Reflections of Romero by Fr. Robert Washabaugh


In honor of the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero scheduled for October 14, 2018, we were grateful to print these personal reflections of Fr. Robert Washabaugh. Archbishop Romero (b. 1917 in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador) was a priest fiercely committed to the cause of the poor and oppressed. He was an outspoken critic of El Salvador’s ruling military junta as it carried out atrocities against its own people. In March 1980 he was assassinated by an unknown member of a right-wing death squad while saying Mass. With the recent wave of scandals and a climate of distrust in the clergy, it is vital to remember priests like Romero who serve their communities in utter selflessness. In his words: “There is a criterion for knowing whether God is close to us or far away: all those who worry about the hungry, the naked, the poor, the disappeared, the tortured, the imprisoned—about any suffering human being—are close to God”—Ed.


It was spring in San Salvador, 15 years after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, five and a half years after the murder of six Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter at the Central American University (UCA). In December of 1992, the civil war ground to an end, leaving over 75,000 people dead, many of them civilian noncombatants.

I was in El Salvador to learn about the pastoral work of the Salvadoran church, which stood up to violence and oppression, paid a terrible price, and, in doing so, became a model for Christian action everywhere. As 1995 began, popular hopes had risen that the next archbishop of San Salvador would be Mons. Gregorio Rosa Chávez, a close friend of Romero and an auxiliary bishop. He would have continued the pastoral lines of Romero and of Mons. Arturo Rivera y Damas, Romero’s successor. Instead, Mons. Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, the administrator of the Military Ordinariate, was appointed. Mons. Sáenz strongly resisted the activism of his predecessors.

In 1995, there was little movement in official circles to declare Romero a martyr and saint. However, every poor home in El Salvador had his image hung on the wall. They say that Romero had already been declared a saint by the people of El Salvador.

I stayed with the Maryknoll Fathers at a new parish named Buen Pastor in tribute to Romero. It was the ideal place for me to learn about comunidades eclesiales de base, groups that had sprung up there and everywhere in El Salvador for prayer, study, and Christian action. Members would gather to read Scripture in the light of the signs of the times. Comunidades de base weren’t for mere talk. Their study and prayer always led them to ask: “What should we do here and now if we belong to Christ?” This approach was built on the pastoral theology of Vatican II, particularly the council’s final document, Gaudium et Spes, and the documents produced by the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) at Medellín, Colombia (1968), and Puebla, Mexico (1979). Fifty years ago this year, the CELAM conference at Medellín called for a startling pastoral change: instead of cooperating with Latin America’s powerful elites in hopes that they would use their privilege to care for Latin America’s poor, the bishops called the church to stand with the powerless, that is, to make a preferential option for the poor.

1977 to 1980

Before Romero was chosen to be Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977, he mistrusted this new pastoral policy. He feared getting tangled in the violence of Marxist-based guerrilla movements, but the violence of the Guardia Nacional, the government’s military arm, grew to such a degree that it was impossible to sit and be silent. Church leaders and catechists were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered for leading the poor to think about injustice and oppose it. Padre Rutilio Grande was murdered for his Christian activism just six weeks after Romero became the archbishop. It was then that Romero found his voice and embraced CELAM’s pastoral stance entirely. He came to see that embrace as his own salvation.

Archbishop Romero’s Sunday sermons fascinated me. I’ve listened eagerly to transcriptions of them. They were delivered in slow, clear Spanish, penetrating and brave. Delivered during Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral, they were broadcast by radio to the entire nation. Everyone listened, in part because they spoke to the heart, and in part because they were the only source of information about what was happening in the countryside. He opened the Scriptures, reflected on the liturgy and its seasons, and carefully made a connection with all the week’s events—more often than not, monstrously violent events.

Archbishop Romero became a shining example of what those many comunidades de base were trying to do. His efforts brought him vilification, death threats, and eventually an assassin’s bullet. He was shot to death as he celebrated Mass in the chapel of the hospital Divina Providencia on March 24, 1980. He was buried at the Metropolitan Cathedral six days later. On the day of his funeral, 250,000 mourners filled the plaza in front of the church. It was a prayer and a public demonstration, the largest in the history of El Salvador. During the Mass, men on the rooftops of public buildings threw smoke bombs, then fired shots into the crowd. Estimates of those killed range from 30 to 50 people. No one has ever uncovered who did the shooting.


It was in that same plaza on May 23, 2015, that Cardinal Angelo Amato, Pope Francis’s delegate, presided over Archbishop Romero’s long-stalled beatification ceremony. The attending crowd was similar in size to the one at Romero’s funeral. In our present day, the pastoral strategies of Medellín and Puebla have not been forgotten, as the document from the 2007 CELAM conference at Aparecida, Brazil, clearly illustrates. Its principal author was Mons. Jorge Bergolio, now Pope Francis.

This month, on October 14, Pope Francis will canonize Romero, a martyr and saint. The church’s official stance will come in line at last with what the people knew all along. Mons. Gregorio Rosa Chávez, Romero’s protégé, is still an auxiliary bishop. However, Pope Francis named him a Cardinal of the Church, and unusual honor for an auxiliary bishop.

As for the nation of El Salvador, life there continues to be marked by injustice, poverty, and violence. The violence of deliquencia has replaced the violence of civil war, the war that had torn El Salvador’s social fabric and public order. Many of its youth abandoned their country for the United States by any means they could find. Some became involved in the gangs of East Los Angeles or entered the gang culture in our country’s detention centers. Deportation returned them to a land they barely knew, and there they used the gang tactics they had learned, asserting power through horrifying violence and turning San Salvador into the city with the world’s highest rate of murder.

Archbishop Romero will forever be recognized as a saint and a martyr, but what did his witness change? We may think that his legacy was betrayed by both church and society, but it cannot be banished. The cause for which Romero lived and died cannot be put to rest. There is resurrection here. Romero’s prophetic voice will ring in our ears and challenge us to the roots as long as war against the poor is carried on, as long as people sit back, doing nothing.

Fr. Robert Washabaugh is the pastor of a cluster of three parishes in Norwich, Connecticut.

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