Bishop Romero: a martyr for the Faith or for liberation theology?
On February 3, 2015, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had ordered the promulgation of decrees relative to the martyrdom of Archishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (1917 – 1980) of San Salvador, “murdered out of hatred for the Faith” on March 24th 1980, and of Fathers Michal Tomaszek (1960 – 1961) and Zbigniew Strazalkowski (1958 – 1991), Polish Franciscan priests, as well as Father Alessandro Dordi (1931 – 1991), an Italian priest, all murdered in Peru “out of hatred for the Faith” the 9th and 25th of August 1991.The simultaneous promulgation of these decrees, which open the path to the forthcoming beatification of the Salvadorian prelate and the three missionaries to Peru, is not fortuitous: on the one hand we have Archbishop Romero, killed by counter-revolutionaries who opposed Marxism and liberation theology—and on the other, victims of the Maoist Communists of the Shining Path in Peru. The symmetry is perfect.
The February 4th edition of French daily La Croix, in reporting on the press conference held by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, postulator for the cause of Oscar Romero and currently president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, points out that the Vatican “is attempting to depoliticize the beatification of Archbishop Romero,” by insisting that the Salvadorian prelate’s death is in line with “the historical tradition of the Church according to which martyrdom is neither a banner waved at the persecutor nor an act of accusation, but witness borne to the Faith.” Nonetheless Archbishop Paglia stated that Archbishop Romero was in a way “the proto-martyr of new contemporary martyrs” [sic] as St. Stephen was for the early martyrs… The Pope summarized his point of view the previous day in these terms: “The martyrdom of Oscar Romero was a sign of faith in the revolutionary love of Christ.” La Croix points out he does not “draw too heavily on the archbishop of Salvador’s relation with liberation theology – an expression that was barely heard during the press conference.”
The reality is indeed a little more delicate, as demonstrated by this article of Father Alberto Royo Mejia, a Spanish religious, in February 2010, of which these are the most significant passages.
The true figure of Archbishop Romero is much richer and more complex to judge than many would have us believe, presenting him as a knight-errant of the revolution, defender of the poor and disadvantaged. His love for the poor and disadvantaged cannot be doubted, as should be the case for all of Christ’s ministers. The same can be said of his love for the Church and his devotion to the Blessed Virgin. On the subject of his revolutionary fervour, however, doubts may well be harboured…
On February 8th, 1977, he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador, previously having been bishop of the diocese of Santiago de Maria. His appointment was welcomed by the most progressive elements of Salvadorian clergy, not because he shared their ideas but because among the other possible appointees, Romero appeared to be the easiest to convince even though he had frequently criticized the political compromises of the clergy. It seems that on the 22nd of February he took possession of the archbishop’s palace and from February 24 – 28, 1977, he shut himself away with a group of priests in the seminary San José de la Montaña. He was completely isolated there, and to prevent people speaking to him, they posted a nun at the gate of the seminary… During this time they dissected the situation of the country for him through the prism of Marxist analysis.
They discovered the psychological and personal weakness of Archbishop Romero, that he was a kind man and susceptible to manipulation. The priests of the “Group” offered their support in the pastoral guidance of the archdiocese. On March 1st, Archbishop Romero declared that his pastoral conduct would follow that of Medellín [a proponent of liberation theology] and that he would act in solidarity with the pastoral line of the Group of priests—whose line was carrying out a “liberationist” pastoral theology—without regard for the fact that this group had prevented him from taking possession of the archdiocese in the cathedral. Until this date, Archbishop Romero had always taken up an opposing stance to the pastoral line of Medellín. He also declared that he would have no relation with the government [under the presidency of General Molina from 1972 to 1977] as a protest against the massacre that took place at 10:30 pm on the preceding day, February 28th. This occasion marked the appearance of the armed Communist group Ligas Populares of February 28th (LP-28). On the same day the first bulletin was released from the Archbishop of San Salvador’s press office.
On March 12th of the same year, at 5:30 pm, Father Rutilio Grande (a Jesuit whose pastoral activity was in line with liberation theology), parish priest of Aguilares, was murdered along with two companions, Manuel Solórzano, 62, and Nelson Rutilio Lemus, 15. At Fr. Rutilio Grande’s funeral Mass, attended by the entire diocese, to the great surprise and shock of all the bishops, Archbishop Romero affirmed in the homily that he supported Fr. Grande’s pastoral activity as in line with the authentic pastoral theology of the Church. On Sunday March 20th Archbishop Romero suspended the celebration of Mass in all churches and chapels, and held one single Mass, against the advice of the Nuncio.
The revolutionary priests set feverishly to work in the archbishopric once Archbishop Romero had taken over, something unheard of, never before seen in this country. The Jesuits were often to be seen in the offices of the archbishopric. (…) Fr. Rafael Moreno, doctor in Marxism, was at the head of public relations for the archbishopric. The parallel magisterium controlled as well all the information channels of the archbishopric; the radio YSAX was in the hands of Fr. Angel María Pedrosa. Some persons speak of actual brainwashing of the Archbishop by these Marxist priests.
One of them was apparently asked, “Why are the revolutionary priests collaborating so actively at the archbishopric in San Salvador?” and was said to have answered, “in order to support this poor man who had no idea what to do in this diocese at such a difficult time, and to see what UCA (the University of Central America, founded by Jesuits in 1965; considered by its detractors to be the “University of liberation theology”) can do for the archbishopric.” According to the same source, Archbishop Romero was guided by a team of heavyweights made up of these priests and the thinkers at UCA.
Various persons invited Archbishop Romero to their places to help him think about the possibility of avoiding that they (the revolutionary priests) should use him as a tool to gain their own ends, as several events demonstrated. At first Archbishop Romero showed himself to be grateful and interested in this help. But someone offered to head him off from these monthly meetings.
The Belgian priest Pierre Declercq gathered together in Zacamil ex-nuns who had left or been expelled from their orders, for varying reasons, and some young women joined them, activists of the Communist revolution; a new religious congregation was founded. Thus was born the Congregation of the Sisters of the Popular Church, of the “New Church”. These nuns, wearing a wooden cross around their necks, appeared in different archdiocesan offices. One of them became Archbishop Romero’s private secretary, and another was in charge of the archives of the archdiocese.
The “triumphalism” that had been criticized and combated months previously in the pastoral work of the Church, was now reborn around the person of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, in whom the Group of Pastoral Reflection or Popular Church, as it was later called, met a propitious opportunity to make the Catholic Church an instrument for the Communist cause. The Popular Church cornered Archbishop Romero, providing the direction, the advice and the execution of pastoral action.
On February 14th, 1978, the University of Georgetown in the US awarded Archbishop Romero an honorary doctorate. On December 7, 1978, Archbishop Romero was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by 118 members of the British parliament. Later the University of Louvain in Belgium awarded him an honorary doctorate.
A group of militants succeeded in mixing Archbishop Romero up in the plan for a coup d’état [against General Carlos Humbert Romero, president in 1977, overthrown in 1979] because they did not want to have the archbishop of San Salvado against them. The coup d’état took place October 15, 1979. (…) A revolutionary junta took power. (…) Pope Jean-Paul II called on Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. This meeting with the new pope made a great impression on the Salvadorian prelate. The Sunday following his return from Rome, the Archbishop mentioned the injustices and excesses of Marxist-Leninist groups. The response from the archbishopric was immediate. The following day, Monday, the priests of the Popular Church and the “New Church” nuns who worked in his offices and in the seminary of San José de la Montaña, abandoned their posts in protest. Archbishop Romero admitted as much in a sermon the following Sunday in the cathedral: “They have left me alone.”
Archbishop Romero had betrayed Communist groups and the Marxist-Leninist cause, but when he saw the danger he tried to regain the good graces of Communist groups by returning in his sermons in the following weeks to the systematic denunciation of the government, omitting any mention of Communist injustices or speaking of them in moderate terms. The archdiocesan staff that had quit resumed their jobs. The relations between the Marxist-Leninist groups, FPL (Popular Liberation Front), … FAL (Armed Liberation Forces) and the archbishopric were, with ups and downs, growing more tense.
In the month of February 1980, Archbishop Romero wrote a letter to the president of the secretariat of the Central American Bishops’ Conference, asking him to release a document stating his support for him, for he found himself in a difficult situation without any apparent solution. The government’s information service (ANSEAL) had informed him that they had learned the mortal danger he was in. (…)
(Sources: VIS/La Croix – Fr. translation: benoitetmoi – DICI no. 310, 13/02/15)