more powerful than hatred and death and Jesus was raised from the dead and is alive, now and forever.
Like Marta Torres, Blessed Oscar Romero, by his own testimony, had a life-changing encounter with Jesus in the poor and oppressed people of his own country. As in Guatemala, the majority of the population of El Salvador lived in abject poverty. A handful of families owned almost all of the productive farmland, which was divided up into vast coffee and sugar plantations. Only the rich and a small middle class had access to education, medical care and basic sanitation. And as in Guatemala, those challenging the status quo were arrested, tortured and killed by the army and the police.
With a pastor’s zeal, Blessed Oscar Romero fearlessly refused to stand aside when the death squads and the security forces sought to intimidate the poor and the powerless members of his flock seeking justice and social change. Instead, he denounced in unequivocal language the sins and crimes of those who persecuted Christ by torturing and murdering the poor and the powerless. Furthermore, he opposed the institutional violence embedded in the society and economy that condemned the majority of Salvadorans to a lifetime of poverty, malnutrition, preventable sickness and premature death. He embraced completely the Church’s preferential option for the poor, which evaluates every dimension of political, social and economic life and morality in terms of how the poorest and the most vulnerable people in society are affected for good or ill.
Monseñor Romero worked tirelessly to stave off the civil war that erupted in El Salvador after his assassination, as every other avenue of peaceful change — elections, mass demonstrations, strikes and protests — were brutally repressed. In the year before his assassination, as the repression intensified, the army and police killed an estimated 30,000 people. In the midst of this ongoing and intensifying violence, Monseñor Romero, on the day before his death, knowing that he would most likely be killed for speaking out, concluded his broadcast homily with this appeal addressed to the conscript soldiers of El Salvador’s army:
“Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God….In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you: stop the repression!”
The repression only increased as fighting broke out throughout El Salvador. Our own country, despite Monseñor Romero’s urgent pleas to the US government not to do so, supplied the Salvadoran government and military with arms and ammunition throughout the ten year conflict. This conflict which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 70,000 people, most of whom were civilians, and of which 90% died at the hands of government forces, finally came to an end in 1991.
On the day he was assassinated, I remember gathering with Salvadorans for Mass in the evening not only to grieve, but to celebrate that such a man, such a bishop, such a Christian had lived among us. Thirty-five years later I am grateful to have been able to gather again in union with the entire Church, not only to remember but to venerate with thanksgiving and joy this holy and courageous martyr and to pray: Blessed Oscar Romero, Bishop and Martyr, pray for us!
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23.