Moltmann on Archbishop Romero: Martyrdom as Participation in the Sufferings of an Oppresssed People

"Oscar Romero" by J. Puig Reixach Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Oscar Romero” by J. Puig Reixach Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Salvadorian Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was honored last month as a martyr by Pope Francis. In The Way of Jesus Christ, Jürgen Moltmann shares the story of Romero’s life as an example of an important dimension of Christian martyrdom: participation in the sufferings of the oppressed people. 

Arnulfo Romero, ‘the people’s bishop’ in El Salvador, was consecrated priest in 1942 and bishop in 1970. In 1977 he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. At that time presidential elections were being held in El Salvador. The ruling military junta rigged the results, and the other parties protested in a demonstration. They were shot down by the National Guard. Two weeks later, on 12 March 1977, a priest was murdered for the first time in El Salvador, Father Rutilio Grande SJ, the parish priest of Aguilares. Romero hurried to the place of his murder and spent the night of 12/13 March among the murdered man’s parishioners. He said later that on that night ‘he was converted’.

Romero was 59. Up to then he had been a conservative churchman. Now he recognized the connection between the persecution of the church and the repression of the people by the ruling minority in his country and their ‘death squads’. He began to go among the people and became ‘their’ bishop. ‘What is really being persecuted is the people, not the church,’ he wrote, ‘but the church is on the people’s side and the people are on the side of the church.’ He believed in ‘the God of the poor’, writes his biographer Jon Sobrino. ‘For him, the crucified God became present in the crucified men and women of history….In the faces of the poor and oppressed of his people, he saw the disfigured face of God.’ Romero learnt to hear the gospel about the kingdom of the coming God in the sight and the protesting cry of the poor. The poor ‘evangelized’ him. The cathedral in San Salvador became the place where the people gathered, a place of liturgy and hunger strike, a hospital for the wounded, and a place where leave was taken of many, many of the people’s dead. Romero also understood why and how the people were moving toward becoming an ‘organized people’. He supported the ‘popular organizations’ of the farm workers, the smallholders and the workers. For him ‘the people’s project’ was a solution to the problems of his country. And this meant that he was drawn into the political conflict. Archbishop Romero was shot during mass by a paid assasin in front of the altar of his church.

In this martyrdom of Arnulfo Romero’s, we can see a third dimension of Christian martyrdom. It is a dimension that has received little attention up to now, but today it is becoming more and more important. The first dimension  suffering for faith’s sake: Paul SchneiderThe second dimension is suffering through resistance against unjust and lawless power: Dietrich BonhoefferThe third dimension is participation in the sufferings of the oppressed people: Arnulfo Romero.

The Way of Jesus Christ, 202 – 203

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