Lecturer Examines Legacy of Slain Salvadoran Archbishop Romero

News Story: March 6, 2018

Michael Lee

Sacred Heart University’s faculty and students learned about the life and death of slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero recently in the latest installment of the University’s Contemporary Catholic Conversations Series.

The speaker, Michael E. Lee, just released his latest book, Revolutionary Saint: The Theological Legacy of Oscar Romero, upon which he based his lecture. Born in Miami, Fla., to Puerto Rican parents, Lee has graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame. He is an associate professor of theology at Fordham University’s Latin American and Latino Studies Institute and also an author.

Lee related that Romero was born in 1917 in the San Miguel area of El Salvador, a Central American country with a history of poverty, environmental crisis, war, disease and human rights abuses. At 13, Romero began to pursue the priesthood and was ordained in 1942. He was first assigned as a parish priest in Anamoros, but then he moved to San Miguel, where he worked for more than 20 years. In 1970, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Salvador (the country’s capital), then bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de Maria in 1974. Three years later, he became the archbishop of San Salvador. He held the post for only three years — he was shot and killed just after offering his homily at a Mass on March 24, 1980.

Romero became archbishop at a time of escalating violence following a power grab by the revolutionary junta government that would lead to the Salvadoran Civil War. Lee said progressive priests feared that Romero’s conservative reputation and hierarchal view of the Catholic Church would mute a growing liberation theology, committed to supporting the poor and downtrodden, which Father Gustavo Gutierrez birthed in his book, A Theology of Liberation (1971). Romero initially criticized the theology as communistic and was timid about the Church’s role in an increasingly revolutionary climate. But his experience in poor, rural Santiago de Maria helped him understand Salvadorans’ hardships and realities, and his timidity quickly evaporated when he became archbishop, particularly after his friend, Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, was shot to death in part for creating self-reliance groups among the poor. Shocked by this act, Romero dedicated a countrywide Mass to Grande and then boycotted the inauguration of the newest dictator, General Carlos Humberto Romero.

According to Lee, Romero’s supervisors criticized his divergence with government, but he continued to offer hope and support to the poor in their struggle for liberation. He endured persecution for standing with them, denounced repression, condemned the country’s basic structural injustice, provided uncensored accounts of events and even helped document human rights abuses.

“Romero embodied liberation theology and had a remarkable last three years of life that brought him global attention and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1978,” Lee said.

In 2015, the Vatican voted to recognize Romero as a martyr, which resulted in his beatification later that year, affirming his work with the poor. He was dubbed the Martyr for Love, though Lee said he views that title as vague. More appropriate might be ‘Hope for the Poor,’ he said, for Romero was one with his people, not an independent hero.