I often hear it said, “People never change.” This adage is generally repeated in a moment of frustration and at that time, it seems to be true. Is it that people don’t ever change or that people don’t change in the ways we want and when we want? Is personal change based on the expectations of others?
The beatification of a contemporary martyr has brought international attention to a man who made a significant change late in life: Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez. Oscar Romero was ordained in the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church in 1942 following theological studies in Rome. At that time, World War II rocked Europe and Fascism overtook Italy. When Romero returned to his home in El Salvador, he was known as a caring and pious pastor. He organized twelve-step groups for recovery and popularized devotions to Mary as the Queen of Peace. Over time, many Latin American priests and theologians began to incorporate Marxist principles in their pastoral and theological perspective. Among those principles was the belief in God’s preferential option for the poor and the need to actively overturn the societal structures that kept people living in poverty.
Romero did not embrace the Marxist ideology that was essential to liberation theology. Instead, as a humble man, he strove to treat each person with dignity whether they were rich or poor. He was not known for challenging the rich or for attempting to change the politics of El Salvador. Instead, he was known to be conservative in his theological views and always publically supported the teachings of the church.
In 1977, Romero was appointed the Archbishop of San Salvador and head of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. His predecessor, Luis Chavez, helped to organize the traditionalist movement, Opus Dei, in El Salvador. Chavez was known to be closely aligned with the government and people of power in the country. When appointed, Romero was viewed as being not as conservative as his predecessor, but as a one who would maintain orthodox views and not work for change in the country. This was how his tenure as Archbishop began.
Romero was aware that people were being tortured and killed in the country. As archbishop, he strove to be a peace-maker and find a reasonable middle ground. He was not an advocate for change in the politics of El Salvador. But unexpectedly, a different change occurred. This change impacted how Romero lived his life.
About a month after becoming the Archbishop of San Salvador, one of Romero’s friends, a priest called Rutilio Grande, was assassinated. Grande was a progressive Jesuit who was helping to organize the poor in self-supporting groups. Organizing the poor was viewed as a threat to the people in power and so Grande was brutally murdered presumably by the military. Romero attempted to work with officials to have Grande’s death investigated, but the investigation was not forth coming. A series of events weighed heavily on Romero: the murder of his friend, the lack of a credible investigation by the government, and the increased violence toward the progressive groups in El Salvador. These events led Romero to a substantive change in his life and worldview.
I followed what was unfolding in El Salvador and other Latin American countries very closely during the late 1970’s and 1980’s. I had friends and colleagues who had worked in El Salvador. They inspired me be an advocate for Latin America in those years. I remember reading numerous articles about the events in El Salvador. While many in the media today refer to Romero as someone who embraced liberation theology, I don’t find that assessment to be accurate. Rather, Romero was moved by the pain of personal loss and became aware of the depth of tragedy in El Salvador. It seems to me that based on his traditionalist theological perspective, he was moved to care for the poor and dispossessed as a clear outgrowth of the teachings of Jesus. Based on the teachings of Jesus, he called the political leaders to repentance, to change their ways in order to follow the gospel. He became critical of human rights abuses and the role the United States played in backing the oppressive government of El Salvador.
Romero was not known to have read the books he was given on Liberation theology. He was not willing to embrace the Marxist ideology that is a foundational element of Liberation theology. Instead, he was a pious man who attempted to live out the teachings of the gospel. It was by his faithfulness to the gospel that he spoke openly of oppression, read the names of those who disappeared or were murdered in his Sunday sermons, and used his position to advocate for ordinary people. He was murdered while saying Mass one evening as part of a retreat organized by the conservative group Opus Dei.
One of the many lessons for me to be gleaned from the life of Oscar Romero is that people do indeed change. Often, change is the result of some personal and profound experience that causes an individual to reexamine life. That happened for Romero with the murder of his friend, Rutilio Grande. But the change that occurred did not cause Romero to go from being a traditionalist Roman Catholic to a Marxist. Instead, the change in Romero caused him to draw on all that he knew and had become in nearly sixty years of living and to use the depth of his faith to speak and act from the truth he encountered. It was because he spoke and acted from truth that he was martyred. Because of his personal transformation, I continue to find his life inspiring and a source of hope in the world that continues to be characterized by political oppression. Indeed, people do change. But they generally don’t change in the ways we want.
© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.