On 24 March 1980 in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero was celebrating Mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital. In his homily he spoke of the Eucharist, saying,
May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain - like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.
Moments later, the Archbishop was shot through the heart.
A nun who was there told the BBC: ‘When he finished his sermon he walked to the middle of the altar: at that moment the shot rang out. It sounded like a bomb explosion. Monsignor Romero held on to the cloth on the altar for a moment and pulled it off. Then he fell backwards and lay bleeding at the feet of Christ.’
The Archbishop’s last words as he lay dying were, ‘May God have mercy on the assassins.’
The son of a postman, born one of seven children in 1917, Oscar Romero received only a basic education, and was apprenticed to a carpenter at an early age. Then, around the age of thirteen, he felt called to be a priest, and entered the local seminary of San Jose de la Montana. Here he formed a close friendship with fellow seminarian Rutilio Grande, who was later to play a crucial role in Oscar’s life.
Oscar showed great promise, and was eventually sent to study in Rome, where he was ordained a priest. But the homeland he returned to was in turmoil.
For centuries in El Salvador, wealth and power had been concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, whilst the rest of the population lived in abject poverty. Anyone who challenged this unjust state of affairs, be they peasant or human rights lawyer, ran the risk of becoming a victim of the government’s death squads. Eventually some groups took up arms to resist this oppression, and a civil war ensued. El Salvador, a country named after Christ the Saviour, was undergoing its own form of crucifixion.
Many priests took the side of the poor and the oppressed, and graffiti began appearing which read, ‘Be a Patriot – Kill a Priest’. For years Father Romero remained cautious, not getting involved in the struggle for social justice in the way so many of his fellow priests did. But in 1977, just weeks after he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, an event occurred which caused him to completely change his way of thinking. Father Rutilio Grande, his old friend from the seminary, was gunned down by the military, along with two parishioners, an elderly man and a 16 year old boy.
Archbishop Romero travelled to the rural parish to conduct his friend’s funeral, and spent the night listening to the peasants speak of their suffering, and how their communities were being terrorised.
Despite the danger, Archbishop Romero felt that if he was to be true to the Gospel, he could no longer remain silent. “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed,” he wrote, “it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.”
The Archdiocese of San Salvador established a radio station, YSAX, which became the primary source of accurate information about what was happening in the country. Every Sunday Archbishop Romero broadcast a lengthy homily in which he spoke of current events in a Gospel context. He also publicly named every victim of abduction, torture or murder, ensuring that the truth could not be suppressed. During the three years that Romero was Archbishop, the radio station’s transmitter was bombed ten times.
The day before the Archbishop died, in the broadcast which perhaps sealed his fate, he appealed directly to the soldiers who were carrying out their brutal orders.
‘I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants...No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law... In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you – in the name of God: stop the repression.’
Within twenty four hours he was dead.
A week later the Archbishop’s funeral was held in San Salvador’s cathedral, and priests and bishops from all over the world gathered to concelebrate his requiem Mass. Vast crowds of people had gathered, but as the Mass began a bomb exploded in the Cathedral square. As panic broke out, military snipers opened fire into the crowd from rooftops and balconies around the square. Journalists estimated that between 30 and 50 mourners were killed.
This was only the beginning of a decade of increasing government violence against the Church. Later that year four women’s bodies were found dumped by the side of a road. They were Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clark and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Ursuline lay missionary Jean Donovan. They had been killed by members of the National Guard.
In 1989 six Jesuit priests were killed along with their housekeeper and her 16 year old daughter. Five of the priests were Spanish, and in May 2011 Spain issued an international arrest warrant for 20 former leaders of the El Salvadorean military, whom they believe were involved in ordering the killings.
Archbishop Romero had anticipated his own death as the inevitable consequence of standing alongside the victims of repression, but said, ‘If I’m killed, I will rise again in the Salvadorean people.’
This has proved to be very true, as Archbishop Romero’s face is a familiar sight in El Salvador today, on T-shirts and murals. In 2010, on the 30th anniversary of his death, tens of thousands of people paraded through the streets of San Salvador shouting ‘Viva Romero!’ The current President of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, has formally apologised for the government’s role in his killing. There is an active campaign to have Archbishop Romero canonised.
Here in the UK, the Archbishop Romero Trust promotes awareness of the Archbishop’s life and work. Every year they organise prayer services, liturgies, and memorial lectures around the anniversary of his death. In order to continue his work they support groups working for social justice and human rights in Latin America.
Archbishop Romero is revered widely beyond the Catholic Church; the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is a Patron of the Trust, and Romero’s statue stands above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, as one of ten 20th century martyrs.
Many people are delighted to hear that Pope Francis has called for this courageous and inspiring man to be beatified, and so at last be properly recognised by his Church.
* More on the Romero Trust: http://www.romerotrust.org.uk/index.php?nuc=content&id=25
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden