Jon Sobrino meets Óscar Romero for the first time (1977, when Fr. Rutilio was killed alongside two campesinos)

This book has been on my shelf for so long. Maybe I read through it already, long ago. It is Jon Sobrino’s Archbishop Romero; Memories and Reflections.

On its cover is the classic image of Romero in the form of an icon, with a halo and a campesino child in his arms, helicopter gunships in silhouettes above a burning town. I am reading it again, or for the first time, and it might be the most moving personal prose from Sobrino I’ve read.


“My first personal encounter with Archbishop Oscar Romero took place on March 12, 1977. In the afternoon of that day, Father Rutilio Grande, S.J., and two campesinos, a boy and an old man, had been murdered near El Paisnal. A few hours later, in the Jesuit house at Aguilares, a large number of persons had gathered — we Jesuits, other priests, sisters, and hundreds of campesinos, all come to weep for the two murdered campesinos and for Rutilio, the priest who had proclaimed to us the good news of the gospel.

We had been awaiting the arrival of Archbishop Romero, installed as head of the Archdiocese of San Salvador less than three weeks before, on February 22, and of his auxiliary, Bishop Rivera. The bishops would lead our concelebration of the first eucharist in the presence of the remains of the three murder victims. But it was growing late, and the prelates had not yet arrived. The people were beginning to show a certain impatience and uneasiness, especially now that night was falling. So Father Jerez, Provincial of the Jesuits of Central America, decided to begin the celebration of the eucharist without them; and all except myself — I no longer remember why — began to move toward the church, which was attached to the house. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. I went to the door, opened it, and there stood Archbishop Romero and Bishop Rivera. The archbishop looked very serious and concerned. I greeted our visitors, and without another word led them to the church.

This was my very first personal contact with Archbishop Romero. It was of course a very brief, purely symbolic encounter. But the occasion rendered it one of immense personal significance for me. At the moment, obviously, all our thoughts were on Rutilio and the two campesinos, the murder victims. It had occurred to all of us what might be in store. True, the repression of the campesinos had been mounted long since. And a number of priests had been arrested and expelled from the country. But for a priest to be murdered in El Salvador was unheard-of. Now it was no longer merely the rules of fair play that were being broken; treachery itself had taken hold. Anything could happen in the country if the powerful had dared to murder a priest. And 1977 would indeed prove a difficult year for campesinos, priests, and us Jesuits. Two months after Rutilio’s murder, the three remaining Jesuits in Aguilares were expelled from the country. On June 20, all of us Jesuits received death threats.”

From Archbishop Romero; Memories and Reflections by Jon Sobrino, S.J., translated by Robert R. Barr (1990). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, pp. 1-2.

[Archbishop Romero would be gunned down on March 24, 1980, while saying mass. He had been changed by the killing of his friend, Fr. Rutilio, and his moment there in Aguilares with the oppressed campesinos. From that point on, clergy were open game. In the same year, 1980, four foreign missionaries were killed: Sr. Maura Clarke, Sr. Ita Ford, Sr. Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan. At the close of that decade, liberationist Jesuits based at the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas”, whom Romero had once condemned as subversives, were massacred in 1989: six academics/priests, the housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina. The Jesuits were:
  • Ignacio Ellacuría
  • Ignacio Martin-Baró
  • Segundo Montes
  • Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J.
  • Joaquín López y López, S.J.
  • Amando López, S.J.
These were only the most high-profile and daring of the assassinations. The martyrdom of the church of the poor was ubiquitous.]

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