In previous posts, we have looked at the way the story of Socrates in Ancient Greece and “The Matrix” in Hollywood’s imaginary future both provide parallels that shed light on the argument that Archbishop Óscar A. Romero was killed in hatred of the Christian faith. Today, we use William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1597) to explain another aspect of Romero’s martyrdom cause, which is easier to grasp than the first two, but still is enriched by the literary comparison.
The Salvadoran Church has posited that Romero demonstrated a Gospel-inspired love for the poor, but his pure and saintly love was misconstrued by Salvadoran society and violently rejected. The argument is straightforward enough, but it is dramatically illustrated in Shakespeare’s masterpiece. In “Romeo and Juliet,” two young people fall in love. Their love is innocent and pure but, because they come from two rival families, it receives a very hostile reception. The rudimentary elements were present in El Salvador during Romero’s time, a country polarized between leftist radical insurgents and a rightwing military defending the status quo. Archbishop Romero made a Gospel-based “preferential option for the poor,” but his act of love was interpreted as a political election by both camps.
“Two households,” in the “fair Verona” of Shakespeare’s play, “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny/Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” (Prologue 1-4.) The “ancient grudge” in El Salvador was social unrest that dated at least as far back as the 1920s, when major discontentment against the broad social inequality between the landowners and the peasants led to an uprising and a subsequent massacre in 1932, in which 10,000 to 40,000 peasants were killed by the army. “We are polarized,” Archbishop Romero admonished his countrymen in 1980. “We have placed ourselves at one extreme of a pole, are intransigent in our thinking, incapable of reconciliation, hating one another unto death.” Such an environment is toxic for untainted love.
The wholesome and blameless nature of Romeo and Juliet’s love is attested to by the religious terms with which Shakespeare has the young lovers describe their courting (words such as “shrine”, “pilgrim” and “saint” recur in Act I, Sc. 5). Archbishop Romero described what motivated his pastoral action when he spoke about Father Rutilio Grande, the first priest assassinated in El Salvador during Romero’s time as archbishop. Calling Fr. Grande’s motivation “true love,” Archbishop Romero said of Fr. Grande words that we may apply to Romero as well: “A priest with his campesinos, walking to meet his people, to identify himself with them, to live with them—this is an inspiration of love and not revolution.” Romero noted that “it was at the time when Father Grande walked among the people, proclaiming the message of salvation and the Mass, that he was shot down.” He insisted that the Church’s option was based on the “one faith that leads us along paths that are quite distinct from other ideologies that are not of the Church—paths that offer an alternative to these ideologies: the cause of love.”
One of the reasons this “love” was rejected in the highly polarized society of El Salvador is that it was seen as a betrayal by the powerful classes who had assumed Romero was on their side. In “Romeo and Juliet,” the Capulets reject their own daughter because she refuses to conform to their expectations about who she should marry (Act III, Sc. 5). In El Salvador, Archbishop Romero did not act in conformity with the expectations of many who had supported his nomination for archbishop, that he would side with the ruling class and not criticize the government, and this was seen as treason. But Romero made his option for the poor because he recognized that it was the path to Christ: “As we draw near to the poor, we find we are gradually uncovering the genuine face of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh.”
Shakespeare’s play, like Romero’s assassination, shows how love provokes hatred from a society steeped in hate. In the final comparison, just as Romeo and Juliet’s deaths reconciled the feuding families in the Shakespeare tragedy, Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom and canonization may greatly contribute to the reconciliation of the Salvadoran family.