I seriously doubt that Archbishop Oscar Romero could have imagined that a sitting President of the United States of America would have ever visited his tomb when, shortly before he was assasinated, he declared in perhaps his most famous homily: “If they kill me, I will rise up in the Salvadoran People.” That his legacy, the prophetic cry of justice that has become identified with the name Romero, would draw the attention of the most powerful political leader in the world is a striking event to behold.

Nevertheless, the irony of the visit of President Barack Obama to the tomb of the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero was not lost on all. First among the critics of the President’s visit and subsequent silence on the United States’ involvement in support of the Guerílla leaders who were responsible for Romero’s assassination is Maryknoll Missionary Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch.

A National Catholic Reporter article cites Fr. Bourgeois’s position that the President’s visit was a “missed opportunity.”

for Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, the visit was at best a missed opportunity. His organization, SOA Watch, revealed that Romero’s killers were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, now named the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

“I and many other human rights activists were hopeful,” he said, that Obama would acknowledge “that Romero and thousands of others were killed, tortured and disappeared by graduates of this school.”

The 1993 U.N. Truth Commission Report on El Salvador found that the U.S.-armed and trained Salvadoran military had killed tens of thousands of civilians in a systematic attempt to eliminate its political opponents. Forty-seven of the sixty-six officers cited for major atrocities were SOA graduates, including the killers of four U.S. churchwomen, six Jesuit priests and hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children, at the village of El Mozote.

Obama’s visit “could have been a historic moment,” Bourgeois said, one similar to former President Clinton’s rare apology for the US role in the training and arming of Guatemalan security forces that slaughtered more than 200,000 civilians.

“Obama didn’t even acknowledge, let alone apologize for, the U.S. role in El Salvador,” Bourgeois said.

Fr. Bourgeois has a good point. Indeed, if there was ever a good time to acknowledge the responsibility that the United States shares for its involvement in some of the worst crimes against humanity in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s — all under the guise of ‘spreading democracy’ — through covert support of dictators and military governments, it would have been at the foot of the burial site of one of the best known victims of the violent terror enables by the U.S. Government. But there was silence.

One way to look at the silence is to take Fr. Bourgeois’s position, emphasizing the inaction of the President and the absence of a public admittance of wrongdoing — perhaps even followed up by an action such as closing what was then known as the School of the Americas. Another way to look at the silence is to see in the moment an invitation for transformation in the heart of a sitting U.S. President.

I don’t know about you, but looking at those photos of Barack Obama beside the tomb of Oscar Romero, lighting candles in prayer and passing by the portrait of the Salvadorian ‘Bishop and Martyr’ gives me goosebumps — the good kind. It is very powerful and overwhelming to think that the President, regardless of the continued sin of omission cried out against by Fr. Bourgeois and others, spent time there when he could have done anything else.

Conversion, metanoia — the turning around — takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight and substantial changes don’t happen quickly. But isn’t it possible that this experience of visiting Romero’s tomb, hearing the story of the Archbishop’s life and death, and recalling the tumult of the people of Central America might actually be the planting of seeds of hope.

Sure, it’s easy to look at the situation in the short-term and decry inaction and silence, but when I look at my friends’ garden at the beginning of each summer I also only see dusty dirt. Come back in a few months and one sees plants growing and fruit forming on the plants. I’m not willing to give up hope that this experience might not affect President Obama in the long run.  Then again, I believe in both the Holy Spirit and the power of Oscar Romero’s intercessory prayer.

Romero continues to rise up, not just in the people of Salvador, but in all people who seek justice and peace in the world and respond to the cry of the poor and marginalized. My hope is that the seeds planted, perhaps even those unexpectedly sowed in Obama’s heart yet to be seen, may germinate into the fruit of justice when Romero will in fact rise up in the President of the United States.

Photos: Getty Images


  1. Nicely done, Br. Dan. I found your blog from the comments under the NCR story. The idea of transformation is not one that many got to in their respective comments about President Obama’s visit to Oscar Romero’s grave. Thank you for this.

  2. The quote about rising in the Salvadoran people is actually from an interview Romero gave a few weeks before his assassination.

    Perhaps Obama should read the letter that Romero sent to President Carter the month before his death. In the face of US policy in Central America (especially Honduras) and the wars in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

  3. Thank you for your good thoughts about Oscar Romero and Pres. Obama’s visit to his tomb. I share your disappointment at a missed opportunity for truth telling and will wrestle to find the hope you describe. One detail I can’t help mentioning is that you refer to Romero’s killers as “the Guerílla leaders”. I think you meant the paramilitary leaders, or even government (of El Salvador, backed by the U.S.) leaders, not the guerrilla leaders. I’ve never seen the term “guerrilla” used in that context for anyone but the forces of resistence to the government at that time and its various paramilitary supports. I don’t think the FMLN or others in solidarity with their cause would like being mistaken for Oscar Romero’s assassins.

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