Lessons from Archbishop Óscar Romero

Joseph A. McCartin |

On March 24, 1980, one day after delivering a homily in which he beseeched his nation’s military to cease their violent repression of the nation’s poor, Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador was slain by an assassin’s bullet on the altar of a small hospital chapel.  Like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Romero foresaw his own death. “If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people,” he said in an interview weeks before his assassination, adding:

“I do not believe in death without resurrection.  If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.”

Thirty-five years later, Romero’s faith in resurrection is being borne out.  Not only among the people of El Salvador, where he is revered as a national hero, and not only among Catholics who have come to see him as a holy martyr and a prophet who prefigured Pope Francis and his embrace of the poor.  In many ways, Romero’s spirit lives on among all people of faith everywhere who have taken up the cause of the poor.  His life thus holds special meaning for all us in the Interfaith Worker Justice family, and his example summons us to recommit ourselves to the struggle for justice. [Honor Romero's legacy by standing with workers in low-wage industries. Pledge to Fast from Fast Food.]

As we continue our work, we can draw three encouraging lessons from Archbishop Romero’s life:

First, if we believe in justice, we must not be discouraged or afraid.  Inevitably we will experience the opposition of those who wield power.  We must not let that opposition deter us.  “Do you want to know if your Christianity is genuine?” Romero asked in a 1977 homily. “Here is the touchstone: Whom do you get along with? Who are those who criticize you? Who are those who do not accept you?”  Those who defend the poor in the United States today do not face death squads, as Romero and his followers did.  But they do face endless criticism of those with the largest media megaphones and wrestle a system that stacked against them, seemingly calculated to cause them to despair and give up.

Second, if we keep the cause of the poor at the heart of our work, we can renovate both our conflict-ridden society and our all-too-often somnolent religious communities.  “The hope we preach to the poor is in order that dignity be restored to them, and to give them the courage to be themselves, the authors of their destiny,” Romero said.  To recognize the dignity of the poor requires that we grant their demands for justice.  And this requires a broad-based renewal.    

Finally, Romero’s life reminds us that the fruit of justice will in the end be peace.  “Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression,” Romero said.  “Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.”  We should not forget that our work on behalf of justice for working people is ultimately work on behalf of the generous peace about which Romero wrote.

As we mark the 35th anniversary of the death of this good man, let all of us in the IWJ family rededicate ourselves to our work in his memory.    

"No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. ...In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression."

- Archbishop Óscar Romero

 Honor Archbishop Romero's legacy by standing with workers in low-wage industries. Pledge to Fast from Fast Food.

Joseph A. McCartin is a member of the Interfaith Worker Justice board. He is associate professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.