The 20th Anniversary
The Events 20 Years Ago

March 28th, 1980
The Washington Post

"Father Romero and the Treadmill of Heroism"
By Henry Mitchell 
Friday, March 28, 1980 ; Page F1

Feed on him in thy heart and ZAP:

The mass is finished in a burst of blood.

"I was grading papers," said the archbishop's friend, "with the television on in the background, and I heard the news flash. ZAP. And I said well, now it's come."

The president of Georgetown University, the Rev. Timothy Healy, who had visited Oscar Romero in San Salvador a couple of years ago and had kept up with him since, took an hour off to discuss his friend.

"You said he was like Becket, two years ago," I said. "Did you have a premonition he'd be murdered like Becket in front of an altar?"

"No," said Healy. "I once asked him if he was afraid for his life. He said, 'I'm in no more danger than you are.'"

"Did that reassure you he was safe?" I asked.

"I felt a tightening in my body, if you know the feeling."

Most of us know the feeling, when it dawns on us it may not be a game.

Anyway, as I was asking Healy, what kind of guy was this archbishop? The mere fact a guy is opposed to the state doesn't mean he's a hero.

"I don't know the details of the land reform or the protests or the internal workings of San Salvador politics," said Healy. "I know this about the archbishop: He came from a poor family and rose, he was part of the Establishment. I know he was not a Marxist, and I know he thought there are things only politicians can do, not the church. He never opposed individuals by name, for instance, and he did not think he had the answers to specific political questions. He was a priest, not a legislator.

"But what he did do was say, 'You cannot starve people to death.'

"He was always theologically, not politically, based. But he knew you can't talk to somebody about grace if he's so trodden down --

"Establishments have the habit, under pressure, of making terrible mistakes.

They react just wrong.

"The archbishop was the seventh priest to be shot down. I don't mean they drove off in their car and were found over a cliff -- I mean shot down.

"Romero had the only uncensored voice in San Salvador, a small radio station. It broadcast the names of people who were missing. It would happen that a man would be taken off and never heard from again, and his family would ask a priest for help in tracing him. These things soon wound up in the archbishop's lap. He wanted answers, why people were arrested and what was happening to them.

"He wanted to avoid a civil war."

"Well, you point out an archbishop is an Establishment figure. So what happened to bring about his confrontation that you say is like that of Becket and King Henry II? Was it a gradual thing, or was it a sudden incident that changed him, or what?"

"I don't think he took -- I don't think there were hard places where he slammed the rudder in. I think the dynamics were this:

"I think he felt there had to be minimal justice -- not shipping people off and never hearing of them again -- and there had to be minimal economic justice. People not starving.

"But then there was that day in 1978 that one of his priests, Rutilio Grande, was machine-gunned on a highway. There was a 12-year-old altar boy and a 70-year-old man who was considering embracing the church. All three were killed.

"There have been five others, Romero the seventh."

"If he was such a moral man," I asked, "why did some of the other Catholic bishops oppose him? And the people of San Salvador I imagine are Catholics, too."

"The clergy of the university in El Salvador who knew him best were his supporters. You always have the problem whether it's right to rock the boat. There is a line, a balance, and it can be a hard choice. The archbishop's murder will of course bring them all together."

I said it seemed bizarre that the murderers would go out of their way to gun him down in a consecrated church, where he was saying mass, the central sacrament of the church. They must have intended their contempt to come across, and why was that?

Healy said experience suggests that such symbols of contempt and blasphemy are more likely the result of enraged Catholics than of atheists. Though at the moment it is not known who killed the archbishop.

Healy himself went to Salvador to confer the highest honorary degree Georgetown University could give, on Romero in 1978. Since then, he said, there has been a good bit of back and forth, and Healy has no doubt of the archbishop's moral stance, nor any doubts of the heinous nature of his death. A memorial mass will have Jean Jadot, the apostolic delegate, as celebrant at 3 p.m. tomorrow in Georgetown's Gaston Hall, Father Healy will give a homily.

I left Healy thinking how rarely we know enough to have a rock-bottom trust or faith. The world flings the title "hero" here and there, but it's the proudest title a man can ever have, and shouldn't lightly be conferred.

How many heros have there been, whose splendor was hidden, and how many called heroes for no better reason than that it served somebody's purpose to call them that.

But there is no doubt there are heroes. I knew a fireman who was.

The archbishop sticks in my mind. As a candidate.

For one thing, he paid with his life, and heroes often do.Not that everybody who is killed is a hero, but murder is a clue.

And I don't have any trouble guiessing (though not knowing) this may be the common case of a guy who did not purpose to be a hero, who maybe had none of that Achilles fire. But who could not back down on some great point and still respect himself.

And, to his surprise or amusement or horror, began to notice he was on the great treadmill, from which you do not get off.

In his historical plays, Shakespeare shows king after king who is caught on the wheel of power and events then take him forward, there being no choice.

And I wonder this:

Was there a night when Romero saw the pattern developing, and when he knew he had to decide a big question?

To insure harmony, as much as possible, between the church and the state?

To maintain his stance that the state had no right to act as it was acting? Letting the confrontation come?

To make himself certain he was balancing things justly, making certain of his own motives, watching out for the seduction of personal glory, watching out for the seduction of high-sounding balderdash?

If he was a hero or, as Chaucer said of Becket, a holy blissful martyr, then he had such a night or maybe plenty of them.

Heroes are not made by circumstances but by the act of heroism, for which everything is risked, and rightly risked.

These wonderings occupied me. I had a dream that night and woke up in panic. In the dream a guy had his arm on my neck choking me, and said:

"You're going to get to see the murder. Yours."

I thought about Healy saying "Zap." One of the ugliest words in use. The holy words and the zap, the disgusting contrast, that refuses to leave the brain.

I'm not a Catholic, by the way, though a sort of half-baked Christian, but the choice a man makes between life and death is not unique to one faith.

Achilles, after all, was a pagan.

Can you dodge, sometimes? Can you argue your way out?

The four guys with the gun -- there were four for Becket, too -- and I loathe the image of the confusion, the not knowing at first what happened, the mechanics of the getaway, the blasphemous noise in a holy place.

Have we got it all backward? I know glory can come straight.

I know action can be breathtaking in beauty, however fragile for the likes of mortal men.

How, with this rage, can beauty hold a plea, (as a wit said) whose action is no stronger than a flower?

It grows up and fades quick. Most beauty doesn't last long.

The archbishop's murder, if any faith is true, will be adjudicated by better authorities than here.

A faithful servant and soldier, manfully to fight. And, God I wish the question were never raised. If a man is a hero, I am not sure angels are there at his death. But archangels, as I reckon, tend to his honor.