Sheila Marie Tobbe on Meeting Oscar Romero

This story clip can be aligned to the following Ohio Department of Education Social Studies Standards:

  • Contemporary World Issues #5: Individuals can identify, assess and evaluate world events, engage in deliberative civil debate and influence public processes to address global issues.
  • Contemporary World Issues #18: Individuals and organizations work within, or outside of, established systems of power, authority and governance to influence their own security and the security of others.
  • American History #24: The United States followed a policy of containment during the Cold War in response to the spread of communism.

The Cold War is often cast as a political war between the United States and the Soviet Union’s far-flung locations of influence. But, such an approach ignores the local and globally organized groups who sought to influence the politics within their own borders. One such example is the interactions between the Catholic Church, the FMLN, the government, and paramilitary forces in El Salvador. One cannot understand El Salvador’s Civil War and how the Salvadoran people view the civil war without comprehending Archbishop Oscar Romero’s impact. In this clip, Sr. Sheila Marie Tobbe, an Ursuline sister, provides an intimate look into Archbishop Oscar Romero’s daily life mere months before he was assassinated. Sr. Sheila describes the first time she met Oscar Romero when fellow missionary, Sr. Dorothy Kazel introduced them after Mass. (The location of this meeting is undetermined but presumably The Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador.) Taken in context of Sr. Dorothy Kazel’s words in 1980, it is an especially harrowing example of how dangerous Archbishop Romero’s actions truly were.

Background information on El Salvador and Oscar Romero:
Archbishop Oscar Romero was elected bishop in a time when the Catholic Church was unsure of its role in the economic and political crisis that was brewing in El Salvador (1). This crisis, of course, came hot on the heels of Second Vatican Council and the Medellin Conference, both of which marked a radical shift in the Catholic Church’s role relating to its members and the world at large (2). Therefore, considering these global and local circumstances, Archbishop Luis Chavez’s resignation created a major problem finding a new auxiliary bishop in 1977 (the tail-end of a very turbulent 1970s politically in El Salvador) (3).

After accepting the role of a bishop in 1977, socially conservative Oscar Romero gradually changed his political stance (4). Some attribute this political shift to the death of Jesuit Rutilio Grande, a friend of Romero’s. Another interpretation happened during my time in El Salvador when locals recalled a story of civilians calling the Bishop to free them from a military blockade of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Holy Saviour in San Salvador – within which anti-government protestors were trapped inside for fear of their lives (5). Whatever events provoked his conversion, Romero’s priestly duties certainly had a significant impact on him. According to Catholic tradition, every priest assumes the role of Jesus Christ for his Church, and therefore he must “crucify himself” to their needs (6). Being a bishop takes this responsibility even further because bishops act like miniature Popes – assuming all jurisdiction and responsibility for their diocese except when the Pope and other Vatican officials intervene. Thus, Jesus’s teachings on the “Good Shepherd” are especially relevant to describe this relationship. For the “good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Potential Classroom Uses:

  1. Contextualization of El Salvador’s Civil War.
  2. As an examination of Cold War international policies by President Reagan (who supported D’Aubuisson) (7).
  3. An example of people who influenced their government for good, perhaps referencing some American activists.

(1) Svenja Blanke. “Civic Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Faith-Based Groups and U.S.-Salvadoran Relations in the 1970s.” The Americas 61, no. 2 (2004): 218-9, 221.

(2) Blanke, “Civic Foreign Policy,” 220; Latin American Bishops, “Medellin Document: Poverty of the Church,” Medellin, Colombia, September 6, 1968.

(3) Chris Norton, “Salvador Catholic Church divided over role it should play in war,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 5, 1985.

(4) Scott Simon, “Oscar Romero, The Murdered Archbishop Who Inspires The Pope,” National Public Radio, February 7, 2015.

(5) On this Day 1950-2005, “1979: El Salvador Cathedral Bloodbath,” BBC, May 9, 1979.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1548.

(6) Erik Ching, Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle Over Memory, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 44-5; Carlos Dada,How we killed Archbishop Romero,, statement made March 25, 2010; Jefferson Morley, “When Reaganites Backed D’Aubuisson, They Unleashed a Political Assassin : El Salvador: Washington’s right was so pleased with the politician’s anti-communism it was willing to overlook his abuse of human rights,” Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1992.

Here is a link to primary sources about Oscar Romero’s death.

To download and view the full interview of Sr. Sheila Marie Tobbe click here.

[Photo Caption: La Divina Providencia, the altar where Oscar Romero was shot and killed. Patrick Basista, 2015.]