Kevin Clarke, senior editor and chief correspondent for America magazine, was a college freshman in 1980 when Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated. He was shocked.
He began to study the region and its history to understand of how this could happen in the small Catholic nation of El Salvador. His study culminated in “Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out,” published in 2014 by Liturgical Press as part of their “People of God” biography series.
“He was a key figure in my youth in terms of igniting the Church’s message of liberation and social justice,” said Clarke. “I was somewhat skeptical of the ‘creation story’ of Oscar Romero,” he said, referring to what has become known as the legend of “Rutillo’s Miracle.”
On the evening of the murder of his friend, Jesuit Father Rutillo Grande, by Salvadoran military operatives, the archbishop seemed transformed, finally understanding and embracing the plight of the poor campesinos. To many that evening, it was as if when Romero spoke, they were hearing the words of Father Grande.
“It seemed to me that a guy who had experienced so much poverty in his own life didn’t need a lot of converting. He grew up poor; he lived with the poor; he understood the poor. He ministered to the poor throughout his life,” said Clarke.
“There might have been a conversion experience in terms of urgency, but I suggest that his own conversion was not so much a lightning bolt as a process of life experience,” he added.
Clarke’s book delves deeply into those formative life experiences, forming a picture of the archbishop that includes his warts as well as his saintliness. It also digs deeply into the circumstances and characters surrounding Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom.
Demanding justice for the poor was seen as Marxist agitation by El Salvador’s ruling class. People suffered torture and disappeared. Bodies turned up daily in alleys and garbage dumps.
Priests, lay people, catechists and religious sisters were being killed by government death squads. The influential and vocal Romero was increasingly problematic.
“He was very aware that his life was at acute risk. He knew how it would end. He had evidence of it all around him,” said Clarke. “What makes it powerful and poignant is that he just persisted in his call to conversion for the aristocracy in El Salvador and for justice for the campesinos.”
In 1997, Pope John Paul II named Archbishop Romero a Servant of God, a step in the canonization process. The cause stalled amid conservative concerns about Liberation Theology and Marxist influence until Pope Benedict XVI reopened the cause in 2012. Pope Francis expedited the cause by recognizing the archbishop’s martyrdom Feb. 3, leading to his May 23 beatification.
Clarke has always believed Romero suffered martyrdom, not political assassination.
“To say that he wasn’t killed for the faith seems to cheapen his death. He certainly was killed because of hatred of the faith,” Clarke said.
“When the elite looked upon him, they saw a living component of the Christian faith that they detested. They absolutely detested this call for justice that was emerging from the Church,” he continued.
Clarke’s book relates how Romero’s final months were filled with what now sounds like prophetic insight into his impending martyrdom, right up to his final homily mere moments before the assassin’s bullet pierced his heart.
“His message endures because of his martyrdom. Heroic example moves people. He was a fearful man, he was afraid of what was coming, but he was so brave because he knew it was coming and he did it anyway. That is always so compelling,” he said.
“It fills us with the hope that we, too, have somewhere within us the same seed for that kind of greatness. The idea of Christ-like sacrifice for others is deep in the Catholic genome, so whenever we see that, it resonates with us. I think that’s why his story was so personally moving, and continues to move millions of Catholics all over the world,” Clarke said.
Clarke noted that Blessed Romero embraced the suffering of the poor as his own, just as Jesus asks us to do, and as Pope Francis has been asking the Church to do. Clarke’s book draws many parallels between Romero and Pope Francis, whose message so closely mirrors Romero’s.
“We still have a ways to go if there are people still willing to dismiss Romero’s Gospel-based message as mere ‘Marxism in a Cassock.’ To me, Romero was inspired by the Beatitudes and he was moved to action by the Beatitudes. I don’t think a Christian needs much more than that,” Clarke said.
“Inevitably you get to the point where you ask why there is so much suffering. You deal with the dilemma of the suffering, but have to ask why it is persisting; what are the structural systems which perpetuate it?” he added.
The archbishop knew he was “starting a process that was bigger than himself and would last longer than his life,” Clarke said, adding that Romero would be troubled by the current state of El Salvador.
“Much of his vision remains to be realized, justice still needs to be achieved and despair blotted out by hope,” Clark said.
The book, which recently won an award from the Association of Catholic Publishers in the biography category, draws its subtitle from a 1977 quote from Romero that seems to sum up his spiritual impetus:
“Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see the waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love; love must win out; it is the only thing which can.”