The Making of a Poor Saint: Oscar Romero

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Tomorrow, 14 October 2018, Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (1917-1980) — the former Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated for his outspoken criticism of the El Salvador political establishment and his defence of the rights of the poor — will be canonised a Saint in the Catholic Church by Pope Francis in Vatican City. Along with Romero, Pope Paul VI (1997-1978), Vincenzo Romano (1751-1831), Francesco Spinelli (1853-1913), Nazaria Ignacia March Mesa (1889-1943), Maria Katharina Kasper (1820-1898) and a young nineteen-year-old Italian teenager Nunzio Sulprizio (1817-1836) will be added to a growing pantheon of saints that by now have far outgrown human memory.

However, much before this official declaration by the Church, the sensus fidelium1 of the Latin American faithful had already ensured that San Romero was indeed their saint. Apart from being a part of living memory, what brings such a distinction to Romero is the manner in which he affected the lives of countless ordinary Salvadorians by championing their struggle for justice and human dignity. Assassinated — or martyred as the Catholic Church prefers to call it — just about four decades ago, Romero’s life and his engagement with his socio-political contexts are as relevant today as they had been in his lifetime.


Born in a rather poor family in Ciudad Barrios in El Salvador, Romero was awarded a fellowship to pursue a licentiate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome and was subsequently ordained a priest in 1942. On his return to El Salvador in 1943, Romero’s priesthood was characterised by a very pastoral approach that was manifest through his sermons, catechises and prison visits. While Romero stressed on the spiritual character of Christian life in his pastoral work, it brought a very conservative outlook to his faith. He would later come in contact with the Opus Dei — an institution of the Catholic Church devoted to the spirituality of holiness in ordinary life — and with whom he did maintain a lifelong association. Thus when Romero was consecrated a bishop in 1970 and later made Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, his appointment was gladly welcomed by the political establishment of El Salvador. For these political elites who had managed to suppress the economic and human rights of ordinary citizens, Romero’s spiritual thrust was hardly meant to effect any social change.

The 1960s and 1970s was also a watershed moment for the Catholic Church in Latin America with the onset of liberation theology as a “new way of doing theology”. This mode of theology took a contextual approach by advocating a praxis between the gospel values of liberation and the socio-political contexts of the people. It worked from the vantage point of the poor and the socially marginalised. Accordingly, it sought to address the gospel values by first making a structural analysis of the socio-economic and political contexts of the people and then working towards interventions that could bring about social change. But liberation theology soon drew criticism from some conservative quarters of the Church, including Oscar Romero, who argued that its Marxist analysis had underplayed the role of faith — when in fact, liberation theology called for a more radical living of the gospel. However, liberation theology was to come into its own with the publication of A Theology of Liberation (1971)2 by Gustavo Gutiérrez, as well as support from the Conference of the Latin American bishops (CELAM) at their Medellín (1968) and Puebla (1979) conferences. They gave liberation theology its slogan: “preferential option for the poor”.

But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, The Power of the Poor in History

Rutilio Grande SJ and Archbishop Oscar Romero (Peter Bridgman, 2018)

If liberation theology could thus be understood as the engagement of the poor with history, Oscar Romero’s moment of coming to terms with history came on 12 March 1977 when his close friend, the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande SJ (1928-1977) was assassinated along with two of his collaborators, Manuel Solorzano and Nelson Lemus, by El Salvador’s infamous death squads near the village of El Paisnal. The reason? Because Rutilio Grande made the gospel “grow feet” among the campesinos through his Christian base communities (CEB).3 Grande’s pastoral approach applied a social science methodology to make the poor analyse their situation — “see, judge, act” — which in turn empowered them to make reasonable demands for their rights. If Grande’s approach had bordered onto social activism, it was one that was entrenched in the gospel values that he believed and lived. This did not go well with the landed Salvadoran aristocracy who sought every means to protect their vested interests, even if it meant death to Rutilio Grande and his campesinos.

The evening that Rutilio Grande was murdered, Romero accompanied by a few Jesuits, visited El Paisnal where his Jesuit friend and his two campesino collaborators lay lifeless, yet with a community that Grande had brought to life. After celebrating a Eucharist, Romero listened to first-hand accounts of people’s suffering and repression, and resolved to desist from all official government functions until an investigation into the killings was conducted. In a move that was heavily criticised by the government and some sections of the Church, Romero declared a single Mass of solidarity throughout the San Salvador diocese on a following Sunday, 20 March. The process of his own conversion was now visible. In the funeral Mass on 14 March, Romero preached a homily on love, the social teaching of the Church and the gospel of liberation. In echoing Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi,4 during the homily, Romero asked:

What is the role of the Church in this universal struggle for liberation from so much misery?

Oscar Romero, 14 March 1977

Romero’s friendship with Grande went back to their seminary days at San José de la Montaña in San Salvador and deepened later when Romero decided to take residence at the same seminary in 1967 where Grande was now on the staff. While Romero was now Secretary to the CELAM, Grande was professor of pastoral theology where he made his students contextualise an academic theology to the social realities of El Salvador. Grande who had besides theology also taught courses in history and colonialism of Latin America now employed social science methodologies in the pastoral formation of his students. One would easily imagine that a conservative Romero would have initially baulked at Grande’s approach but must have also learnt it from him through observation and friendship. After Grande’s death and his own conversion, Romero was well adept at using Grande’s approach. It may also be interesting to note that while Rutilio Grande was master of ceremonies for Oscar Romero’s episcopal ordination in 1970, Romero borrowed a very Ignatian theme for his ordination: sentire cum ecclesia (thinking and feeling with the church). The last three years of Romero’s life are a testament of how he reinterpreted his ecclesiology to his pastoral needs.

The following three years of Romero’s episcopate from Grande’s murder in 1977 until his own assassination in 1980 took a very structural approach to his pastoral work. A key element to this was first visiting the people in their villages and receiving first-hand accounts of their suffering and repression at the hands of government forces. Romero also gathered statistics that he would summarise and then deliver an analysis during his homilies. These homilies that Romero preached drew a lot of people not only for the information they delivered, but much more for the insight they provided to the people’s own lives. Faith took a very social dimension. The Jesuits, on whose social commitment Romero had previously expressed reservations, now became his closest advisors.

Salvadoran politics had over these years evolved into a repressive state. Violence became the norm as numerous priests and peasants were murdered.5 On 21 June 1977, one of the numerous right-wing terror squads, Union de Guerreros Blancos (UGB), issued an ultimatum to all the Jesuits to leave the country within a month or be killed. However, Romero took a firm stand in support of the Jesuits, and they continued to stay unharmed. The UGB distributed pamphlets that read, “Be a Patriot. Kill a Priest”. As right-wing death squads supported by the political elite and left-wing guerrilla groups drawn largely from the peasant classes intensified their offensive against each other, the Church was caught in this midst of this violence. In his homily of 27 November 1977, on the First Sunday of Advent, Romero tried to desperately preach “The Church of Hope” by calling for a “violence of love”:

We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.

Oscar Romero, 27 November 1977


In the absence of a free press, Romero used the radio to broadcast his homilies and keep the people informed. While Rome tended to now view his work with suspect, Romero had also begun receiving international recognition. Romero was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. He also received an honorary doctorate from the Jesuit-run Georgetown University, Washington in 1978 as well as from the University of Leuven in 1980.

By 1979 a civil war had ensued, and a military junta sought control over every aspect of people’s lives. Such military regimes received military aid from countries like the United States that sought to control the emergence of any leftist governments in the region. In 1980, Romero addressed a letter to the US President, Jimmy Carter asking him to stop all forms of US-sponsored military aid to El Salvador that was chiefly meant to “train three Salvadoran battalions in logistics, communications and intelligence”. While noting the value of faith and justice and the need to defend human rights, Romero’s letter poignantly quoted the 1979 Puebla document that demanded that the sovereignty of the Latin American countries be safeguarded.

“The legitimate self-determination of our countries that permits them to organize according to their own disposition and history, and to cooperate in a new international order…”

Puebla Synod, no. 505

Romero’s pastoral vision had clearly moved from the solely spiritual to now encompass the social and the political dimensions within it. This is clearly visible in the address he gave at the University of Leuven in 1980: “The Political Dimension of Faith from the Perspective of the Option for the Poor”. Romero courageously used his advocacy to carve out a political space for the poor where they could defend their human rights, even at the cost of his life. The day before he was assassinated, he produced yet another of those gems during his homily as he ordered the army and its police: “Stop the repression!”

Brothers: you are of part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfil an immoral law. It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin.

In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!

Oscar Romero, 23 March 1980

The repression went on for more than a decade. And Romero paid with his life the next day while he was celebrating the Eucharist. 24 March 1980.


On the eve of his canonisation, Romero’s own words come resoundingly true, “I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise in the Salvadoran people.” Or as Ignacio Ellacuría SJ6 remarked in a memorial service for Oscar Romero, “In Archbishop Romero, God has passed through El Salvador”. What then makes Oscar Romero a distinctly twentieth-century saint is not just his charismatic persona that dramatically emerged in the final years of his life, but the manner he used it to speak truth to power, even at the risk of knowing he would be crushed.

Oscar Romero’s canonisation had been doggedly delayed — abashedly also from within the Catholic Church — by ascribing his killing not to martyrdom for faith, but assassination for his politics. But for all the politics involved in this canonisation, one thing can certainly be said: it is politics from the vantage point of the poor, the marginalised of society. It is these politics that Pope Francis gets right: “How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor”.

Romero ¡Vive!


  1. Sensus fidelium (sensus fidei) refers to the collective sense of faith expressed by the community of believers. ↩
  2. Gutiérrez, Gustavo, Teología de la liberación; perspectivas, Lima:CEP, 1971
    is largely considered a seminal text for liberation theology that provided a political language for a faith and its peoples that needed liberation from their oppressive contexts. ↩
  3. Kelly, Thomas M, When the Gospel Grows Feet: Rutilio Grande, SJ, and the Church of El Salvador: An Ecclesiology in Context, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2013
    is an insightful introduction not just to the ecclesiology of Rutilio Grande SJ, but also to the socio-political contexts of Latin America and the Church’s mission therein. ↩
  4. The Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) is the apostolic exhortation of Pope Paul VI that examined the role of every Christian in the Church’s mission of evangelisation. ↩
  5. Karen De Young, “Catholic Church, Military Draw Battle Lines in El Salvador”, The Washington Post, 22 May 1977 ↩
  6. On 16 November 1989, six Jesuits at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in San Salvador, Ignacio Ellacuría SJ (1930-1989), Ignacio Martín-Baró SJ (1942-1989), Segundo Montes SJ (1933-1989), Juan Ramón Moreno SJ (1933-1989), Joaquín López y López SJ (1918-1989), Amando López SJ (1936-1989), their housekeeper Elba Julia Ramos (1947-1989), and her sixteen-year-old daughter Celina Maricet Ramos (1973-1989) were assassinated by an elite unit of the Salvadoran Army at the height of the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992) that killed about 75,000 civilians, and left many more internally displaced or refugees in other countries. ↩

Rinald D'Souza

Rinald D'Souza is a historian of religion and society in modern South Asia. He specialises on twentieth-century Christianity and the history of the Jesuits in India. He is presently pursuing a PhD in history at the Department of History at KU Leuven, Belgium. His current research explores the self-fashioning of Adivasi Jesuits through the missionary periodical press. Read more.

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