Next month marks the tenth anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero. His life and death have been recalled by a series of events - the murder of six Jesuit priests in San Salvador late last year (1989), the screening of an American film about the Archbishop's life, and now the re-release of James Brockman's biography, 'Romero: A Life.' Paul Gray compares the real with the fictional Romero.
Romero: A Life, by James Brockman SJ, (Orbis Books, 1990 rev. ed.), 283 pp
James Brockman's biography of Archbishop Oscar Romero is a thorough documentation of the life of one of the most significant churchmen of modern history. In a period of history when churchmen are notoriously insignificant, it should be widely read.
Romero was shot by an unknown assassin on 24 March 1980, during El Salvador's worst period of political violence. It was in every sense a martyrdom. Romero was fully expecting an attack on his person, but had chosen not to flee to safety as he had been repeatedly advised to do.
Since his death Romero has been hailed as a hero, not just by Latin American Catholics, but by left-wing groups whose political agenda is quite different from that of the Catholic church. This body-snatching may have contributed to a certain unease about his martyrdom among anti-Marxist Catholics. Brockman's book should help to clarify the issue.
This biography of Romero has been available, in one form or another, since 1982. It has been re- released with a new title (Romero: A Life) and some updated passages to tie in with the screening of Fr Elwood Kieser's film, Romero. The book runs to 255 densely typed pages, plus ample end-notes and index. It is written with admirable objectivity, and the author does not concern himself with making speeches about political subjects like US aid to the El Salvadoran Government. Brockman may have sympathy with the concerns of liberation. theology-minded clergy in El Salvador, but it is clear that his major motivation is to put on record the facts about Romero's life.
From these facts, some general impressions can be given which vary significantly from the portrait of Oscar Romero as played by Raul Julia in Kieser's film.
The first is that in life the Archbishop looked like a typical South American peasant. Oscar Romero was born on the feast of the Assumption in 1917 and raised in a remote El Salvadoran village. In early life he was apprenticed to a carpenter (a potential piece of dramatic symbolism which Kieser failed to exploit in his film). Although he later left his home to join a seminary, and spent several years studying in Rome, his origins ensured that his outlook on life and his physical appearance were not quite so bourgeois as the hero in Kieser's film. Raul Julia (a fine actor) plays a gentle, weak-chinned Archbishop who looks about 40 and distinctly European. This characterisation is an important ingredient in a film plot which aims to show Romero as a timid young cleric who is transformed by political events into a man of steel.
However, Brockman's book shows that Romero was tough right from the beginning. There was never any equivocation about his dealings with the government over human rights issues. He condemned attacks on his clergy and on civilians promptly and aggressively. An example was the murder of the Jesuit priest Fr Rutilio Grande, who was shot (along with an old man and a young boy) by unknown assassins while he was driving to church.
Romero spoke to the El Salvadoran President on the night of the murder to demand an investigation, and followed this up with criticisms of the government in a letter two days later. In this letter to the President, he advised that the authors of the crime had been excommunicated and that the Church "is not willing to participate in any official act of the government as long as the latter does not put all its effort into making justice manifest in regard to this unprecedented sacrilege.
An important issue raised by the film is whether, by taking a firm stand on human rights, Romero placed himself at odds with his church superiors in Rome. Kieser's film is equivocal on this point. Brockman's book, however, is illuminating.
Although the tumultuous events of his prelature may have caused some hiatus in his relations with the Vatican, there is no doubt that Romero's personal attitude was one of complete identification with the hierarchy of the Church. This is shown by a further incident related to the Grande murder.
The single Mass
The outrage felt by Romero and his clergy after the assassination of Grande was expressed in a decision to hold only one Mass in the Archdiocese on the following Sunday. No Masses were held in the parishes, and the laity were urged to attend a commemorative Eucharist at the San Salvador cathedral. The decision was given widespread support by the clergy, but the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gerada, was highly critical. Romero and Gerada held private meetings to discuss the issue. Romero insisted that he had the canonical authority as Archbishop to order the single Mass, but Gerada repeatedly said, "No, that is not done". Relations between the two men became strained.
The Mass went ahead in spite of furious objections from the nuncio. About 100,000 attended, "the largest demonstration of Salvadoran church unity within memory", says Brockman. However, Romero was deeply concerned at the potential breach of good relations with the Vatican, and wanted to ensure that the Church's highest authorities clearly understood why he was acting in this apparently radical way. He therefore left for Rome immediately. He had been Archbishop for one month.
In Rome, Romero visited Pope Paul VI, the General of the Jesuit order and the Secretary of the Congregation for Bishops. He supplied full documentation on recent events in El Salvador, including his exchanges with the Papal Nuncio. In a private meeting with Paul VI, the Pope "took both of Romero's hands in his and urged him: 'Courage! You are the one in charge'."
Kieser's film does not show or refer to this visit to Rome. The only significant mention of the Vatican occurs when one of Romero's brother- bishops, obviously a 'conservative', tells the hero that Rome will not be pleased with what he is doing. This remark makes the clear suggestion that Romero was frowned upon by his superiors.
This idea is an important theme in left-wing mythology about Central America. Since the advent of "liberation theology", it has frequently been argued that the Latin American Church is divided into two blocs - a "progressive" Church, supported by the masses, and an "oligarchical" Church, linked by common interest, and frequently by blood lines, to the political and economic elites. In this version, the Vatican is portrayed as an ally of the oligarchy opposed in its heart to clerical and lay attempts to advance the cause of social justice.
Propaganda and the truth
An outstanding example of this propaganda line is Joan Coxsedge's Thank God for the Revolution, published in 1987. This book was eagerly promoted by Latin American "solidarity" groups in Australia, which are firmly aligned with the Marxist governments of Cuba and Nicaragua. Coxsedge gives an extremely potted history of Romero's career, incorporating the statement that the Archbishop was "Enemy No. 1, not only the junta, but of the Vatican". After he was murdered, Coxsedge says, "The _ Pope, who usually has so much to say, said almost nothing. Just a formal telegram. No-one was too surprised because the Vatican and the regime have always been close in El Salvador. The Vatican waited for two years before announcing his successor".
These charges are quite false. Pope John Paul II made at least two speeches within days of the assassination, condemning the crime and praising the Archbishop's work. He personally signed the letter of condolence to the Archdiocese - a breach of Vatican convention - and appointed a new Archbishop, Rivera y Damas, one month after the killing. Since Coxsedge is not an identifiably religious person, her version of events could be dismissed as typical Marxist colouring-in, were it not that a well-known Catholic priest, Fr Brian Gore, made it his business to promote the book at the time of publication.
The incident shows how easily political myth can be transformed into catechesis in today's Church.
Nevertheless, some of Romero's words and actions undoubtedly caused concern in Rome, as well as stirring opposition within the El Salvadoran Church. In particular, a letter he wrote, shortly before his death, to US President Carter, urging the cessation of military aid to the El Salvadoran Government, was seen by some as a step too far for any clergyman to take. Brockman documents why Romero felt obliged to take it:
"The letter, [Romero] recorded in his diary, was prompted by the 'proximate danger' that he saw in military aid in view of the 'new notion of special warfare, which consists in eliminating in murderous fashion all the endeavours of the people's organisations under the pretext of fighting communism or terrorism'. This type of war, he said, means to do away with 'not only men directly responsible but with their whole families, which in this view are all poisoned by these terroristic ideas and must be eliminated'."
Was making a public call for the cessation of aid the correct response? The recent change of government in Nicaragua may well have influenced Romero's thinking. Nicaragua's Archbishop, Miguel Obando y Bravo, had also demonstrated opposition to the ruthless methods of his government, and in effect blessed the revolution which drove Somoza from power.
This had occurred only six months previously. With hindsight some may say Obando was mistaken in his policy, since 10 years later his country is still suffering under a new government - perhaps worse than under Somoza. Yet no-one challenges the orthodoxy of Obando, in fact he has been made a Cardinal.
What is clear about Romero's attack on US aid is that it took place in an atmosphere of mounting national crisis. In early 1980 the death toll from political violence was escalating by as many as 60 a day. Nearly all were civilian victims, many of them women or children. Most were killed by forces aligned with the Government.
Five weeks before his death, Romero assessed the situation thus: "What has become more evident this week is that neither the junta nor the Christian Democrats are governing the country They are only allowing that impression to be given nationally and internationally. The February 12 massacre of the demonstrators belonging to the Salvadoran Students' Revolutionary Movement and the bloody eviction of the occupiers of the Christian Democrats' headquarters show clearly that it is not they who govern but, rather, the most repressive sector of the armed forces and security forces".
For over two years the Archbishop had been trying to negotiate a settlement with the government, with no success. The violence seemed increasingly aimed not just at opponents of the regime, but at anyone not 100 per cent behind the regime.
In one telling incident two weeks before his death, 72 sticks of dynamite were found in the basilica where, the day before, Romero had said a Mass for a murdered Christian Democratic leader. Many members of the Christian Democratic party were present at the Mass. If the dynamite had exploded, the whole basilica would have been destroyed.
Romero was desperate. How could he reverse the worsening situation? His final sermons, examined by Brockman in Chapter 10, constantly return to the question of what should a Christian do in such a catastrophic situation.
For guidance, he took the statements of the Church's bishops at Vatican II, Medellin and Puebla where the principle of standing with the poor was made explicit.
These sermons were his most "political" statements, yet they were clearly inspired by his sense of duty as Archbishop: "I do not intend in any way to engage in politics", he said. "If for a need of the moment I am casting light on my country's political situation, it is from the gospel.
"My preaching is a light that is obliged to enlighten the country's ways, to offer as church what the Church has to offer".
In his final Sunday sermon Romero said: "I know that many are scandalised at what I say and charge that it forsakes the preaching of the Gospel to meddle in politics. I do not accept that accusation.
"No, I strive that we may not just have on paper and study in theory all that Vatican Council II and the meetings at Medellin and Puebla have tried to further in us, but that we may live it and interpret it in this conflict-ridden reality, preaching the Gospel as it should be preached for our people ... though I continue to be a voice that cries in the desert, I know that the Church is making the effort to fulfil its mission".