On Monday, March 24, 1980 Óscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, was saying Mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Missionary Sisters of St. Therese. The building was adjacent to “La Divina Providencia,” the nursing hospital where the Carmelite Sisters provided care for poor cancer patients undergoing treatment at the Instituto del Cáncer (Cancer Institute). People often travelled long distances to the city for radiation therapy; and had it not been for the Carmelite hospital, they would have been forced to live in the streets outside the Institute while they were being treated. The archbishop had established his home among the members of the Carmelite community, “staying close to the patients and living fraternally with the sisters.”1
Around 6:30 p.m. that day, a red VW Passat pulled up in front of the chapel. A tall, thin, bearded man was seated in the back seat. It was a hot day, and the man could see into the sanctuary, as the doors to the chapel were standing open. Archbishop Romero had just finished his homily and was at the altar, preparing to celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist. At that moment, a single shot rang out. “‘It sounded like a bomb explosion,’ said Sister Luz Isabel, who was among the congregation that day. ‘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,’ she says, standing a few metres from the exact spot where the Archbishop lay fatally wounded.”2 He died within minutes. The car – in no particular hurry – drove away.
The archbishop had been shot dead by a single .22 bullet to his heart – just one day after he had made an impassioned plea to the military to put an end to the violence. Death squads had been targeting Salvadoran priests in the weeks preceding his murder, plastering the words, “Be a Patriot – Kill a Priest,” on walls throughout the country. “Brothers,” Romero had pleaded, “you are all killing your fellow countrymen. No soldier has to obey an order to kill. It is time to regain your conscience. In the name of God and in the name of the suffering people I implore you, I beg you, I order you, stop the repression.”3
El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s – A Country in Crisis
What had led to this grim state of affairs? In the 1970s and 1980s, El Salvador was a country in crisis. Gross inequalities existed between a small group of wealthy elite (who dominated the government and the economy) and the overwhelming majority of the rest of the population (who lived in abject poverty). Despite the growing unrest among the poor, the wealthy ruling class resisted any effort to bring about social change. They “violently reject[ed] the campesinos’ [peasants’] claim to land reform, to political organization, to participative democracy, to freedom of ownership and association, to education, housing and a just income.”4
As early as 1932, Agustín Farabundo Martí (one of the founding fathers of the Central American Socialist Party) had organized a peasant’s revolt to protest the pervasive social and economic injustice. But the government responded with unimaginable brutality. Within a few weeks of the uprising, the Salvadoran army had slaughtered 30,000 people – they killed anyone who was Indian or who had supported the uprising – in what became known as la Matanza – the Massacre. In some villages, all males over the age of 12 were murdered.
Who was Óscar Romero?
Against this backdrop of tension and social unrest, Óscar Arnolfo Romero y Galdámez was ordained to the priesthood in 1942. He came from a poor family and was well acquainted with the suffering of the people. But he was also a conservative, somewhat reserved man – not someone you would have expected to challenge the status quo. He served for many years as a parish priest and diocesan secretary in San Miguel before being appointed auxiliary bishop of San Salvador in 1970.
Fr. John Spain, a Maryknoll priest in El Salvador, first met Romero in 1971. “ ‘He was mild-mannered and somewhat shy,’ Spain recalled. ‘He was maybe 5-foot-7 and had a slight build. I thought of him as a small man with a huge presence.’ Romero was so unassuming that when a British reporter for the BBC came to interview Romero … the reporter walked right past his interview subject without realizing it. ‘He was sitting quietly by himself in the corner of a room, dressed as a priest, without his bishop’s cross,’ Spain said. ‘He was not one to draw attention to himself. But if you heard him preach in the cathedral on Sunday, he was transformed. People would stand and applaud and he was a larger-than-life presence in those moments.’ ”5
A few years later – in 1974 – Romero was appointed bishop of Santiago de María, a poor, rural region that included his hometown. By Romero’s own account, his attitude changed during his brief tenure as bishop there. “He witnessed first-hand the suffering of El Salvador’s landless poor. Increasing government violence against socially committed priests and laypersons undermined his trust in the good will of the authorities and led him to fear that the Church and religion themselves were under attack.”6
By the mid-70s, military violence and atrocities had become more and more rampant. “During the presidency of General Arturo Molina (1972–1977), the army and security forces were essentially transformed into death squads. Romero watched in horror as campesinos in his parish were displaced, threatened, terrorized, and, increasingly, shot, stabbed, or hacked to death by underfed, underage soldiers wielding machetes against their own kind. He began speaking out against these atrocities and received his first death threat (from General Molina himself, who wagged a finger at him and warned that cassocks were not bullet-proof).”7
On February 23rd, 1977, Romero was appointed archbishop of San Salvador. The wealthy oligarchy was delighted by his appointment, but the activist clergy were disappointed. Because Romero had a reputation for being a conservative, he was considered a ‘safe’ choice, and they feared that he would not have the courage to speak out on behalf of the poor. But just one month later, a tragic event occurred that would completely transform the life of this pious, faith filled man.
Assassination of Fr. Rutilio Grande
On March 12, Fr. Rutilio Grande – a close friend of Archbishop Romero – was assassinated along with two companions while driving to El Paisnal to celebrate Mass. Fr. Grande was a Jesuit priest and outspoken defender of the poor. Many believed that his murder was provoked by his February 13th homily (that came to be called the “Apopa sermon”) in which he denounced the kidnapping and expulsion of Fr. Mario Bernal Londono, a Columbian priest who had been serving in El Salvador. “I am fully aware that very soon the Bible and the Gospels will not be allowed to cross the border,” said Fr. Grande. “All that will reach us will be the covers, since all the pages are subversive—against sin, it is said. So that if Jesus crosses the border at Chalatenango, they will not allow him to enter. They would accuse him, the man-God … of being an agitator, of being a Jewish foreigner, who confuses the people with exotic and foreign ideas, anti-democratic ideas, and i.e., against the minorities. Ideas against God, because this is a clan of Cain’s. Brothers, they would undoubtedly crucify him again. And they have said so.”8
According to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Father Rutilio Grande and his two companions were surprised from behind and riddled with bullets by individual unknown. High caliber weapons were used in the commission of the crime and the bullet[s] went through the body and seats of the car that the priest was driving, fatally wounding the three victims.”9
After reading several misleading accounts of the murders in the newspapers, Romero issued a statement the following day “in order to erase any distorted and false image of the horrendous sacrilege: ‘That the perpetrators of the vile murder of the priest from Aguilares are not common criminals. The true reason for his death was his prophetic and pastoral efforts to raise the consciousness of the people throughout his parish. Father Grande, without offending and forcing himself upon his flock in the practice of their religion, was only slowly forming a genuine community of faith, hope and love among them, he was making them aware of their dignity as individuals, of their basic rights as words, his was an effort toward comprehensive human development. This post-Vatican Council ecclesiastical effort is certainly not agreeable to everyone, because it awakens the consciousness of the people. It is work that disturbs many; and to end it, it was necessary to liquidate its proponent. In our case, Father Rutilio Grande.’ ”10
Romero suspended masses in the capital’s churches the following Sunday, asking everyone to attend Mass at the Cathedral, and he demanded that the responsible parties be punished. He later said, ‘When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I, too, have to walk the same path.’ ”11
Romero – Champion of Justice
From that time on, this once timid, conservative cleric was transformed into a fearless and outspoken champion of justice. Romero became the “voice for the voiceless,” speaking out more and more forcefully against the human rights abuses of the right-wing revolutionary government. Each Sunday, he catalogued the brutalities that had occurred from the pulpit of the Cathedral, denouncing the killings, the tortures, and the disappearances that had become daily occurrences. His words were broadcast throughout the country and he became a beacon of hope for the poor. “He continually pressed for peaceful social and economic reform and advocated for human rights and social justice for the poor. … He preached the gospel of justice and solidarity for the poor and hungry, sharply challenging the wealthy and powerful sectors of Salvadoran society. As the country teetered on the brink of civil war he pleaded incessantly for non-violent political change, calling on all sides to abandon violence and repression.”12
In February, 1980, he wrote the U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, asking the U.S. to stop giving economic and military aid to the junta government in El Salvador. “The contribution of your government,” he wrote, “instead of promoting greater justice and peace in El Salvador, will without doubt sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which have repeatedly been struggling to gain respect for their most fundamental human rights.”13
That same month, Archbishop Romero gave a speech at the Catholic University of Louvain (in Belgium) where he said, “In less than three years, more than 50 priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs — they were murdered. Some have been tortured and others expelled [from the country]. Nuns have also been persecuted. The archdiocesan radio station and educational institutions that are Catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been attacked, threatened, intimidated, even bombed … you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christians, to the campesinos, catechists, lay ministers, and to the ecclesial base communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands.”14
Romero knew that he was risking his life by speaking out, but he refused to be silenced. “I have frequently been threatened with death,” he said. “I must say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in the resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”15
Archbishop Romero’s Funeral
It might seem inconceivable to us that someone of Romero’s position in the Church hierarchy would have been targeted for death. And his murder and the violence that followed in its wake was a major catalyst to the bloody civil war that followed. Mexican journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto wrote, “Romero’s murder, and the mayhem and bloodshed set off by a sharpshooter at his funeral the following Saturday, were perhaps the immediate sparks for the bloody twelve-year civil war that started just months later, with the US providing financial and military backing to the government side. It is hard to overstate how fervently the campesinos of El Salvador believed in Romero. When he was gone, entire villages placed themselves at the disposal of the guerrilla factions, which came together as a united front, the FMLN, a few months later.”16 At the moment of his death, even those who had once had reservations about him claimed him as a beloved martyr. Around a quarter million people attended his funeral.
Fr. James L. Connor, S.J., a concelebrant at the funeral, described the ceremony: “The funeral ceremonies started calmly on a beautiful, but hot day. A procession of some 30 bishops (from England, Ireland, Spain, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and the United States) and more than 200 priests wound its way through eight or ten blocks of the city from the church where we had vested to the cathedral. Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks, many of them listening to a radio broadcast of the event on their transistor radios. We had been assured that the day would be peaceful and free of “events.” The Popular Front, including the far left, had covenanted to observe nonviolence in honor of the archbishop, and it seemed unthinkable that the hard-line right would desecrate this moment unless first provoked.
“At first, all went as promised. The bishops and clergy processed into the cathedral through a side door, went out the front door to salute the altar set up in front of the cathedral, and then moved to our assigned places. The clergy remained inside the front door of the cathedral while the bishops stood outside on the altar platform and faced the square. The entire plaza was filled in of more than 100,000 persons, and thousands more spilled over into the side streets leading to it.
“All went peacefully through a succession of prayers, readings, hymns until the moment in his homily when Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada of Mexico, the personal delegate of Pope John Paul II, began to praise Archbishop Romero as a man of peace and a foe of violence. Suddenly, a bomb exploded at the far edge of the plaza, seemingly in front of the National Palace, a government building. Next, gunshots, sharp and clear, echoed off the walls surrounding the plaza. At first, the cardinal’s plea for all to remain calm seemed to have a steadying impact. But as another explosion reverberated, panic took hold and the crowd broke ranks and ran. Some headed for the side streets, but thousands more rushed up the stairs and fought their way into the cathedral.”17
Another concelebrant, Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, was one of those swept along by the crowd of thousands as they stampeded into the cathedral. “There were from 5,000 to 6,000 people inside the cathedral.,” he writes. “We were packed up against one another as in the old movies of slave ships. It was impossible to move and very difficult for the elderly and children to breathe, both because of the intense heat and because so many of them are of small stature.
“News reports which I have read said that nuns and priests were fainting. People certainly fainted. I saw no nuns or priests who fainted. On the contrary, the nuns and priests acted with a tremendous sense of responsibility for the people. Most of them were trying to comfort the people, to help them find a safer spot, to get water for them and to care for those who were injured, sick or in need of some medical attention.
“Because of the circumstances and not knowing what might happen, I gave general absolution. …
“There would be moments of calm and we would think that perhaps the violence was over. Then another bomb would explode or a gunshot would ring through the air. At one point, there was a sudden commotion in the crowd toward the front, the side door of the cathedral near the altar. A young girl in a red bandanna came in with a submachine gun. But eventually she left, and there did not seem to be anyone shot.
“As we were huddled together in the sweltering heat, a corpse would be carried in from outside and brought over to the side wall. This happened a number of times. There were bodies lying on the front steps of the cathedral. It seemed that most of those who died were trampled or died from asphyxiation. …
“As the violence continued outside, the casket was carried into the cathedral and placed at once in the tomb. Cardinal Corripio then said the prayers of the burial, and the tomb was closed while gunfire and bombs continued to explode outside.
“And so the waiting went on and on. We did not know whether someone would throw a bomb or sprinkle the crowd with machine gunfire. Still less did we know whether we would be detained as hostages.
“After some two-and-a-half hours of this uncertainty, word began to circulate among the crowd that the bishops, priest and religious should go out first so that people would feel that it was safe to leave.
“The chief targets of the violence were the bishops, priests and religious, and the reasoning was that if they were able to go back onto the square without being shot, it would be safe for the people. So we went out together and there was no more shooting.
“A Red Cross ambulance drove us to the school where we were staying. It was almost 3:30. We were exhausted, drenched with sweat from the intense heat and immensely relieved that it was over and with as little loss of life as there was.”18 Around 40 people died that day.
On February 3rd of this year, Pope Francis formally declared that Archbishop Romero was assassinated as a martyr for the Catholic faith. This cleared the way for his beatification, which will take place in San Salvador on May 23, 2015. Although the beatification process normally requires proof that a miracle associated with the deceased person has taken place, martyrs of the faith don’t need to meet that requirement.19
Some of us might think martyrdom something to be feared. But this was not the case with Archbishop Romero. He wrote, “Martyrdom is a great gift from God that I do not believe I have earned. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life then may my blood be the seed of liberty, and a sign of the hope that will soon become a reality… A bishop will die, but the church of God – the people – will never die.”20
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 “History of the Institution,” Hospital Divina Providencia.org; available from http://www.hospitaldivinaprovidencia.org/en/historia.php; Internet; accessed 15 April 2015.
2 Julian Miglierini, “El Salvador marks Archbishop Oscar Romero’s murder,” BBC News (March 24, 2010); available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8580840.stm; Internet; accessed 13 April 2015. Archbishop Romero was celebrating an anniversary Mass that day for the widow of a publisher of an independent newspaper that had been firebombed for publishing investigative stories critical of the government.
3 “Plea to Carter and Reagan’s Response,” US Policy & Human Rights in the Salvadoran Civil War; available from http://www.csusmhistory.org/atkin008/plea-to-carter-response-from-reagan/; Internet; accessed 14 April 2015.
4 Fr. James L. Connor, “A Report from Romero’s Funeral,” America – The National Catholic Review (April 26, 1980); available from http://americamagazine.org/issue/100/report-romeros-funeral; Internet; accessed 15 April 2015.
5 Paul Grondahl, “A Maryknoll priest recounts Oscar Romero’s path to sainthood,” CRUX [Catholic News Service]; available from http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/03/24/a-maryknoll-priest-recounts-oscar-romeros-path-to-sainthood/; Internet; accessed 17 April 2015.
6 Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero,” United Nations: International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims; available from http://www.un.org/en/events/righttotruthday/romero.shtml; Internet; accessed 17 April 2015.
7 Alma Guillermoprieto, “Remembering Romero: The Murder that Ruptured El Salvador,” The New York Review of Books; available from http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/apr/22/remembering-romero-murder-ruptured-el-salvador/; Internet; accessed 17 April 2015.
8 “Report on the Situation of Human Rights in El Salvador; Chapter 2 – Right to Life,” Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; available from http://www.cidh.org/countryrep/ElSalvador78eng/chap.2.htm; Internet; accessed 17 April 2015.
11 Fr. Dwight Longenecker, “My doubts about Oscar Romero,” Crux (February 4, 2015); available from http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/02/04/my-doubts-about-archbishop-romero/; Internet; accessed 13 April 2015.
12 Julian Filochowski, “The Archbishop Romero Trust,” The Archbishop of York; available from http://www.archbishopofyork.org/pages/the-archbishop-romero-trust.html; Internet; accessed 15 April 2015. The unrest eventually escalated into a bloody civil war (1979-92) that left over 70,000 people dead and decimated the country’s economy.
13 Letter from Oscar Romero to Jimmy Carter – February 19, 1980, US Policy & Human Rights in the Salvadoran Civil War; available from http://www.csusmhistory.org/atkin008/letter-from-oscar-romero-to-jimmy-carter-february-19-1980/; Internet; accessed 15 April 2015.
14 Longenecker, “My doubts about Oscar Romero,” Crux (February 4, 2015).
15 Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero,” United Nations: International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.
16 Guillermoprieto, “Remembering Romero: The Murder that Ruptured El Salvador,” The New York Review of Books.
17 Connor, “A Report from Romero’s Funeral,” America – The National Catholic Review (April 26, 1980).
18 Archbishop John Quinn, “San Francisco archbishop’s account of Oscar Romero’s funeral,” Catholic News Service (March 24, 2015; originally printed April 7, 1980); available from http://ncronline.org/news/global/archives-san-francisco-archbishops-account-oscar-romeros-funeral; Internet; accessed 15 April 2015.
19 Cf. Joshua J. McElwee, “Slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero to be beatified May 23,” National Catholic Reporter (March 11, 2015); available from http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/report-oscar-romero-be-beatified-may-23; Internet; accessed 17 April 2015.
20 Robert Ellsberg, “Oscar Arnulfo Romero: Archbishop and Martyr of San Salvador,” Gratefulness.org; available from http://www.gratefulness.org/giftpeople/romero.htm; Internet; accessed 17 April 2015.