A lot of things had changed in the Latin American Church from the time that Romero had gone off to study. In 1955 the Bishops of Latin America had organized the Latin American Episcopal Conference. At the time of the Second Vatican Council the Bishops in Latin America, or at least the vast majority of them, made a drastic shift in their alliances. Traditionally the bishops had been closely tied to the political and economic oligarchies that ruled most of the Latin American nations but as the Gospel began to take root in the hearts of so many of the clergy and faithful, the bishops themselves came to see the radical demands Christ makes on his disciples to embrace the plight of the poor. The 1968 meeting of CELAM (the Spanish language acronym of Latin American Episcopal Conference) at Medellín in Columbia gave a strong endorsement to what is called “Liberation Theology.” The timing of this endorsement was not opportune as 1968 was not only a year of great political unrest and riots in various countries, around the world but was also the year that Pope Paul VI released—to very mixed reviews—his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, repeating the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception. In many ways 1968 can be seen as the year in which the optimistic enthusiasm in the Catholic world unleashed by the Second Vatican Council met the resistance of those in the Church determined to undo the work of the Council. It certainly was a time when Paul VI’s confidence in Church reform faltered as his difficult decision to maintain the teaching against contraception resulted in an immense fall not only in his popularity but in his credibility. Paul aged terribly that year and in many ways his papacy faltered, giving him the sobriquet “the Hamlet Pope” for the agonizing indecision that marked the last eight years of his papacy. It was in this atmosphere of reevaluation of Vatican II that Romero was named an auxiliary bishop. After a few years in a small diocese, he was named Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977.
Oscar Romero was born to a working class family in El Salvardor—a country where a small clique of less than twenty families owned almost 50% of the arable land, the vast majority of Salvadorans being share-croppers on the extensive ranches of the oligarchs. The Romero family, though working class, was not poor by Salvadoran standards and Oscar and his siblings were tutored at home. Romero was an introverted child and deeply religious who spent much time studying or hanging out in the town’s churches. The Church sent him to Rome for seminary training and he was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in 1942. The following year his bishop summoned him back to Salvador. He spent years as a parish priest before being called to be rector of the seminary.
|Father Rutilio Grande(1928-1977)|
a martyr for the poor of El Salvador
His appointment reflected an alliance among the Salvadoran military, the small oligarchy of rich families, and the Church. He was considered “safe” by the establishment. On the other hands, the clergy and faithful were distraught, feeling that they had been deprived of a genuine pastor.
While the people were unenthusiastic and most of the clergy shunned him, one priest who reached out in friendship was Father Rutilio Grande. This was somewhat ironic as Grande was among the most radical of the “liberation theologians,” organizing the poor campesinos into Bible study groups that gave the poor an understanding that their suffering was not God’s will but the product of human sinfulness. Grande’s method of using the scriptures to open the eyes of the poor and to give them a sense that God is on their side was thought by those in power to be very subversive.
On March 12, 1977 Grande and two laymen—one only a lad of 16—were driving to the village of El Paisnal where Grande was to say mass. Their car was racked by machine gun fire and all three men were killed.
Romero went at once to the village church to which the three bodies had been brought and celebrated Mass there. He sent the evening there listening to the local peasants as they told him story after story of their suffering. This event radicalized the Archbishop.
Romero demanded of the government that they do an investigation of the murders—rumors were strong that Grande and the others had been killed by the Salvadoran military—but President Molina refused. The newspapers, under duress from government censors, published a highly sanitized version of the murders. The Archbishop had an independent investigation of the murders and published an accurate account of what happened. Moreover, the Archbishop announced that he would not attend any Government function nor meet with President Molina until the government investigated the murders and punished the offenders. This was a huge embarrassment for the government as the presence of the Archbishops—Romero and his predecessors—had always given a legitimacy to the government. Romero’s blockade of government functions signaled the world that the Church no longer recognized the legitimacy of the government in representing the people. From this point on, Romero became a public enemy in the sight of the military and the government.