Wednesday, November 09, 2011


Good information is hard to find and, in this media age in which digital information is widely disseminated and consumed, Mark Twain’s musing has literally come true: a falsehood “can go halfway `round the world before truth gets its pants on.” Here are the ten false facts about Archbishop Romero that we run across most often.

Part I: Honest Mistakes

10. Archbishop Romero was killed at the Cathedral. Perhaps spurred by works such as Mario Bencastro’s “A Shot in the Cathedral” (a fictionalized work based on the Romero assassination), itself a reference to T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” (about the assassination of Thomas Becket) and by cinematic depictions such as Oliver Stone’s “Salvador,” the location of Archbishop Romero’s assassination is often misstated. It is a natural mistake, since Romero was, in fact killed saying mass, and archbishops usually say mass in their Cathedral (and the Cathedral is a pretty dramatic locale, particularly on the big screen). Other variations of the mistake have Romero killed at the steps of the Cathedral, or during the famous sermon in which he commands the military to “Stop the Repression.” In fact, he was killed in a more low-key setting, saying Mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital on a Monday evening.

9. Prophets of a Future not Our Own. For some mysterious reason, this verse came to be known as “The Romero Prayer.” Bishop Thomas Gumbleton explains that, “The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.” Bishop Gumbleton goes on to explain that the “prayer” was drafted by Bishop Kent Untener for a Mass given by John Cardinal Dearden in November of 1979. “They come from a homily he gave at a Mass for deceased priests.” It has elsewhere been supposed that if the prayer is not “his own,” it does belong to Romero in other ways: “It's his because it would not have the same weight or power that it does in association with him. Also, it's his in the way it seems to fit so naturally his call to service, his ideas.”

8. The Romero family was very poor. Again, the idea that the defender of the poor came from the extreme poverty that he would rise above and defend is alluring, “but that’s false,” says Archbishop Romero’s brother. “My father was from Jocoro (Morazán) and they transferred him to Ciudad Barrios because of his work as a telegrapher; my mother was a teacher,” Don Gaspar explains. Romero and his siblings grew up to become professionals—Gaspar worked in middle management in the state telephone company. “Ours was a modest home, without luxury, but we were not poor. Our home was in the very center of town, and we had coffee growing lands.” Romero’s childhood portrait reveals his family’s relative comfort—no one familiar with poverty in El Salvador would mistake this with an image of the marginalized poor.

7. Romero was shy. The movie “Romero” popularized the view of pre-San Salvador Romero as a bookish introvert. Raul Julia (photo), a large force on the screen, plays a timid, almost cowering Romero. As one critic has stated it, it is “unlikely that Romero was as timid and organizationally inept as he is portrayed in the film.” That critic reasoned, “Timid persons do not get named archbishop anywhere!” In fact, Romero had been a star broadcaster, holding radio audiences in rapt attention since his days as a priest in San Miguel, and he was controversial and outspoken during all of his episcopal career, as much a nuisance to the Left-leaning in the early part of the seventies as he would be to rightwingers after the end of that decade.

Part II: Defamations from the Right

6. Archbishop Romero supported/agitated for armed struggle. Over the years, rightwing Salvadoran politicians have gone as far as to say that Archbishop Romero is to blame for Salvadoran Civil War deaths because he fanned the flames of insurrection. The charge is plainly false, as Romero repeatedly and consistently denounced violence, as we have pointed out here, going as far as to tepidly endorse a military coup d’état in October 1979 to avoid greater bloodshed. He famously rebutted the accusation himself, saying, “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a Cross—the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us.” Many are familiar with the famous appeal to the army in Romero’s last Sunday sermon to “stop the repression;” fewer are familiar with his appeal the Sunday before, “to the guerrilla groups,” in which he said: “I appeal to you and ask you to understand that nothing violent can be lasting.” There was still time to make peace, he insisted: “Above all else there is God’s Word, which has cried out to us today: reconciliation! God desires that we be reconciled and so let us be reconciled and we shall make El Salvador a land of sisters and brothers, all children of one Father who waits for us with outstretched arms.”

5. Archbishop Romero was a Communist sympathizer. Another related slander with which to assail and discredit Archbishop Romero has been that he was an ally of communists who wanted to undermine democracy and take over El Salvador. In the height of the Church persecution in El Salvador, the right was crass and audacious in its accusations, saying outright that Romero was a Marxist. They slandered him with the nickname “Marxnulfo,” an adulteration of his middle name, Arnulfo (which his parents gave him because he was born on August 15, the Feast of Saint Arnulf of Metz). As with the accusation that he was fomenting violence, Archbishop Romero consistently denied these characterizations and drew sharp contrasts between his preaching and the tenets of Marxism, which he rejected. As recently as 2008, then vice president of El Salvador Ana Vilma de Escobar told the Salvadoran newspaper El Faro that Archbishop Romero fomented class hatred by selectively emphasizing the repression of the right and turning a blind eye to the abuses of the left. In light of the UN Truth Commission’s findings that over 90% of the killings were the responsibility of the right, Romero’s emphasis seems to have been justified.

Part III: Manipulation of the Left

4. Reagan Administration policies contributed to the Romero assassination. This is a theory that is sometimes advanced, but it is easily and totally refuted: Archbishop Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980; President Reagan was elected seven months later, on November 4, 1980, and began his term as president on January 20, 1981. So, no Reagan Administration policy could have contributed to or supported any Salvadoran government role in the assassination. In fact, Jimmy Carter was president during all of Archbishop Romero’s ministry, and it was to President Carter that Archbishop Romero directed his famous appeal for the U.S. to discontinue military support to El Salvador. There may be criticisms of the Reagan foreign policy to base on the Romero story, including that Reagan’s policies would have permitted gross human rights abuses like Romero’s murder. The problem that cannot be easily circumvented is that such abuses, including Romero’s murder, not only occurred under a Democratic administration, but they occurred under one which, as Romero chided Carter, had pledged to promote human rights.

3. Archbishop Romero was an adherent of Liberation Theology. This theory started with the right and migrated to the left. It was first advanced by Romero detractors such as Msgr. Freddy Delgado, but it was taken up with aplomb by followers of Liberation Theology who sought to add merit to their movement by claiming Romero as their own. In fact, Romero never cites or refers to mainline Liberation Theologians such as Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Manuel Pérez or Carlos Mugica. Romero never studies Liberation Theology directly, but reads about it from sources such as the Opus Dei theologian José María Casciaro, the Franciscan friar Buenaventura Kloppenburg, and the CELAM missionary Segundo Galilea. Instead, Romero draws up his views from his roots in ascetical theology, and in particular from the social doctrine of the Church as taught by Pope Paul VI (the “man who continually illuminates my thinking regarding these aspects”), Cardinal Eduardo Pironio (“a man who enjoys the full confidence of the Pope”), and the social teachings of the modern Popes. The postulator of his canonization cause, Bishop Vincenzo Paglia, maintains that Romero was not a dissident theologian but an faithful advocate of the orthodox social doctrine of the Church.

2. Pope John Paul II was hostile or cold to Romero. There is no denying that the Pope and the Archbishop wrestled with how to strike the right balance in El Salvador, and that John Paul was fed a lot of negative information about Romero that made the Archbishop feel he needed to set the record straight with the Pontiff. But Romero himself insisted that the tone of their interactions was respectful: “He did not scold me as some have said but rather it was a dialogue about criteria,” he said, “like when Paul went up to Jerusalem to speak with Peter about the content of his preaching.” They had two meetings: by Romero's own accounts, at their first meeting, John Paul leaned in and listened intently as Romero made his case, acknowledged the difficulty of Romero’s position and counseled “boldness and prudence” as Romero went forward and, at the end of their last meeting, John Paul embraced Romero and told him that he prayed every day for El Salvador.

1. His dying Eucharistic Prayer exulted “the Voice of Diatribe.” A glaring error in the Spanish language transcription of Archbishop Romero’s final sermon—the one during which he was assassinated—leads to a grotesque misstatement in the English translation. Namely, that, “To Christian faith, at this moment the voice of diatribe appears changed for the body of the Lord, who offered himself for the redemption of the world.” Except that, where the Spanish transcript says “voz de diatribo” (voice of diatribe), Archbishop Romero actually said “Hostia de Trigo” (wheaten Host). (The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero (Orbis, New York, 1999), p. 244. The resulting error bolsters all the erroneous ideas about Romero as a dissident cleric and rebel rouser who equates the holiest sacrament with diatribes and sloganeering, rather than the spiritual minister focused on the religious rite.
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