Archive for category Latin America

What type of Church has salvation? Leonardo Boff

What type of Church has salvation?

Leonardo Boff

Earthcharter Commission


The core of the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth was not the Church, but the Kingdom of God: a utopia of total revolution/reconciliation of the whole of creation. This is so true that the Gospels, with the exception of St. Matthew, never speak of the Church, but always of the Kingdom. With the rejection of the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth, the Kingdom was also gone. Instead, the Church appeared as a community of those who gave witness to the resurrection of Jesus and kept His legacy, trying to live it throughout history.

From the beginning, a bifurcation was established: the bulk of the faithful took Christianity as a spiritual path, in

in the eastern church he is “St. Constantine”

dialogue with the cultural environment. Another, much smaller, group, under the control of the Emperor, took over the moral leadership of the severely decadent Roman Empire. In organizing the community of faith, this group copied the imperial juridical-political structures. This group, the hierarchy, structured itself as «sacred power» (sacred potestas). This was a very risky path, because if there is one thing that Jesus always rejected, it was power. To Him, the three expressions of power, as they appear in the temptation of the desert –prophetic, religious and political–, when they reflect domination rather than service, belong to the sphere of the diabolical. Nevertheless, this was the path followed by the Church -a hierarchical institution, modeled on an absolutist monarchy that refuses to allow the laity, the great majority of the faithful, to participate in that power. The Church thus comes down to us under a cloud of very deep distrust.

It so happens that love disappears when power predominates. In effect, the organizing principle of the hierarchical Church is bureaucratic, formal and often inflexible. In the hierarchical Church, everything has a price; nothing is either forgotten or forgiven. There is practically no space for mercy, or for a true understanding of the divorced and of the homo-affectionate. Its imposition of priestly celibacy, deeply-rooted anti-feminism, distrust of everything related to sexuality and pleasure, the cult for the personality of the pope, and its pretense of being the only true Church and the «unique guardian of the eternal, universal and immutable natural law established by God», brought it, in words of Benedict XVI, to «assume a directive function over the whole humanity». In 2000, then cardinal Ratzinger repeated in the document, Dominus Jesus, the medieval doctrine that «outside the Church there is no salvation» and that those who are outside «are in grave risk of damnation». This type of Church surely does not have salvation. It is slowly losing sustainability all over the world.

What would be a Church worthy of salvation? It would be one that humbly returns to the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, the simple and prophetic laborer, incarnated Son, imbued with the divine mission of announcing that God is here, with divine grace and mercy for all; a Church that recognizes other Churches as different expressions of the sacred inheritance of Jesus; that is open to dialogue with all religions and spiritual paths, seeing therein the action of the Spirit that always arrives before the missioner; one that is ready to learn from the accumulated wisdom of all of humanity; that renounces all power and spectacularizing of the faith, such that it is not a mere facade of a non-existent vitality; one that appears as «advocate and defender» of the oppressed of any class, that is willing to suffer persecution and martyrdom, as did her founder; where her pope would courageously renounce the pretense of juridical power over everyone and instead would be a symbol of reference and of unity of the Christian Proposal, with a pastoral mission of strengthening all in faith, hope and love.

Such a Church is in the range of our possibilities. We need only to immerse ourselves in the spirit of the Nazarene. Only then would it be the Church of humans, the Church of Jesus of Nazareth, of God, the corroboration of the truth of Jesus’ utopia of the Kingdom. It would be a place for realizing the Kingdom of the liberated, to which all of us are called.

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To Awaken the Shaman Dimension

06/12/2011   by Leonardo Boff

The concept of sustainability, considered in its widest sense and not reduced just to development, embraces all actions focused on maintaining the existence of other beings, because they have the right to coexist with us. And only starting from this premise of coexistence do we utilize, with sobriety and respect, a part of them to satisfy our needs, while also preserving them for future generations.

The universe also fits within this concept. From the new cosmology, we now know that we are made of the dust of stars and that passing through us is the mysterious Basic Energy that nourishes everything and which unfolds into the four forces –gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear strong and weak– that, by always acting together, maintain us as we are.

As conscious and intelligent beings, we have our place and our function within the cosmologic process. Although we are not the center of everything, we certainly are one of those forward points through which the universe turns into itself, that is to say, the universe becomes conscious. The weak anthropological principle allows us say that, for us to be what we are, all the energies and processes of evolution had to organize themselves in such an articulated and subtle manner that our appearance was possible. Otherwise, I would not be writing here.

Through us, the universe and the Earth look at and contemplate themselves. The capacity to see appeared 600 million years ago. Until then, the Earth was blind. The profound and starry sky, the Iguaçu Falls, where I am now, the green of the nearby jungles, could not be seen. Through our sight, the Earth and the universe can see all of this indescribable beauty.

The original peoples, from the Andean to the samis of the Arctic, felt one with the universe, as brothers and sisters of the stars, making a great cosmic family. We have lost that feeling of mutual belonging. They felt that the cosmic forces balanced the paths of all beings and acted within them. To live in consonance with these fundamental energies was to have a sustainable life, filled with meaning.

We know from quantum physics that consciousness and the material world are connected and that the manner a scientist chooses to make his observation affects the observed object. Observer and observed object are inseparably linked. Hence the inclusion of consciousness in scientific theories and in the very cosmic reality is a fact that has already been assimilated by a large part of the scientific community. We form, in effect, a complex and diversified whole.

The figures of the shamans are well- known. They were always present in the ancient world and are now retuning with renewed vigor, as quantum physicist P. Drouot has shown in his book, The shaman, the physicist and the mystic (El chamán, el físico y el místico, Vergara, 2001) for which I was honored to prepare a prologue. The shaman lives a singular state of consciousness that allows him to enter into intimate contact with the cosmic energies. The shaman understands the call of the mountains, the lakes, the woods and the jungles, the call of the animals and of human beings. The shaman knows how to direct such energies towards healing ends and to harmonize them with the whole.

Inside each of us lies the shaman dimension. That shaman energy causes us to stand speechless in the face of the immensity of the sea, to sense the eyes of another person, to be entranced on seeing a newborn child. We need to liberate the shaman dimension within us, so as to enter into harmony with all around us, and to feel at peace.

Could not our desire to travel with the spacecrafts in cosmic space perhaps be the archetypical desire to search for our stellar origins, and the desire to return to our place of birth? Several astronauts have expressed similar ideas. This unstoppable search for equilibrium with the entire universe and to feel that we are part of the universe pertains to the intelligible notion of sustainability.

Sustainability includes valuation of this human and spiritual capital. Its effect is to generate within us respect, and a sense of sacredness, before all realities, values that nourish the profound ecology and which help us to respect and live in symbiosis with Mother Earth. This attitude is urgently needed, to moderate the destructive forces that have overtaken us in recent decades.

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Gustavo Gutiérrez – Peruvian theologian

Gustavo Gutiérrez

Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P. (born 8 June 1928 in Lima) is a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest regarded as one of the principal founders of liberation theology in Latin

Gustavo Gutierrez

America. He holds the John Cardinal O’Hara Professorship of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has been professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and a visiting professor at many major universities in North America and Europe. He is a member of the Peruvian Academy of Language, and in 1993 he was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government for his tireless work. He has also published in and been a member of the board of directors of the international journal, Concilium.

Fr. Gutiérrez has studied medicine and literature (Peru), psychology and philosophy (Leuven), and obtained a doctorate at the Institut Pastoral d’Etudes Religieuses (IPER), Université Catholique in Lyon. One of the central figures in the emergence of liberation theology, he was born in Peru, and spent much of his life living and working among the poor of Lima. In September 1984, a special assembly of Peruvian bishops were summoned to Rome for the express purpose of condemning Gutiérrez, but the bishops held firm. Gutiérrez’s groundbreaking work,

A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (1971), explains his notion of Christian poverty as an act of loving solidarity with the poor as well as a liberatory protest against poverty.

According to Gutiérrez true “liberation” has three main dimensions: First, it involves political and social liberation, the elimination of the immediate causes of poverty and injustice. Second, liberation involves the emancipation of the poor, the marginalised, the downtrodden and the oppressed from all “those things that limit their capacity to develop themselves freely and in dignity”. Third, liberation theology involves liberation from selfishness and sin, a re-establishment of a relationship with God and with other people. Liberation theology and Gutiérrez have both been the subjects of repeated Papal scrutiny.

A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation was reviewed directly by then-Cardinal Ratzinger and found to contain ideas which, in the view of conservative Catholics, were disturbing. Although Gutiérrez himself was not censured, many other liberation theologians received Papal censure. Because of the perceived connection between followers of liberation theology and leftist groups in Latin America, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, many liberation-minded priests were killed in Central American countries during the wars and civil conflicts of the 1980s.  These martyrs included Archbishop Oscar Romero [1] and six scholar-priests at the University of Central America [2] in San Salvador.


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Gustavo Gutierrez and the preferential option for the poor

Gustavo Gutierrez and the preferential option for the poor

by John Dear SJ on Nov. 08, 2011

Gustavo Gutierrez

“I hope my life tries to give testimony to the message of the Gospel, above all that God loves the world and loves those who are poorest within it.”

That’s the recent summation of his life by 83-year-old Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, founder of liberation theology and its central tenet, “the preferential option for the poor.” These days, Gutierrez works and writes at Notre Dame, where his colleague, my friend Fr. Daniel Groody, has just completed an excellent anthology of his work: Gustavo Gutierrez: Spiritual Writings (Orbis Books, 2011). Gutierrez reminds us of God’s preferential love for the poor and our own need to side with the poor and oppressed everywhere in their struggle for justice.

Gutierrez’s groundbreaking work, A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971, changed everything. It seemed to chart a whole new course for the church, not just for Latin America, but everywhere. Vatican II challenged scholars to renew their theology and biblical study. Gutierrez responded by examining our concept of God and the scriptures within the Latin American reality of extreme poverty and systemic injustice. That led to a renewed realization of Christ’s presence among the poor and oppressed, especially in their struggle to end poverty and oppression.

In his introduction, Groody reviews Gutierrez’s three bottom-line principles about life and

Pueblo Joven in Peru

death at the bottom. First, material poverty is never good but an evil to be opposed. “It is not simply an occasion for charity but a degrading force that denigrates human dignity and ought to be opposed and rejected.”

Second, poverty is not a result of fate or laziness, but is due to structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others. “Poverty is not inevitable; collectively the poor can organize and facilitate social change.”

mountain covered with dwellings

Third, poverty is a complex reality and is not limited to its economic dimension. To be poor is to be insignificant. Poverty means an early and unjust death.

An early and unjust death. I remember hearing Gutierrez say those words at a talk I attended at Maryknoll in 1984. The following year, while living in El Salvador, I remember Jon Sobrino using the same expression. Most people in history suffer “early and unjust deaths,” they said. When they wake up, they know that because of poverty, they may die before the day is over. That is the greatest injustice, they insist.

Gandhi put it this way: poverty is the greatest form of violence.

When Jesus said “Blessed are the poor,” Gutierrez points out, he does not say, “Blessed is

Gustavo Gutierrez

poverty.” For Gutierrez, “Standing in solidarity with the poor began to mean taking a stand against inhumane poverty.” Groody explains:

Gutierrez makes distinctions between material poverty, voluntary poverty and spiritual poverty. Real poverty means privation, or the lack of goods necessary to meet basic human needs. It means inadequate access to education, health care, public services, living wages, and discrimination because of culture, race or gender. Gutierrez reiterates that such poverty is evil; it is a subhuman condition in which the majority of humanity lives today, and it poses a major challenge to every Christian conscience and therefore to spirituality and theological reflection.Spiritual poverty is about a radical openness to the will of God, a radical faith in a providential God, and a radical trust in a loving God. It is also known as spiritual childhood, from which flows the renunciation of material goods. Relinquishing possessions comes from a desire to be more possessed by God alone and to love and serve God more completely.

Voluntary poverty is a conscious protest against injustice by choosing to live together with those who are materially poor. Its inspiration comes from the life of Jesus who entered into solidarity with the human condition in order to help human beings overcome the sin that enslaves and impoverishes them. Voluntary poverty affirms that Christ came to live as a poor person not because poverty itself has any intrinsic value but to criticize and challenge those people and systems that oppress the poor and compromise their God-given dignity. It involves more than detachment, because the point is not to love poverty but to love the poor.

The Christian sides with the world’s poor, Gutierrez teaches, consciously acknowledging the forces of greed, violence and death that crush them. The Christian sees Christ present in the poor and marginalized, and joins their struggle to end poverty.

“A spirituality of liberation will center on a conversion to the neighbor, the oppressed person, the exploited social class, the despised ethnic group, the dominated country,” Gutierrez writes. “Our conversion to the Lord implies this conversion to the neighbor. To be converted is to commit oneself lucidly, realistically, and concretely to the process of the liberation of the poor and oppressed.”

Gutierrez writes:

Christians have not done enough in this area of conversion to the neighbor, to social justice, to history. They have not perceived clearly enough yet that to know God is to do justice. They have yet to tread the path that will lead them to seek effectively the peace of the Lord in the heart of social struggle.Reading his theological reflections, I was deeply moved by Gutierrez’s insistence on “the gratuitousness of God” as the basis for his liberation theology. Everything in life comes from the lavish, universal love of God, he insists. The best way to understand this gratuitous love of God is to see God’s love for the poor and oppressed and to make that same love central to our own lives.

“We have been made by love and for love,” Gutierrez writes. “Only by loving can we fulfill ourselves as persons; that is, [by responding] to the initiative taken by God’s love. God’s love for us is gratuitous; we do not merit it. It is a gift we receive before we exist, or, to be more accurate, a gift in view of which we have been created. Gratuitousness thus marks our lives so that we are led to love gratuitously and to want to be loved gratuitously.

“The preferential option for the poor is much more than a way of showing our concern about poverty and the establishment of justice. At its very heart, it contains a spiritual, mystical element, an experience of gratuitousness that gives it depth and fruitfulness. This is not to deny the social concern expressed in this solidarity, the rejection of injustice and oppression that it implies, but to see that in the last resort it is anchored in our faith in the God of Jesus Christ. It is therefore not surprising that this option has been adorned by the martyr’s witness of so many, as it has by the daily generous self-sacrifice of so many more who by coming close to the poor set foot on the path to holiness.

“Clearly the gratuitousness of God’s love challenges the patterns we have become used to,” Gutierrez writes. “The Bartimaeuses of this world have stopped being at the side of the road. They have jumped up and come to the Lord, their lifelong friend. Their presence may upset the old followers of Jesus, who spontaneously, and with the best reasons in the world, begin to defend their privileges.”

Those of us who are privileged First World North Americans may bristle at this theology that asks them to let go of their privileges, make that option for the poor and seek Christ in their struggle for justice. But Gutierrez assures us that this movement of the Spirit among us not only hastens God’s reign of justice and peace, beginning with those in extreme poverty, it leads to new blessings. This is good news. We, too, are being liberated!

“To make an option for the poor,” Gutierrez writes, “is to make an option for Jesus.” That ultimately is the spiritual basis for our solidarity with the poor. We opt to be with Jesus, to serve Jesus, to accompany Jesus among the world’s poor in the nonviolent struggle for justice.

Gutierrez reminds us that a key aspect of Christian life is to make a preferential option for the poor and oppressed. Reading him leads us to ask: How are we doing this today in our lives? How can the church more and more side with the poor? How can we support their struggle for justice and peace?

This week, newly released figures suggest that almost 50 million U.S. citizens live below the poverty line, which is set at $22,400 annually for a family of four. Globally, the United Nations put the number of poor people in the billions. And the number continues to grow. Certainly, one billion people on the planet live in extreme poverty, without adequate food, water, housing, healthcare, education, employment or dignity. Such poverty is not God’s will, and needs to be fought and resisted.

Many unsung faithful serve Christ in the poor through this liberating work, this war on poverty. From Latin America to Africa to the Middle East to our own growing “Occupy Wall Street” movement, people are choosing to opt not for the corporations, or the war industry or big money, but for the struggling masses, our sisters and brothers who suffer needlessly under the weight of global injustice.

Gutierrez reminds us that the Gospel calls each of us to join this campaign of liberation, to do our part in the struggle for justice and peace. I recommend this collection of Gustavo Gutierrez’s work hoping it will encourage others to renew solidarity with Christ among the poor and carry on the campaign to abolish hunger and poverty.

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The Martyrs of our Modern Church Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ

The Martyrs of our Modern Church

Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ

Next week, the 31stanniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar

Archbishop Oscar Romero

Romero will be marked by people around the world to whom he remains an inspiration – in his life and death – as they strive for justice. His country of El Salvador saw many other lives lost as members of the Church were targeted by the authorities as a result of their protestations against an oppressive regime. Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ, who worked with many of these martyrs, tells their stories and gives an insight into the Church teaching that lay behind their deep commitment to justice.

In recent decades, Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular have rediscovered what should always have been an essential dimension of faith and practice: the social dimension. This is an understanding that Christianity is not a purely individual and personal matter, nor is it, as the writer, Ernest Renan put it somewhat sarcastically, ‘a religion made for the interior consolation of a few chosen souls.’ As the great French theologian, Henri de Lubac stated so clearly, ‘Catholicism is essentially social. It is social in the deepest sense of the word, not merely in its applications in the field of natural institutions but first and foremost in itself, in the heart of its mystery, in the essence of its dogma.’[1]

This rediscovery is expressed in what is usually called the Social Teaching of the Church or Catholic Social Teaching. It was initiated formally over one hundred years ago with the publication in 1891 of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum. Before this, the corporal works of mercy were and had always been the principal way for a Christian to express love of neighbour. They remain essential and constitute the chief criterion by which, according to the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Last Judgement, the Lord will call each one of us to account. Rerum Novarum, however, recognised that in the modern world we have the knowledge and capability to build the type of society we want. The encyclical

Pope Leo XIII

therefore stated that love of neighbour ought to extend to action to remedy the wrongs of the new industrial society, tackling their causes and advocating changes in regimes themselves which would bring them to affirm among other things the dignity of human work, the right to a just wage and the right of the worker to form professional associations.

This was followed by nine social encyclicals from all but two of the succeeding popes. The latest of these is Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (2009), which calls for ‘integral human development’ and the need for a new world order to direct globalisation. These encyclicals can be considered as blueprints for building a society based on the principles of the Gospel. There are also two extremely important general Church declarations supporting them. First, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes,with its beautiful opening words: ‘The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.’[2] Secondly, the 1971 Synod of Bishops’ statement on Justice in the World, which proclaimed that: ‘Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.’[3] Our religious faith must go hand in glove with our active promotion of justice.

Unfortunately this wealth of social teaching is either neglected by or even unknown to the majority of Catholics today. This is because, as a recent book puts it, ‘it remains outside the mainstream of ordinary parish life, is seldom referred to in the pulpit, almost never mentioned in the RCIA programmes for people becoming Catholics, and very unlikely ever to be taught as part of catechesis and formation programmes.’[4] In other words, it lives up to its description in a well-known collection: ‘our best kept secret’.

And this in spite of the fact that all of the documents mentioned above are not only deeply concerned with the Church’s Social Teaching but call on Catholics to study it and put it into practice as part of their faith. This charge was repeated by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in their 1996 statement, The Common Good: ‘All members of the Catholic Church must accept their full share of responsibility for the welfare of society. We should regard the discharge of these responsibilities as no less important than fulfilling our religious duties and indeed as part of them.’[5]

One of the reasons for the urgency of this appeal is that there has never been so much injustice in the world as there is today. One UN Human Development Report after another stresses the fact that never has there been so much wealth in the world, yet never has it been so unequally divided. A 2002 report of the International Forum on Globalisation sums up the situation as follows: ‘In a world in which a few enjoy unimaginable wealth, two hundred million children under the age of five are under weight because of a lack of food. Some fourteen million children each year die from hunger related disease. A hundred million children are living or working on the streets… Eight hundred million people go to bed hungry each night.’[6]

Forty years ago in his great letter on ‘The Development of Peoples’, Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI described the ‘scandal of development’ as an ‘outrage against humanity’. Pope John Paul II spoke of pervading ‘structures of sin’, particularly characterised by ‘the all-consuming desire for profit and the thirst for power’ in all cultures. As the Antilles Bishops put it: ‘Any society in which a few control most of the wealth and the masses are left in want is a sinful society.’[7]

However, the call to Christians to express their faith by struggling for justice, when an

Fr. Octavio Ortiz Luna

increasing number of societies or regimes in the world are fundamentally unjust and oppressive, can seem like an invitation to persecution, if not martyrdom. Aware of this, John Paul II exhorted Catholics to acknowledge and pay special honour their modern martyrs of the 20th century. What perhaps characterises someone as a ‘modern’ martyr is the nature of the truth to which they are called to give witness. As Karl Rahner has argued, the classical concept of martyrdom, which is fundamentally conditioned by an odium fidei (hatred of the faith), needs to be widened to include those who have been killed by an odium iustitiae (hatred of justice). He cites Archbishop Oscar Romero as an obvious example of this.

It was Father Pedro Arrupe who led the Society of Jesus, in its 32nd General Congregation in 1975, to declare the promotion of justice to be an indispensible condition for the service of the faith and that this ‘should be a concern of our whole life and a dimension of all our apostolic endeavours’. At the same time he added:

It is necessary that our Congregation be truly conscious that the justice of the Gospel should be preached through the cross and from the cross. If we intend seriously to work for justice, the cross will immediately appear, frequently accompanied by bitter pain. For, although we be faithful to our priestly and religious charism and work prudently, we shall see those rise up against us who perpetuate injustice in today’s industrial society, who otherwise are sometimes considered very fine Christians and often are our benefactors or friends or even relatives, who accuse us of Marxism and subversion, eventually cease to be our friends, and consequently take away their former backing and financial assistance.

This prophetic remark has been amply fulfilled and is borne out by numerous examples. ‘This is a courageous decree: some Jesuits will have to die’, said João Burnier, a Brazilian Jesuit, speaking at the time about the Congregation’s Decree Four, which commits the Society to promote justice. Shortly afterwards he was punched and then shot in the presence of his bishop, Dom Pedro Casadaliga, as both men were interceding to release two women who had been arrested and tortured by the police. In anticipation of the anniversary of the death of Archbishop Romero, I would like to tell the stories of some other modern martyrs, people that have made a great impression on me.

Octavio Ortiz and four youths in El Despertar

At 6.00am on 20 January 1979, a heavy army vehicle crashed through the iron gates of the retreat centre, El Despertar in El Salvador, where Fr Octavio Ortiz and some 20 youths were asleep. They were attending a weekend leadership training course dedicated to Christian formation. When Fr Octavio went out to see what the noise was, the soldiers shot him and then ran their vehicle over his face. Some of the youths had escaped over a wall at the back of the centre, but the soldiers captured four, whom they also shot and ran over. Others were taken prisoner and questioned for 28 hours.

As this was happening, Archbishop Oscar Romero was preparing to leave for the meeting of Latin American bishops at Puebla in Mexico. Instead, he came immediately to El Despertar and was horrified by the condition of the corpses. The following day, a Sunday, he celebrated their funeral Mass in the Cathedral. He preached a powerful sermon in which, after expressing his condolences to the parents of Fr Ortiz and the four young men, he said: ‘I cannot omit the news about the event that brings us here today: the bloody and painful case of Octavio Ortiz Luna. Concerning this matter the Diocese states that the official statement published by the media is filled with lies from beginning to end… Thanks to God we are able to reconstruct the truth through the testimony of many survivors who were brought to the prison of the National Guard.’

Romero then presented this evidence in detail, making it quite clear that El Despertar was a centre dedicated to Christian formation and not to training guerrilleros;that 28 young men aged between 13 and 21 were attending a course of Christian Initiation for Young People and that the only arms they had were hymnals and guitars. He ended by drawing several conclusions:

First. Our Security Forces are incapable of recognising their errors but make things worse by falsifying the truth with slander…..Second. The purification of the corrupt system of our nation’s security is urgent… Third. Once again the evil and the danger of the Law of Public Order is proven… Fourth. Enough! We say this not with pessimism but with great optimism in the strength of our noble people…. Finally, I want to remind you that the material and intellectual authors of the assassination of Father Octavio Cruz have incurred canonical excommunication, which in this case means excommunication from the Church.
Six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter

Ignacio Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Joaquín López y López, Juan Ramón Moreno and Amando López, all Jesuit priests, and their housekeeper, Elba Ramos with her 15-year-old daughter, Celina, were dragged out of their beds on the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador on the night of 16 November 1989. Soldiers from the crack Atlacatl Battalion, which had been trained in and was funded by the United States, made them lie on the ground and were then ordered to shoot them in cold blood by Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinosa, who had been a student of one of the priests at the Jesuit school, the Externado San José. They cut out the brains of Ignacio Ellacuría, Rector of the University, and spread them on the grass to demonstrate why they were killing him.

Why were they killing them? I tried to answer this in an article written at the time with the title, ‘My brave “subversive” friends’:

I knew each of them well and worked alongside them in El Salvador for three years. In the Catholic University, where they taught, they did their utmost to make students aware of their Christian duty to promote justice as part of their practice of the faith… But the peace they longed for was not peace at any price. They were one with Archbishop Oscar Romero who, shortly before his assassination in 1980, declared: ‘Let it be quite clear that if we are being asked to collaborate with a pseudo-peace, a false order, based on repression and fear, we must recall that the only order and the only peace that God wants is one based on truth and justice.’
The Jesuits made this choice once before in El Salvador when, in the late 1970s, they were told to leave the country within thirty days or be ready to face death at the hand of right-wing death squads. It was then that the slogan ‘Be a patriot, kill a priest’ was daubed on buildings all over the capital. The Jesuits decided to stay and, as a result, some were banished, others tortured and Rutilio Grande was assassinated as he was on his way to celebrate Mass. The six Jesuits who died on Thursday made the same choice, knowing full well the dangers they ran. Earlier this year the Catholic University was one of the principal partners in a national debate on peace which was sponsored by the Archbishop of San Salvador. After ten years of bitter civil war, which has cost the lives of more than 70,000 people, mostly civilians, women and children, the overwhelming conclusion was that the only hope for peace lay, not in military victory by either side, but in talks and negotiations. The UCA, and Father Ellacuría in particular, played a leading role in helping to promote these negotiations. Hopefully their deaths will now open the eyes of those who are supporting a brutal and corrupt regime and preventing serious negotiations from taking place… If the death of the six Jesuits achieves this goal, they will not have died in vain.

Shortly after the assassination, I was visited by three Scotland Yard detectives on their way to El Salvador to investigate the murder of the Jesuits at the request of El Salvador’s President Cristiani. They promised to get to the bottom of the crime and report back on their return. But it was the last I saw of them, and the colonel directly responsible for organising the assassination (Colonel Guillermo Benavides), though arrested and charged, was ‘confined’ in a luxury hotel near a beach and then released. The judge who tried him and found him guilty had to flee the country with his family after an assassination attempt in his own house. One of the better-known death squads threatened that they would ‘physically eliminate all persons, lay or religious, in or out of the government, who are involved in this case.’ The reason they gave was: ‘Never before in the history of El Salvador has a military man been brought to trial… No military man has been or should be subject to any law of the Republic.’

The assassinations of all these modern martyrs, my colleagues and friends, affected me deeply. I lived and worked in El Despertar for over 11 years. My room and office were next to the spot where the martyrs were shot and where we erected a small shrine in their memory. I passed it every time I entered or came out of my room and was deeply conscious I was treading on holy ground. Next week we will remember the most famous of modern martyrs, Archbishop Romero, but we remember too the lives of these priests, their companions, and all others who have given their lives in the pursuit of justice.

Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ is former Provincial of the British Jesuits. He is now a member of the Jesuit community at Farm Street, Central London. He is the author of the recent, Just Faith: A Jesuit Striving for Social Justice (Way Books, 2010).


homily of Bishop Romero concerning the assassination of Fr. Octavio Ortiz Luna can be read at :



Remembering the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador: Dean Brackley SJ

Remembering the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador: Twenty Years On

Dean Brackley SJ

Mural from the Chapel of the University of Central America, San Salvador

Twenty years ago today in El Salvador, six Jesuits, together with two women who were sharing their university residence, were murdered by the Salvadoran military. Dean Brackley SJ tells the story of the Jesuit martyrs, who will today be bestowed with El Salvador’s highest honour. What can we learn from these teachers who stood up against an unjust regime and remained firm in their commitment to serving the truth?

Sometimes, late in the game, justice is done and the truth served. Just two weeks ago, the President of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, announced that on 16 November his government would bestow its highest honour, the Order of José Matías Delgado, posthumously, on the six Jesuits who were murdered twenty years ago on that same date.

In the early hours of 16 November 1989, US-trained commandos of the Salvadoran armed forces entered the campus of the Jesuits’ university, the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), and brutally murdered the six Jesuits, together with two women who were sleeping in a parlour attached to their residence.  The Jesuits were: the university rector Ignacio Ellacuría, 59, an internationally known philosopher; Segundo Montes, 56, head of the Sociology Department and the UCA’s human rights institute; Ignacio Martín-Baró, 44, the pioneering social psychologist who headed the Psychology Department and the polling institute; theology professors Juan Ramón Moreno, 56, and Armando López, 53; and Joaquín López y López, 71, founding head of the Fe y Alegría network of schools for the poor.  Joaquín was the only native Salvadoran, the others having arrived long before from Spain as young seminarians.  Julia Elba Ramos, the wife of a caretaker at the UCA, and their daughter Celina, 16, were eliminated to ensure that there would be no witnesses.  Ironically, the women had sought refuge from the noise of gunfire near their cottage on the edge of the campus.  Julia Elba cooked for the Jesuit seminarians living near the UCA.

This was one crime in a long series that included the martyrdom of Rutilio Grande SJ in 1977,

Rutilio Grande sj

and those of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero and the four US missionaries: Jean Donovan, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, in 1980.  They all mixed their blood with that of tens of thousands of lesser-known civilian victims of El Salvador’s civil war of 1981 to 1992, which moved the world with its extremes of cruelty and of heroic generosity.

The killings at the UCA took place during a major guerrilla offensive that began on Saturday 11 November 1989.  Ellacuría returned to El Salvador from Spain the following Monday.  A few hours after he arrived at the UCA, a commando unit of the Atlacatl Battalion searched the Jesuit residence.  It was reconnaissance.  Two days later the High Command of the armed forces gathered at their headquarters a kilometre away from the UCA.  In fear of losing the capital city, and perhaps the war, they decided to rocket the poor communities where the guerrillas were now entrenched and to act on a long hit list of civilians critical of the government and the armed forces.  Almost all on this death-list, including labour leaders, opposition politicians and some clergy, had gone into hiding once the offensive began.  The six Jesuits did not.

Even after the Monday search, Ellacuría prevailed on his brothers to remain at their UCA residence.  They had nothing to hide, they had done nothing wrong; nor were they members of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) guerrilla movement.  The accusations – that the UCA stored weapons and trained guerrillas – were patently false.  And, with the campus surrounded by soldiers protecting the military installations close by, any harm done to them would be blamed on the army.  It was a logical argument; yet, as frequently happens in wartime, unreason prevailed.  Shortly after the Wednesday night meeting of the High Command, the Atlacatl unit returned to the UCA to murder the Jesuits and the two women.  The soldiers simulated a military confrontation, leaving over 200 spent cartridges, to make it look like the Jesuits had fallen in combat.

Br. Robert Lentz icon of the UCA martyrs

With fighting raging around the capital, the military had hoped to pin the murders on the guerrillas.  When that quickly proved impossible, the Salvadoran and US governments collaborated in a cover-up to shield the Salvadoran High Command.  The government offered up nine soldiers who had participated in the operation.  Thanks to enormous international pressure, all but one, who fled, eventually went on trial.  Two were convicted in 1991 but were later released when the government pardoned itself (and the FMLN) for all war crimes.  To this day the top officers have never been formally accused, let alone held accountable.

So, President Mauricio Funes’s decision to bestow the highest state honour on the fallen Jesuits begins to right an historic wrong.  Funes was elected as the candidate of the FMLN, now a political party.  His election in March 2009, following twenty years of rule by the right-wing party ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance), wrested political power from the control of El Salvador’s all-powerful economic oligarchy for the first time.  The new centre-left government inherited a bankrupt state, an abysmal economic crisis and rampant violent crime.  While it seeks to carry out reforms, it can do little to put food on the table or generate jobs.  However, recognising the Jesuit martyrs is a powerful symbolic gesture that generates hope.  It cracks the thick wall of impunity that ARENA governments had erected to shield themselves and the armed forces from accountability for the deaths of legions of civilian victims of state terror during the war.  Funes said he considered honouring the fallen Jesuits as ‘a public act of amends, that is, of moral compensation, for the errors which the Salvadoran state committed in the past.’

As early as the 1990s, the UCA massacre became the crime that would not go away.  Thanks to international pressure, including a US Congressional Task Force, we learned who the real killers were.  Outraged US citizens, especially Catholics, pressured their government to cut off the military aid that was indispensable for the conduct of the war.  By then, it was becoming more difficult to justify the war as a defence against the international Communist threat.  The massacre at the UCA took place at exactly the time that Berliners began knocking down their famous iron curtain wall.  In El Salvador, the scandal generated by the murders helped to speed up the peace negotiations and later, by discrediting the Salvadoran military, to consolidate the peace.

Like many others, the UCA martyrs were killed for the way they lived, that is, for how they expressed their faith in love.  They stood for a new kind of university, a new kind of society, a ‘new’ church.  Together with their lay colleagues, they wrestled with the ambiguities of their university in a country where only a tiny minority finished elementary school and still fewer could meet the required academic standards to enter university and to pay the tuition fees.  The Jesuits and their colleagues concluded that they could not limit their mission to teaching and innocuous research.  Yes, they did steeply scale tuition charges according to students’ family income.  More importantly, they sought countless ways to unmask the lies that justified the pervasive injustice and the continuing violence, and they made constructive proposals for a just peace and a more humane social order.  As a university of Christian inspiration, they felt compelled to serve the truth in this way.  That is what got them killed.

For readers of a different time and place, we can translate the high standards the UCA set for itself as follows:  first, the chief subject of study has to be reality itself.  The ‘literature’ of various fields is a means to understanding reality, above all the core issues of life-and-death, justice, and grace versus sin.  Second, the university must practically engage with the suffering world it seeks to understand, to serve and to help transform.  Third, it should take a principled stand on the crucial moral issues of the day – not just abortion, we might say today, but also war, lying in public and torture.  To search for knowledge without this kind of commitment would not only unduly limit the university’s mission, it would reflect a failure to appreciate how bad things are, not only in places like Central America, but in places like the US and Europe as well.  It would mean failing to overcome the distorted standard discourse which we take for common sense.  It would mark a failure to address the prejudices and blind spots produced by our socialisation into the middle-class society to which most of us university people belong.  And this means it would amount to a lack of academic rigour.

The UCA martyrs also stood for a different kind of society.  Ellacuría, like the theologian Jon Sobrino who lived with him but was travelling at the time of the killings, was an eloquent advocate for what he called a ‘civilisation of work’ to replace ‘the prevailing civilisation of capital.’  With great prescience he foresaw that this would not be principally the work of governments but rather of civil society, whose different sectors have to organise and point the way to new social models, beyond both communist collectivism and capitalism.  In this, Ellacuría believed, ‘the poor with spirit’ would play a privileged role.

Finally, the UCA martyrs stood for a Church of the poor (in the words of Pope John XXIII) which would serve as a vanguard of this new society, modelling equitable social relations and solidarity; a prophetic Church like the one that Archbishop Romero symbolises, which gives credible witness to the fullness of life that God promises.

The UCA martyrs knew they were risking their lives.  But they understood that that was the price of being human in their time and place; that was the cost of following Christ.  Twenty years later we give thanks for them, and many like them who inspire us to live up to the challenge of our own time.

In announcing that he would bestow the country’s highest honours on the fallen Jesuits, El Salvador’s first president from the political left said that they had distinguished themselves for outstanding service in education, human rights, combating poverty and inequality, and in working for peace and democracy.  He added that he and many members of his Cabinet regard them as ‘eminent Salvadorans who rendered extraordinary service to the country.’

At the Presidential Palace today, 16 November, some of their relatives will join the Jesuits of El Salvador along with representatives of the poor communities that the martyred Jesuits served.  In their stead, those present will receive this historic public recognition.  It is fitting that campesinos, mothers and workers, representatives of the crucified peoples like Julia Elba and Celina, share in this tribute, which is all the more welcome for coming so late in the day.

Dean Brackley SJ is Professor of Theology and Ethics at the Catholic University in San Salvador

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Romero and the Social Gospel: the challenge for us today

Romero and the Social Gospel: the challenge for us today

Westmiknster Abbey - 20th Century Saints Romero with Martin Luther King to his left and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the right

Fr.  Juan Hernández Pico SJ, gave the following lecture at St Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, yesterday at a memorial service held before the March for the Alternative.

Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador is no stranger to the United Kingdom. Some years ago Romero’s statue was placed above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey among other twentieth century martyrs. In the words of Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga’s poem “Saint Romero of the Americas”: referring to the colonnades in St Peter’s Square in Rome, “the people have already placed you in the glory of Bernini”.

Speaking of “the glory of Bernini”. When Romero was granted an honorary doctorate at Louvain in Belgium, a month and a half before he was to be murdered, he tried to find the best words for his own form of pastoral action, and he said: “The glory of God is life for the poor.” With such a famous patristic phrase he was actually rewording a quotation from Ireneus which says: “The glory of God is life for man”. In other words, he was pointing to the option for the poor, which the Bishops of Latin America, had embraced at Puebla.
Poverty continues to be the same scandal in this world as it was more than thirty years ago during Romero’s time as

Icon of Romero

Archbishop. If anything, poverty has even worsened because globalisation has paradoxically added further social exclusion over and above poverty. Exclusion polarises the world between people who count and people who don’t count, people with hope for development living in so-called “emerging” countries and those other hopeless people who live nowhere, so to speak.

In February 1977 there began in El Salvador what we can call the Romero phenomenon, an impressive religious phenomenon with political consequences where the archbishop, whose appointment had been so eagerly anticipated by the few wealthy people of El Salvador, was converted – most unexpectedly – from being a model of spotless rectitude to one of prophetic courage. Where did that conversion start? Actually, it was in the little rural town of Aguilares during a long night of contemplation, touching and watching over the body and blood of his murdered friend, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, who was the parish priest there.

Some time later the other priests in Aguilares were kidnapped, imprisoned and exiled. The army occupied the town and committed sacrilege by violating the tabernacle, throwing away the hosts and trampling on them. No priest was allowed into Aguilares for two months and the army committed many crimes against parish catechists and peasant organizers of the region. Eventually the archbishop was notified by the government that he could appoint a priest again to the parish. Romero himself drove to Aguilares together with many priests and religious women. During the Mass he spoke words that demonstrated the prophetic character of his episcopacy: “It has fallen to me to go around picking up dead bodies and everything else that this persecution of the Church brings with it. Today it has been my lot to come over to pick up a destroyed tabernacle in this desecrated parish and, most important of all, to comfort these people who have been so outrageously humiliated. Hence…I bring to you the word that Christ has commanded me to tell you: a Word of solidarity, a Word of courage and guidance and, finally, a Word of conversion.”

Romero was convinced that “even bishops and the Pope, and all Christians” were in need of conversion. “May we all live with that tension that Christ left in the world, conversion.” Two months later he said: “I need to become converted all over again… It is the Church that has to convert to what God wants in this period of history in El Salvador… I know that I have gone down badly with many people, but I know that I have gone well with all those who are sincerely in search of the Church’s conversion… We all are in need of conversion and I am the first, even though I am preaching to you now.” No wonder that when he started to be opposed by the press, the government and most of all by the wealthy few of El Salvador, he answered back by appealing to his own congregation who knew very well that Romero’s language “wanted to sow hope, and boldly denounce injustices of land and abuses of power, not with hate, but rather with love and calling for conversion.”

Referring to people murdered by the security forces in August 1977 he forges one of his most famous and momentous sentences: “I want to be near the grief of [their families] and  to be the voice of those who are voiceless: to cry out against such abuses of human rights, that justice be done.”

Coming to the end of that year, he gives a lesson from his own experience to the people in his Cathedral: “Brothers and sisters: do you want a test to prove whether you are a true Christian? Here is your touchstone: who gets on well with you? Who criticizes you? Who rejects you? Who flatters you? Remember what Christ said one day: I haven’t come to bring peace but division; and there will be division even within your own families.”

A month later he made very clear his own criterion for discernment in matters of dealing with the State authorities, something like his own version of giving either to Caesar or to God: “I do not confront anybody, I am just trying to serve the people, and whoever is in conflict with the people will also be in conflict with me”.

Romero then gave a succinct definition of his own role as a preacher. “I study the Word of God that we are going to read on the coming Sunday; I look around me, at my people and shine the light of the Word upon them, and then I come up with a synthesis to be able to convey it and to enable this people to become the light of the world – so that they don’t allow themselves to be guided by the norms and the idols of this world. But naturally these worldly idols and idolatries feel that the Word I preach is an obstacle and would rather like for it to be destroyed, silenced, killed.

Of course he knew very well that to be a prophet, to be faithful to the prophetic mission that he considered a duty of the people of God, carried with it a high cost. It was the cost of freedom. On that same day he preached the following: “This is costing our Church a lot, brothers and sisters. This freedom from the idol of Money, from the idol of power, and to appear before the world the way Paul did, audaciously free. To thank those who give freely to us but without accepting any condition whatsoever.”

At the end of 1978, when threats of death were already starting to reach him, the archbishop responded with some of his most memorable words. First by being prophetic: “Dear Brothers and Sisters, I wish my words had the prophets’ eloquence to shake up those who are on their knees before the gods of this earth! Those who wish that gold, money and properties, power and politics would be their gods for ever. All that is going to end!” And second, by starting to become aware of the probability of his own violent death: “The Word stays and this is the great consolation for the preacher: my voice may disappear, but my Word, which is Christ, will stay in the hearts of those who have taken it in.”

At the beginning of 1979, the country’s President offered him official protection. Romero answered in his homily: “I want to tell the President… that much more than protection for my personal security I would wish this week, for security and tranquillity for the one hundred and eight families and their missing relatives, and for all who are suffering. I don’t have any interest in my personal wellbeing or in security for my own life while my people endure the weight of an economic, social and political system, which brings ever wider social differences. What I would wish from the Supreme Government would be an effort to guarantee the real peace that we all desire, but that cannot be achieved with repression and abuse, and only with social justice, which is the most urgent need of all.”

On the 13th of May, returning from a visit to Rome, he told his congregation this: “In travelling to such a different world I have felt very proud of my archdiocese, because everywhere there is talk about us and people are eager to learn about our Church’s experience:” And a week later, he said with great sincerity: “There is no right to be sad… A Christian must always move his own heart to the fullness of joy. Just experience this, brothers and sisters, the way I have tried to experience it in the bitterest of times, when slander and persecution are most intense; become united to Christ the friend, and feel a sweetness which all earthly happiness cannot give.”

On the first of July 1979 he told his congregation: “Murders from one side and the other, this death dance of political retribution is the most horrific indicator of the injustice of our system, which seeks camouflage in repression” And further: “I would rather be silenced for telling the truth and defending justice than keep on speaking under the manipulation of repression…..It is not that I believe myself to be a prophet. It is rather that you and I, we are a prophetic people; every baptized person has received a share in the prophetic mission of Christ… I feel that the people are a prophet to me… My function is just to arouse in the people their prophetic sense. The prophet’s success lies not in converting people… but in convincing a stubborn and unfaithful people to acknowledge that a prophet has talked to them in the name of God.”

Romero had heard that some people on the political left were saying that he was the “opium of the people”. He answered back: “Never, never! I am saying that precisely these encouragements to transcendence are there to awaken even more involvement in the historical, the social, the economic, and the political. And I am saying that God has not only made heaven for human beings after death, but that he has made this earth as well for each and every human being. This is by no means opium!”

The month of October seemed to open up new prospects. The President was overthrown. A ruling council of civilians and military people took power…or so it appeared. Romero asked everyone to look with new eyes towards this hopeful horizon. Some far-left organizations and clandestine political parties tried to discredited Romero for being hopeful about this new scenario. Unfortunately massacres of activists, peasants and people of the slums of San Salvador, and even of university students kept on happening. It became all too clear that the Junta had no real power over the military and the security police. Civil war was in the air.

In an open letter to President Jimmy Carter, Romero tried to dissuade the United States government from continuing to provide military aid, but his plea fell on deaf ears.

In the middle of December Romero had made it very clear that he wanted to keep his freedom and independence from both the state and from the popular organizations, even if he acknowledged that he had an obligation to them. He stated very firmly that he was going to continue defending the people’s right to organize and supporting every just claim of their organizations. On the 6th of January 1980, once the ruling government council had failed, he addressed the wealthy families of El Salvador: “I am simply the pastor, the brother, the friend of these people, who knows their suffering and hunger and I raise my voice to tell you”.  With a metaphor that he had borrowed from Brazilian Cardinal Lorscheider he told the wealthy: “You must learn to take off your gold rings so that your fingers aren’t cut off.”

As his violent end was approaching, Romero’s voice was becoming ever more courageous and sincere, ever freer. Thanks to his Diary we know that threats to his life were piling up and that there were moments when he felt fear and anguish encircling him. No wonder. He was no greater than his own guide and master Jesus of Nazareth, who, the night when he was going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies, suffered anguish and even sweated blood. But just like Jesus, Romero overcame the fear and became ever more audacious in defence of the poor of El Salvador.

“As a pastor and as a Salvadoran citizen I am deeply grieved when I see how our people are being massacred just because they go out into the streets to demand justice and liberty. I am sure that it won’t be in vain.” And he went on: “This people’s cry for liberation is a clamour that goes up to God that neither events nor anyone else can stop.”

A week before his murder he told his audience “Those who believe my preaching to be political and provoking violence – as if I were the cause of all the evils in the Republic – they forget that the word of the Church is not inventing these evils but is just shedding light upon them. Light illuminates what already exists, but does not create it.”

On the eve of his murder he said “I try to preach the Gospel properly before our people. Therefore I ask Christ all week long, while I am picking up the cries of our people and the suffering caused by so much crime and the ignominy of so much violence, for Him to give me the appropriate word to console, to denounce, to call to repentance. Even if I know that my Words are just a cry in the wilderness, I know that the Church is trying very hard to fulfil her mission.”

It was his concluding remarks at that same Sunday Mass that probably turned the plans for his murder into reality since for the powers-that-be his voice was no longer tolerable. Romero told his congregation: “No soldier is bound to obey an order against God’s law. Nobody has to obey an immoral law. The time has come for you to come to your senses and obey your own conscience rather than a sinful command. Therefore in the name of God and in the name of this suffering people.., I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression.”

The army and the wealthy elite were outraged at his words. The next evening, while Romero was celebrating Mass, he was shot dead.

But what about Romero’s challenge for us today? This challenge is different for us, Central American Christians, as compared to you, Christians here in the United Kingdom. We live in a society that has not yet become secularised. Certainly we live under a Constitution that declares the State to be lay. But the culture among us is still religious. Here, you live in a very secular society and culture. It is good that the Churches in Britain seek together to find a common meaning of God and Jesus Christ in secular society.

Oscar Romero with the people

But no matter whether we live in a religious or in a secular culture we live in the same civilization. We, like you, have become globalized. And globalization is the work of money, the work of wealth as opposed to human labour. Both President Obama and the European Economic Commissioner talked of this world-wide crisis of globalization as “a crisis of greed”. And this shocking reality unites us and presents us with the same challenge. In the words of the Gospel “we cannot serve two masters, because we’ll love the one and hate the other or will support one and despise the other. We cannot serve God and Money” or, using the Aramaic word, “you cannot serve God and Mammon” (Mt 6, 24).

This is the challenge: to dislodge the gods of Power and Money, that is to say of the power invested in Money. Tell me sincerely from the bottom of your hearts: can there be meaningful solidarity from the wealthy countries to the poorer countries without tackling that power invested in Money? Must the poorest sectors across our world today pay the bill for the profligacy and grotesque excesses of bankers and speculators who have played the world’s markets as if they were a global casino? In the last analysis to fight for a civilization where human labour is the jewel in the crown as opposed to finance is precisely to search for the justice of the kingdom of God (Mt 6, 33). This is entirely consistent with Jesus’ Beatitudes. And what is the image that wealth has for the majority of Christians? Would it not be personal consumption? Don’t we live in a consumerist society? Wouldn’t Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrected Christ, wouldn’t He tell us today: happy are those of you who don’t put consumption at the top of your human agenda because you are thereby building the kingdom of this earth – and so the kingdom of God will come to you? And wouldn’t He tell us: woe to you who have fallen prey to the race towards ever greater consumption because you contribute to the kingdom of the power of Money?

This is the challenge that the life and work of Archbishop Romero present us with. Yes, Saint Romero of America, Saint Romero over the Door of Westminster Abbey. If we work conscientiously for a more austere society, we will certainly frustrate the magicians of globalization, the servants of the power of Money, to the extent we are seen as utopians and so outsiders, outcasts for the best reasons -and not only for our unfashionable faith.

This is the way nowadays of being despised by the world. But the world, this world so loved by God, this physical cosmos which is in such danger around us in our small planet, and the poor of this world, our sisters and brothers, will in their own way recognize our human solidarity, and most certainly they are in need of it. And since The Son of God’s became flesh and pitched his tent among us, all that is human is Christian and Divine. Let us help each other, then, to be up to this challenge today in the way that Romero was.

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Romero: ‘the voice of those who had no voice’

Romero: ‘the voice of those who had no voice’

Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ

Using many of Archbishop Romero’s own words, Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ gives an account of the public life of the modern martyr whose anniversary is celebrated tomorrow. How did the formerly conservative priest ‘rediscover his roots’ and become a champion of the cause of the oppressed?

On 24 March 2011, people all over the world will be celebrating the 31st anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador. He was shot, by orders of the government, while celebrating Mass in the chapel of the hospital for incurables where, as Archbishop, he lived. The previous day he had preached what was to be his last Sunday sermon in the cathedral. In it he made an appeal to the ordinary soldiers in the army and low-ranking policeman, calling on them not to obey immoral orders from their officers. His words were moving:

Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.

The following day, a sniper was sent to shoot him while he was offering Mass. Little did the authorities realise that, instead of silencing his voice, this would spread it to the four corners of the earth, and that his message would give hope and inspiration to thousands.

When Romero’s predecessor, Archbishop Chávez y González retired after 38 years, neither he nor the majority of his priests wanted Romero to succeed him. Timid, retiring, hesitant, conservative in thought and action, he seemed the last person they needed at that particular moment of El Salvador’s history. They wanted Bishop Rivera y Damas, auxiliary of San Salvador, a firm supporter of the post-Medellín Church who was not frightened to speak out. But Romero was the candidate nominated by the Nuncio, who had consulted the government, the military, business circles and society ladies who felt he would be ‘one of ours whom we could control’. They even offered him a luxurious mansion and a large new car, both of which he refused.

The story of Romero’s conversion, though he himself preferred to speak of rediscovering his roots, is well known but bears repetition. While its importance should not be exaggerated, an event which occurred only three weeks after Romero had taken over as Archbishop had a profound and lasting effect on him. Rutilio Grande, a young Salvadoran Jesuit priest, was assassinated, together with an old man and a 15-year-old boy as they were on their way to celebrate Mass in the small village church of El Paisnal some 30 miles north of the capital. Romero and Rutilio had come to know each other ten years previously when both were living in the diocesan seminary, Romero as secretary to the Bishops’ Conference and Rutilio as teacher and prefect of the students. As soon as he heard of the assassination, Romero left the city and went to the church in Aguilares where the three bodies were laid out. There he celebrated Mass with the Jesuit Provincial and then, with peasants who had come in from many surrounding villages, spent part of the night in prayer and part seeking advice on what should be done.

As Romero recounted afterwards, that night he read the Gospel message anew through the eyes of the poor and oppressed. He began to understand what Jesus has to say, and therefore what he as Archbishop should also be saying to the despised, the persecuted and the underprivileged. As he put it later to César Jerez, the Jesuit Provincial: ‘When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought: if they killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.[1] When morning came, he returned to the capital, summoned his priests and advisers and decided after long and sometimes difficult discussions, to boycott all state occasions and meetings with the president until an official investigation into Rutilio’s death was carried out.

It never was, and throughout his time as Archbishop, Romero did not attend a single state occasion, not even the swearing-in of the new president. He also decided to close all Catholic schools for three days, inviting both pupils and teachers to reflect on what had happened. Finally, in the face of strong ecclesiastical opposition from the Papal Nuncio, he decided to suspend all Masses in the capital the following Sunday and celebrate just one Mass in the Cathedral with all his priests, both as a sign of protest to the Government and of solidarity with Rutilio and the cause for which he died. Over 150 priests concelebrated the Mass which was attended by an estimated 100,000 people, one of the biggest crowds ever seen in the country. And in the streets around the Cathedral, long lines queued up to go to confession. For many, and not just Romero, it marked a turning point.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Over the next three years, Romero, visibly growing in strength and conviction, became the defender of the oppressed, ‘the voice of those who had no voice’, the conscience of a nation. His Sunday sermons in the cathedral – which, towards the end of his life lasted 1½ hours – were, when the diocesan radio station was functioning and hadn’t been sabotaged, listened to by friend and foe alike throughout the country, and by many abroad.

To his enemies he was an agitator, a communist, a false priest, an ambitious schemer out for himself. Some such attacks – and this hurt him most – came from his fellow bishops who accused him of being politicised and preaching erroneous theology. But Rome also lent an ear to these accusations. No less than three apostolic visitors were sent to examine him in a little over a year while the Congregation of Bishops, under Cardinal Baggio, considered imposing on him an apostolic administrator with full powers to run the diocese. It is common knowledge that, whereas he felt confirmed in his ministry after meeting Pope Paul VI, his first encounter with Pope John Paul II left him sad and disheartened. And, as we have seen, to the government and the military, Romero was a permanent threat, a thorn in the side, a subversive voice that had to be silenced.

A month before his assassination, Archbishop Romero received a warning from the Papal Nuncio in Costa Rica that there were new death threats against him and that he should be very careful. This warning was repeated shortly afterwards by the Nuncio in El Salvador just as Romero was beginning his annual retreat with a group of diocesan priests. It is not surprising therefore that, during this retreat, Romero tried to come to terms with the prospect of his assassination. He was clearly frightened. He wrote in his retreat notes: ‘I feel afraid of violence against my person. I fear for the weakness of my flesh but I beg the Lord to give me serenity and perseverance.’[2] And a little further on: ‘My disposition should be to offer my life to God, whatever way it may end. He helped the martyrs and, if need be, I will feel Him very near as I offer him my last breath.’ And then comes his full acceptance: ‘I accept with faith in Him my death, however hard it be.’ He ends with a firm act of faith: ‘For me to be happy and confident, it is sufficient to know with assurance that in Him is my life and my death, that in spite of my sins I have placed my trust in Him and shall not be disappointed, and others will carry on with greater wisdom and holiness the works of the Church and the nation.’

It was certainly the grace of this retreat and the strength Romero found through his prayer that enabled him to reply two weeks later to a Mexican journalist, who asked him if he was afraid of death:

I have often been threatened with death. I have to say, as a Christian, that I don’t believe in death without resurrection: if they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. I tell you this without any boasting, with the greatest humility. As pastor, I am obliged, by divine command, to give my life for those I love, who are all Salvadorans, even for those who are going to assassinate me. If the threats are carried out, even now I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace of God I don’t think I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my blood be the seed of liberty and the sign that hope will soon become reality. May my death, if accepted by God, be for the freedom of my people and as a witness to hope in the future. You can say, if they come to kill me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully they may realise that they will be wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.[3]

These great words express the real nature of martyrdom: and not just the martyrdom of Romero but of hundreds and thousands of ordinary people who, throughout the ages, have offered their lives in defence of what they believe. For that is the essence of martyrdom: to give witness to the truth through the offering of one’s life.

This man, who offered his life, is venerated across the world by Christians and non-Christians. His statue, along with those of nine other twentieth century martyrs, sits atop the west entrance to Westminster Abbey. There are many reasons for such devotion to Archbishop Romero, but I would like to emphasise three.

First of all, he was a simple and humble man who not only remained in touch with the poor, but went out of his way to listen to and learn from them. As his Vicar-General, Mons Urioste explained, at the age of 60 he went back to school. But his teachers were not university professors or professional theologians. They were the simple uneducated peasants who flocked to his office from all over the country to explain their situation to him and seek his understanding and support. He was always ready to receive them and gave them priority over the many VIPs who also sought to see him. In this he resembled Jesus himself. A new life published for his 30th anniversary[4] makes this point very clearly and describes the remarkable similarity between his life and that of Jesus of Nazareth.

Both were born into conditions of poverty in the province of a small and insignificant country. Both lived a life of profound intimacy with God and prayed by night. Both learned the trade of a carpenter. For both, the assassination of a good friend became a decisive event in their lives. They became public figures through their preaching, proclaiming the goodness of God and announcing the coming of the kingdom of God as a new order of love among all people. Both took sides with the poor and those who were socially excluded. Following the tradition of the prophets of Israel, they denounced injustice and corruption. In time, all the important social groups were allied against them. They were accused of being traitors who tried to upset the established order. Both confronted the imperialist powers of their day, and their public life lasted a mere three years.

Secondly, as several incidents in his life show, he sought advice from many people and, being a man of deep prayer, spent hours on his knees in the presence of God before deciding on a particular course of action or what to say in his weekly homilies, listened to by thousands all over the country. Romero was always ready to admit his mistakes and ask forgiveness for them. But once his mind was made up, he was fearless in speaking out, denouncing corruption and evil with no regard for his own personal safety. As he put it, ‘if I denounce and condemn injustice, it is because this is my duty as pastor of an oppressed and downtrodden people. The Gospel enjoins me to do this and, in its name, I am ready to go before the courts, to prison and to death.’[5]This was one of the reasons why he himself claimed that his word would not die but would live on in the hearts of those who have wished to receive it. For it was not his word but the word of Christ speaking through him. Describing one of his early sermons, a witness reports: ‘At the beginning of Mass, I noticed Monseñor Romero nervous, pale, perspiring. And when the homily started, he seemed slow, without his usual eloquence, as if doubting to enter the door history and God were opening for him. But after five minutes, I felt that the Spirit of God had descended on him.’[6]

Finally, his message is still valid today and needed as much as it was 30 years ago. The core of it, as he repeated many times, was the call of the Latin American bishops at their 1968 conference in Medellín, repeated in his presence at Puebla in 1979, for ‘the conversion of the whole church to a preferential option for the poor with a view to their integral liberation.’[7]In a country torn apart by violence and bloodshed, he saw quite clearly where the root of the problem lay:

I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to the violence, we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, the exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.[8]

From this it follows that it is the duty of the Church and all its members ‘to know the mechanisms that generate poverty, to struggle for a more just world, to support the workers and peasants in their claims and in their right to organise, and to be close to the people.’[9]

The present situation in El Salvador has hardly changed in this respect and, though open hostilities have ceased and a new government more open to justice issues been put in place, the suffering of the poor and discrimination against them continue. And on the whole they are the same people and their situation has not improved. Globally, wealthy countries continue to impose harsh structural adjustment programmes on debt-ridden and defenceless nations, who have no option but to accept and endeavour to implement them, knowing full well that most of their own citizens will be the first to suffer.

So what Romero has to teach us about being a genuine follower of Christ is still relevant to all of us. He doesn’t mince his words: ‘It is inconceivable to call oneself a Christian without making, like Christ, a preferential option for the poor.’[10]; ‘A Christian who defends unjust situations is no longer a Christian’[11]; ‘The wealthy person who kneels before his money, even though he goes to Mass, is an idolater and not a Christian.’[12] And finally a warning: ‘It is a caricature of love to cover over with alms what is lacking in justice, to patch over with an appearance of benevolence when social justice is missing.’[13]

Because of Romero’s forthright stand, the example he gave and the sort of person he was, the poor in El Salvador and many other countries still look to him as their saviour, their father. I would like to end this brief account with the testimony of a witness who went into the cathedral early one morning to pray at his tomb.

One winter’s morning, the sky dark with rain, a man in rags, covered in dust, his shirt in shreds, was carefully cleaning Romero’s tomb, using one of his rags. It was barely light but he was already active and awake. And though the rag was filthy with grease and age, he was giving a polish to the stone. On finishing, he smiled contentedly. At that early hour he had seen no one. And no one had seen him except me. When he went out onto the street, I felt I had to speak with him. ‘You, why are you doing that?’ ‘Doing what?’ he replied. ‘Cleaning Monseñor’s tomb.’ ‘Because he was my father.’ ‘How was that?’ ‘I’m no more than a poor beggar. Sometimes I’m a carrier in the market with a cart, other times I beg, and sometimes I spend everything on liquor and lie senseless in the gutter. But I never lose hope. I had a father. He made me feel somebody. Because people like me, he loved and didn’t turn up his nose. He spoke to us, touched us, asked us questions. He trusted us. He let it be seen the love he had for me. Like the love of a father. That’s why I clean his tomb. As a son would.’ [14]

Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ is former Provincial of the British Jesuits. He is now a member of the Jesuit community at Farm Street, Central London. He is the author of the recent, Just Faith: A Jesuit Striving for Social Justice (Way Books, 2010).


[1] Piezas para un Retrato, María López Vigil, UCA Editores, 3a Ed., 1995, p. 149

[2] El ultimo retiro spiritual de Monseñor Romero, Revista Latinoamericana de Teología, V, No. 13, enero-abril 1988, pp. 4-7.

[3] La voz de los sin voz: La palabra viva de Monseñor Romero, UCA Editores, 2a Ed., 1986, p. 62 and p. 461.

[4] Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints (Orbis Books, 2009)

[5] Homilias, 14 May 1978: Vol. IV, p.47

[6] Piezas, op. Cit., pp. 108-109

[7] Puebla: La evangelización en el presente y en el futuro de América Latina, UCA Editores, 3a Ed., 1985, p. 223: §1134.

[8] Homilias, 23 September 1979: Vol. VII, p.294

[9] Ibid., 6 August 1979: Vol VII, p.153

[10] Ibid., 9 September 1979: Vol VII, p.236

[11] Ibid., 16 September 1979: Vol VII, p.262

[12] Ibid., 11 November 1979: Vol VII, p.426

[13] Ibid., 12 April 1979: Vol VI, p.276

[14] Piezas, op. cit., p. 398

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