The recent beatification of Óscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 until his assassination in 1980, has drawn new attention to the gap between public perception and reality regarding this popular but controverted figure in El Salvador’s turbulent history.
For those interested in beginning to understand who Blessed Archbishop Romero really was, the Christopher Award–winning 1989 film Romero, starring Raúl Juliá, isn’t a bad place to start.
Written by “West Wing” writer–producer John Sacret Young and directed by Australian filmmaker John Duigan (Head in the Clouds, Wide Sargasso Sea), Romero depicts its protagonist as an initially conservative, timid, bookish man slowly transformed both by the responsibilities of his office and by changing circumstances into a fiery, crusading advocate of the poor and oppressed.
“We in the Church must keep to the center, watchfully, in the traditional way,” Romero proclaims in his first homily following his election to the archbishopric of San Salvador. His election was a surprise to all, and an unwelcome surprise to many, not least Romero himself.
Yet for El Salvador’s wealthy elites and military leaders, who greet him warmly at his reception after the Mass and lavish him with extravagant gifts, Romero’s cautious homily is ample confirmation that he’s the man for the job. That is, he’s someone who won’t make waves or rock the boat. What no one foresees, including Romero himself, is how he will respond when others make waves swelling into a flood, swamping many boats.
Critics have faulted Romero for the flatness of the supporting characters, a fair charge. Yet the portrayal of Romero himself is admirably textured, from its sensitive depiction of his gradual transformation to its nuanced handling of Romero’s relationship to liberation theology, disparaged by some critics as thinly baptized Marxism.
What radicalizes Romero (if that’s the right word) isn’t a single crisis, but a string of blows eventually forming an undeniable pattern. The death-squad assassination of a close friend, Rutilio Grande, S.J. — whose activist leanings made Romero uncomfortable, but whom he knew to be a good man and a good priest — is one key shock. Others include an experience of voter harassment and intimidation and the arrest and torture of another priest believed to have radical connections.
Through these experiences and others, Romero slowly becomes bolder and more outspoken. At first he worried about priests “going too fast,” being labeled “agitators.” In his own political sphere his sensibilities weren’t far from those Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
As the violence and atrocities escalate, the archbishop not only becomes increasingly convinced of the need for a more activist stance, but grows more tolerant of those espousing at least some forms of liberation theology. (When a priest tells him in confession, “I am a believer in the theology of liberation, and I have worked in the people's struggle,” Romero says simply, “That is no sin.”)
At the same time, Romero rejects Marxism and revolutionary violence in particular, especially involving priests. Using the radio as his bully pulpit, Romero speaks passionately for peace and reconciliation. Shortly before his death, he writes a letter to President Jimmy Carter begging the United States to stop sending weapons to the Salvadoran government, which are only used to repress the people (an exhortation that the US, fearful of another Nicaragua, ignored).
The last straw is a radio broadcast in which Romero appealed directly to soldiers not murder their fellow citizens even if ordered to do so. The next day the archbishop is murdered while saying Mass.
In some ways the film’s portrait of Romero’s evolution is not unlike the transformation some observers have described in another Latin American prelate known in his early days as a theological conservative, but later considered a social justice liberal: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.
In particular, both Romero and Bergoglio were regarded early in their careers as opponents of liberation theology, but later came to be associated with it; right-wing critics have even charged both with being Marxists — an identification El Salvador’s actual Marxists and left-wing resistance groups have been happy to accept.
“Archbishop Romero was certainly an important witness of the faith, a man of great Christian virtue who worked for peace and against the dictatorship,” Pope Benedict XVI stated during a press conference in May 2007. However, he added, “there is the problem that a political side wants to take him for itself as a banner, as an emblematic figure, unjustly.” In spite of this concern, in 2012 Pope Benedict chose to clear Romero’s cause for canonization to move forward, paving the way for his beatification on May 23.
The bloody civil war that started around the time of Romero’s murder ended in 1992, and El Salvador is now run by members of the leftist and Marxist resistance that both the military junta of Romero’s day and the Carter and Reagan administrations sought to suppress. Yet the country remains awash in violence, largely from gangs and drug traffickers; the government has also stepped up its own use of force.
“If they kill me,” Romero declared, “I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.” If Romero has risen again in his people, he continues, like Christ himself, to suffer and die in them as well.
“A good compromise choice” is how one observer describes the 1977 appointment of Oscar Romero (Raul Julia) — a conservative, orthodox, apolitical bishop of a small rural diocese — to the archbishopric of San Salvador. By the time Archbishop Romero’s tempestuous three-year tenure comes to its violent end, “compromise” is a word no one will ever again think of in connection with him.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.