The Word Among Us

Lent 2019 Issue

Unless a Grain of Wheat Dies

St. Oscar Romero lived and died defending his people.

By: Todd Walatka

Unless a Grain of Wheat Dies: St. Oscar Romero lived and died defending his people. by Todd Walatka

“Today, in the cathedral, it is the blood of a priest who is crying out: Rafael Palacios!

Tear-stained faces listened raptly inside the cathedral of San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador. Archbishop Oscar Romero was preaching at the funeral Mass of Fr. Rafael, a Catholic priest who had just been killed by government forces on June 20, 1979.

“In his dead silence, Father Rafael denounces the sin of the world; but I will also say with respect: denounces the sins of the Church,” he told his listeners.

El Salvador was on the precipice of civil war, with a few dozen wealthy families wielding power over the government and military and even influencing the Catholic Church. Five priests and hundreds of lay catechists who resisted had already been slain. Millions of other Salvadorans were turning to their archbishop for guidance, asking, Why did they kill Fr. Rafael? What does Christian holiness look like in a country that is deeply divided? What does it look like to follow Jesus when political and economic divisions are creating disunity within the Church?

Through weekly homilies, Archbishop Romero crafted answers to these questions. Answers that did not duck away from the causes of wrongdoing but that invited hearts to conversion.

Seeing the Face of Injustice. Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was born on August 15, 1917, in a small village in El Salvador. A studious and prayerful child, he entered the seminary at the age of thirteen. After studying theology in Rome, he returned to El Salvador during the 1940s and began his priestly ministry. Over the next twenty-five years, Romero was given charge of countless ministries at the cathedral. He became rector of the seminary and editor of the diocesan newspaper.

Romero was known as a rather traditional priest, and he was sometimes critical of fellow priests who worked closely with the poor. But his perspective started to change when he was asked to lead the rural diocese of Santiago de María as its bishop in 1974. He later called the assignment a “coming home” to his roots. To learn more about the lives of his people, Romero traveled by horseback throughout his diocese. He found migrant workers with no place to sleep, so he opened up churches at night to give them shelter. When he saw the peasant farmworkers, campesinos, working long hours, he came and celebrated Mass in the coffee fields. He encountered workers paid far less than a living wage, children who died due to lack of medicine, and Catholics who were murdered for protesting these injustices. Yet in the midst of this, his flock was still coming together to learn about the Bible and the social teachings of the Church. Romero’s heart was moved; the evolution was beginning inside him.

On June 21, 1975, military forces brutally murdered five innocent campesinos in the small village of Tres Calles. Romero came as quickly as he could to console the families. Grieving for them, he protested to the local military commander. He expected to be heard; he was the bishop after all. Instead, he received a warning: “Cassocks are not bulletproof.”

Leading a Divided Nation. In 1977, Romero became the new archbishop of San Salvador and faced a nearly impossible situation. The divisions in the country had only increased. Thousands of campesinos had organized for land and labor reform. Others called for an armed revolution. In response, military and paramilitary groups aligned with the government began a violent campaign of repression. In all of these groups, many of the people still saw themselves as faithful Catholics.

What was Romero to do? He had been named archbishop in part due to strong support from the wealthy and the political leaders of the country because they believed he would support the status quo. They would soon be greatly disappointed.

On March 12, Fr. Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who was a friend of Romero’s, was murdered alongside two peasants as he was traveling to celebrate Mass in the small village of Aguilares. Fr. Grande had been committed to serving and upholding the rights of the poor—“subversive” activity that resulted in his being targeted by the government. Yet again, Romero was called to the site of a tragic murder. When Romero approached the three bodies that evening, he was devastated.

He knew Fr. Grande. He knew he was a deeply faithful priest. Romero stood in silence for a long while. He didn’t know what to say or what to do. The campesinos of Aguilares spoke of Grande’s work and their trust that Jesus would continue to be with them. Romero listened carefully. He spent time in the Adoration chapel. That week, he made a controversial announcement: all parish masses would be canceled the following Sunday. There would be one Mass, La Misa Unica, for the entire diocese at the cathedral. The Church would stand as one to affirm the witness of Fr. Grande.

More than one hundred thousand people came to the cathedral that Sunday. Romero welcomed them and rejoiced in their presence. He urged them, “Remain united in the authentic truth of the gospel,” and he reassured them that he was with them. “The one who attacks one of my priests, attacks me.”

Romero: The Target. Over the next three years, Romero became a passionate and courageous defender of the poor and oppressed. His popularity among the people grew tremendously. He had been transformed from a shy and timid man into a prophetic voice demanding more of his people and his country. Romero’s homilies became the country’s most popular radio program each week. It was said that you could walk through any small village in El Salvador and follow Romero’s homily as it emanated out of every window.

Week after week, Romero proclaimed a consistent message. A society that does not defend the rights of the most vulnerable is not a Christian society; a society that does not defend the oppressed fails to reflect the light of Christ. And the same is true of the Church. Romero was uncompromising: “A Church that does not join the poor in order to speak out on behalf of the poor and against the injustices committed against them is not the true Church of Jesus Christ.”

This preaching turned many people against Romero. The revolutionary movements criticized him for not supporting their calls for violence. In the early months of 1980, forces aligned with the government and the military made numerous threats on his life. Every time he got in a car, his life was at risk. But Romero refused offers to take sanctuary by leaving the country. He even told a newspaper reporter that if he was killed, he wanted his killers to know that he loved them and forgave them.

Yet he was also afraid. During the first week of Lent, Romero went on a retreat and spent a great deal of time with his confessor. He lamented the divisions among the bishops of the country, some of whom had called for his removal. He sought guidance on how to better serve his priests. And he called upon God to be near him if his life came to a sudden end. He wrote in his diary that until then, “my principal concern will be to become more identified with Jesus each day.”

“I Beseech You . . . Stop!” On Saturday, March 22, Romero spent the evening discussing his next day’s homily with human rights lawyers and priests in the diocese. These friends told him that his message could be seen as treasonous but left it up to him to decide what he should say. As he often did on Saturday evenings, he spent much of the night in prayer. The next day he entered the cathedral resolute.

At the conclusion of his lengthy homily on Christian salvation, he made an urgent plea to the armed forces of the nation. He called for them to obey their consciences, to obey the law of God rather than an unjust order to kill innocent campesinos. Strengthened by the applause within the cathedral, Romero slowly came to his final call: “In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!” With these words, Romero unknowingly triggered a plan that had long been brewing to kill him.

The next evening, he was preaching at Mass at the hospice center where he lived. Remembering the witness of those who had already died, he reminded his audience that every Christian must be willing to give up all for Christ. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit,” he said (John 12:24). At the conclusion of his homily, a car pulled up outside the chapel. A military sharpshooter stepped out and shot Archbishop Romero at the altar. He died within minutes.

God Is with His Poor. Almost immediately after his death, Salvadorans declared him St. Romero of the Americas. Many people repeated the saying “In Archbishop Romero, God passed through El Salvador.” And on October 14, 2018, he was officially canonized by the Catholic Church.

Oscar Romero was a powerful voice against injustice. He drew close to those who suffered. He was moved by their stories and their faithfulness to Jesus. In a deeply divided nation, he said that the way forward to true unity was a deep and uncompromising commitment to the life of the poor. Romero’s life and death call for all Christians who find themselves in the midst of division to unite around a common concern for the poor and vulnerable.

Coming closer to people who are suffering is a visible way to come closer to Jesus. “Fasting” from our anxieties, we make room to carry new burdens that Jesus allows us to carry so that his love can lift others up.

Todd Walatka teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame.