Catholic Values Column: St. Oscar Romero – an example for bishops


At a time when the bishops of the United States are faced with a crisis of credibility, it seems fitting that Pope Francis should have canonized a model bishop during the Vatican’s Synod on Youth in Rome.

Pope Francis canonized the martyr Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, on Sunday, a timely canonization given the state of the Church and the call for bishops to step up in the face of the recent clergy sex abuse scandal.

My family has always looked up Romero in a special way. My father was born and raised in San Salvador – the nation’s capital – during the country’s civil war, and he remembers being able to listen to the archbishop’s homilies as he walked around his neighborhood because almost every home was listening to it on the radio.

“He was the voice of the voiceless,” my father told me. “He was the first one to have the courage to speak up in middle of the war and call on both sides to begin a dialogue for peace. He implored them for peace.”

The archbishop’s example episcopacy wasn’t limited to just calling for peace.

He was a pastor, first and foremost. My father would tell me about the times Romero would celebrate Mass in his parish, and he exuded a zeal to care for his flock. The people never thought of him as the powerful archbishop but simply as Monseñor Romero, a pastor who also happened to be the head of the archdiocese.

There was a great spiritual presence to Romero’s ministry as the archbishop.  His sincere piety, love for the Church and fidelity inspired Salvadoran Catholics to remain strong despite the persecution they suffered.

Indeed, the situation in El Salvador during Romero’s time as archbishop was often hostile to religion. My great-grandmother had my father bury any religious books in the ground because she was afraid that the government would find the literature and harm their family. My father found out later that, after he buried the books, she had gone back and burned them all, just to be safe. This type of concern was a fact of life for faithful Salvadorans during that period of turmoil.

Romero has often come under scrutiny because of allegations that he adhered to Marxist interpretations of liberation theology. Many have said that his canonization process was slowed down because Church officials were unsure of Romero’s stance. However, those who knew the archbishop said Romero did not believe in the Marxist liberation theology, but rather espoused pastoral care for the poor and needy in his archdiocese, embracing the aspects of liberation theology that were truly compatible with Catholic social teaching.

Romero had no fear of speaking up for his flock and for looking out for it. He knew that his advocacy for the faithful could put a target on his back and that didn’t stop him. He was an inspiration to many Salvadorans with his desire to serve Christ and give a gift of himself to his people.

When Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass, the effect was felt through the entire country. More than 250,000 people came to mourn him at his funeral, a solemn event that was interrupted by smoke bombs and gunfire directed toward the crowd. They mourned him because he was truly their pastor, their shepherd.

Thirty-eight years later, El Salvador still looks to Romero as an inspiration, and so should the Church’s bishops.

Here was a man who spoke up for the truth, regardless of the consequences, and who never lost sight of his primary role as a pastor. Bishops today should “smell of their sheep” and remember that they were pastors before they were administrators. There are many bishops who already do, but we need more bishops to do the same if the Church is ever to heal from these scandals.

St. Oscar Romero, pray for us.