On his recent visit to El Salvador, President Obama made an unannounced visit to the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered in 1980 during the Salvadoran civil war. It is widely accepted that his murder was planned and carried out by Robert D’Aubisson, a US-trained and paid political leader in El Salvador.
Romero was an unlikely candidate for archbishop of San Salvador. He was a compromise candidate, a bookish, conservative bishop, who the powerful families of El Salvador thought would never cause any problems. However, not long after becoming archbishop, his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande was murdered by right wing death squads and that murder began Romero’s transformation from a slow, cautious churchman to an insistent, hopeful, and fierce advocate for El Salvador’s poor.
Romero began to see that anyone who stood up for the poor in El Salvador, became suspect. He turned the cathedral in San Salvador into a shelter for those who had been driven from their homes. He transformed his weekly radio sermon into a center of information, announcing where bodies had been found all around the country so that families could at least bury those who had been “disappeared” by the death squads.
On his last Sunday sermon, he famously spoke to a packed cathedral, speaking directly to members of the Salvadoran military. He told them they should not kill their countrymen. He told them if ordered to do so, those orders were immoral. Here was the formerly bookish, timid bishop thundering from the pulpit “…In the name of God, in the name our tortured people: Stop the repression!” A few days later, while saying mass in a small hospital chapel, just as he raised the chalice of wine, he was shot through the chest by a lone gunman.
Ever since, he has been revered as a martyr for the poor of El Salvador. Because his politics became so centered on the poor, he naturally became suspect in Rome. While his cause for sainthood has been introduced, it naturally flourishes among the people who honor him as “San Oscar” and it languishes in the offices of the Vatican.
For several years, during demonstrations at Ft. Benning’s School of the Americas, in Georgia, where the US Army trains leaders for Central and South American militaries, and where Romero’s assassin was trained, I committed civil disobedience, carrying a small picture of Romero across the line at the base in the midst of a huge crowd of protesters demanding the School of the Americas be closed. A few years ago, the US Army re-named the school but has not closed it. Some of the perpetrators of the most horrific war crimes in Central America have been trained there.
I’m not sure why President Obama made a surprise visit to Romero’s tomb. I would like to think it was more than a political calculation made to appeal to Salvadorans in the United States. As a community organizer in Chicago, President Obama would have known the Salvadoran community and he would have learned of their reverence for Monsenor Romero. I would like to think that President Obama wanted to honor the life of one who gave himself entirely to the poor of his country.
(The photograph above comes the SFGate.com)