Father Gus Puleo

Father Gus Puleo

“The church again has become a church of martyrs.” – St. Pope John Paul II

On Saturday, May 23 the beatification ceremony of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador will take place at the Plaza Las Americas, with the statue of the capital’s patron saint, El Salvador del Mundo (“the Savior of the World”) present. One ecstatic woman stated, “We have waited 35 years for this day.”

On March 24, 2013, the 33rd anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom, the Catholic Church inspired by Pope Francis “unblocked” his road to sainthood. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who is spearheading the cause of sainthood for Romero, stated that “the beatification cause of Monsignor Romero has been reopened; tomorrow I can resume saying that these martyrs help us to live.”

Archbishop Romero’s cause had languished under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI due to the Vatican’s opposition to liberation theology, the belief that Christ’s teachings justify struggles against social injustices. However, both popes had spoken of Archbishop Romero as a martyr. Such a designation by the Vatican would mean that he can be beatified without the church confirming a miracle attributed to his intercession.

Cardinal Basil Hume of England, speaking at a memorial service for Archbishop Romero at Westminster Cathedral the week after his assassination in March 1980, said, “It would be wrong for me to anticipate the mind of the Church, but I personally believe that one day Oscar Romero will be declared a saint of the church.”

A formal confirmation of his martyrdom and beatification will occur this week but many Latin Americans, among them Pope Francis, have already canonized their beloved pastor in their hearts as St. Oscar Romero of the Americas.

Oscar Romero was an unlikely martyr. He was a devout child who entered the seminary at the age of 13, completed his studies at the Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained there in 1942. Then there followed 25 years of priestly service as an outstanding  administrator in the Diocese of San Miguel in El Salvador where he became chancellor of the diocese, cathedral administrator, guardian of the Shrine of Our Lady Queen of Peace and editor of the diocesan newspaper.

He was known as a good preacher and sensitive to the needs of the poor. After that came seven years of working as the secretary of the Bishops’ Conference in San Salvador; he was later ordained an auxiliary bishop for the San Salvador Archdiocese.

He was an ecclesiastical bureaucrat who reacted strongly against many of the new pastoral directions and initiatives that emerged from the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968 that championed “the preferential option for the poor.”  By his actions and words he was seen as being strongly against the social commitment of the clergy and the basic Christian communities within the archdiocese who were responding to the exploitation, suffering and hunger in the rural areas through education and organizations in the rural parishes. He was known widely as a very conservative bishop and a staunch supporter of hierarchical authority.

Then he was appointed as bishop of a diocese in the Salvadoran countryside. He was back serving the poor and realizing the terrible repression and exploitation that he had overlooked in San Salvador. “I began to see things differently and clearly,” he wrote. In 1975 Salvadoran guardsmen brutally murdered five campesinos in the village of Tres Calles. Bishop Romero rushed to celebrate Mass for the families and accused the government of “great violations of human rights.” Their answer to his protest was, “Cassocks are not bulletproof.”

In 1977 he was named archbishop of San Salvador. The military and the rich coffee landowners, who wanted the church to put an end to this social unrest and pastoral projects, were delighted. However, the man they thought would cause no waves had changed. He changed from being a timid advocate of noncontroversial issues into a towering champion of faith and the faithful. His own words describe his transformation: “The word of God is like the light of the sun that illuminates beautiful things, but also things which we would rather not see.”

When Romero was installed as archbishop, the government and military masterminded a massive presidential electoral fraud. Three weeks later a Jesuit priest, Father Rutilio Grande, was murdered by a death squad as he drove to say Mass in a rural village. His crime was that he had helped peasants gain self-determination. The autopsy determined that he had been riddled with police bullets.

Archbishop Romero reacted by suspending all formal relations with the government until the murderers were brought to justice. He opened an office in the capital to document all of the killings and disappearances. On the Sunday after the murder of Father Grande, Archbishop Romero decreed that all churches in the diocese be closed so that the faithful could attend a single Mass that he would celebrate in front of the cathedral. He preached about Father Grande and the poor to a crowd of more than 100,000 faithful and eulogized the priest in his homily as a “co-worker in Christian liberation.”

From that moment he would speak out against injustice from his cathedral. From his pulpit on Sunday Masses each week he would denounce the evil taking place and speak the truth about loving God and neighbor. Each Sunday he would spend an hour on theological themes, interpreting the readings from that week’s liturgy and delivering a message of reconciliation to a society divided by violence.  Archbishop Romero was the voice of the voiceless, the exploited and the poor.

For three years as archbishop he had to confront many problems. He had to address poverty, the military killing community leaders, peasant massacres and the shooting of urban demonstrators by security forces, the torture of political prisoners, murders by death squads, the assassination of six priests and dozens of catechists and threats against him by the left and the right. He spoke out against this suffering that all were experiencing.

So, Archbishop Romero asked these questions: “How can Christians do such things to each other? What can the church do to help the poor?” He found the answer in the words of the Gospel and the voices from the Medellin Conference of peaceful resistance by the church.  Since the threats and insults were becoming more intense, Archbishop Romero realized that he was going to die. He was urged to wear a bullet-proof vest, but he reacted saying, “Why should the shepherd have protection when his sheep are prey to wolves?”

In a homily the day before his death he told the soldiers, “Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail, you shall not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God.  In the name of God, in the name of his suffering people, I ask you, I implore you, I command you in the name of God:  stop the repression!”

History records that Archbishop Oscar Romero y Goldánez, fourth archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated while presiding at a memorial Mass in the chapel in Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. The archbishop was standing behind the altar preparing the offertory gifts when a government soldier fired a single shot through the chapel’s open door.  He died a martyr and prophet, as a source of hope for millions of poor and oppressed Salvadorans.

On March 30, 1980 more than 50,000 mourners gathered in the square outside San Salvador Cathedral to pay their respects to Archbishop Romero. Bombs were thrown and cars loaded with dynamite exploded. More than 7,000 people took sanctuary inside the cathedral.

The archbishop taught us to remember this tragedy and learn from it. A few days before his death, he preached, “I need to say that as a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador. I offer my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty and the sign that hope will soon become a reality. May my death accepted by God be for the liberation of my people. If they succeed in killing, I pardon them and bless those who do it. A bishop may die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never die.”

Romero followed Jesus and forgave his persecutors. He knew how to condemn the sin but save the sinner. He knew that the victory of fraternity and love over violence cannot be assured without forgiveness, the fruit of mercy.

Archbishop Oscar Romero’s life and martyrdom can teach us so much about living out the Gospel truth in our daily lives and can provide a model for all of us as Catholics who love God and neighbor. His words in a homily tell us, “It is necessary for the church to take up the Bible and make it a Living Word again. It is not a book of psalms and parables, but a book of words to apply to concrete situations in which the Word of God is preached.”
Archbishop Romero lives on today like Jesus, risen from the dead.  He is with people who are seeking and proclaiming the truth freely. Those who proclaim the truth live in the spirit testified to by his martyrdom. Each one of us is called upon to fight against injustice. This victory will never succeed on earth because the mystery of evil will always be present in history. But united in our efforts with Christ, it is possible to build a more just and fraternal world.

Archbishop Romero’s life and death teach us that brotherhood can overcome violence, like love can overcome hatred. For this reason alone, he should be honored as a saint.


Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Norristown.