The martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero

After Pope Francis’ formal recognition last month that Oscar Romero died as a martyr for the Catholic Faith, the announcement came March 11 that the slain archbishop will be beatified May 23 in San Salvador, El Salvador.

In a news conference, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of the archbishop's sainthood cause, said the event will be held in San Salvador's Plaza Divino Salvador del Mundo and that Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, would celebrate the beatification Mass.

"Romero, from heaven, wants every Salvadoran to walk the path of peace and justice," Archbishop Paglia said at the news conference.

The announcement confirms what many people, particularly in his homeland, have known for decades. It also rejects the suggestion, made often by critics for 35 years now, that Archbishop Romero’s death was more about politics than faith.

The archbishop was killed — gunned down while celebrating the Eucharist — on March 24, 1980. His death was the capstone of a courageous and passionate ministry of criticizing the injustices and violence that plagued his country, and of working for peaceful resolutions to the mayhem.

A zealous pastor

Archbishop Romero grew up in a tiny Salvadoran village. After preliminary studies for priesthood at El Salvador’s national seminary, he was sent by his bishop to Rome’s Gregorian University. Ordained in 1942, he returned to his homeland, where he served for short time in a village parish before being given diocesan administrative responsibilities.

Archbishop Oscar Romero poses for a photo with women and children in this undated photo from El Salvador. CNS photo

Archbishop Romero’s ministry was fueled by an intense pastoral zeal and a strong work ethic. He became known for his excellent preaching, and he soon led a popular weekly radio program. For more than two decades, he simultaneously served as a diocesan administrator, pastor of a large parish and editor of the archdiocesan newspaper.

In 1967, Archbishop Romero was appointed secretary general of the Salvadoran bishops’ conference and three years later was named auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. His friend, Father Rutilio Grande (see sidebar), whose death would mark a major turning point in his life several years later, served as master of ceremonies at his episcopal ordination Mass. The episcopal motto that Archbishop Romero chose for himself was “sentire cum ecclesia” (“to think with the Church”).

Archbishop Romero was traditional by temperament and conviction. He was uncomfortable with statements or actions that questioned the status quo, wary of progressive positions on theological or social issues.

But he also lived a simple lifestyle and was known to be attentive to the poor. When some well-meaning women of his parish in San Miguel, during a time when he was away, redecorated his room in the rectory, bringing in a new bed, linens and curtains, he was angry when he saw it and gave everything away to people passing in the street.

In 1974, he was named bishop of the rural diocese of Santiago de María, then in 1977, he was named archbishop of San Salvador, the nation’s capital. It was a time of deep social unrest (see sidebar), and the move was seen as a victory for El Salvador’s ruling class, because as a priest and bishop, Romero had shown no interest in supporting leftist activism, and he maintained good relations with the rich. But Archbishop Romero’s disposition, especially toward the difficulties that roiled Salvadoran society, was soon to change. The catalyst of the change would be the murder of his friend, Father Grande.

Who was Father Rutilio Grande?
Father Grande
“It is impossible to understand Archbishop Oscar Romero without Father Rutilio Grande.” These are the words of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, postulator of Romero’s beatification, which were offered at the same January 2015 news conference in which Archbishop Paglia announced Pope’s Francis formal approval of the Church’s recognition of Romero as a martyr and — unexpectedly — that Father Grande’s beatification cause had officially been opened.

‘Picking up bodies’

On March 12, 1977 — 20 days after Romero’s installation as archbishop — a car Father Grande was driving was riddled with bullets by gunmen hidden in the bushes on both sides of the road, killing him and two passengers. Archbishop Romero went immediately to the scene, sat with the bodies, led an impromptu late-night Mass for the community, and sought the input of those gathered there about how the Church ought to respond to the murder of Father Grande.

El Salvador

At Father Grande’s funeral Mass, Archbishop Romero said in his homily, “The government should not consider a priest who takes a stand for social justice as a politician or a subversive element when he is fulfilling his mission in the politics of the common good.” He also said plainly, “Anyone who attacks one of my priests, attacks me.”

He closed all the Catholic schools and colleges in the country for three days of prayer and reflection on the crisis playing out. Despite objections, Archbishop Romero also announced that on March 20, a “single Mass” would be celebrated in El Salvador, at the cathedral, as a demonstration of the unity of the people and the Church.

On May 11, another Salvadoran priest was gunned down; and on May 19, the army occupied the town of Aguilares, taking over the church building as their barracks and firing machine guns into the tabernacle. When Archbishop Romero went to the town, he was refused entry by the soldiers. When the siege ended more than a month later, Archbishop Romero went to celebrate Mass there and give comfort to the people. He told them in his homily, “I bring you the word that Jesus commands me to share with you: a word of solidarity, a word of encouragement, a word of orientation and, finally, a word of conversion.”

Throughout the country, people disappeared by the thousands. Bodies were found daily thrown into street gutters and roadside ditches. Archbishop Romero was frequently called to accompany loved ones in retrieving bodies. “It seems that my vocation is to go around picking up bodies.” Poor campesinos came to his office from all over to visit him, receive his encouragement and tell him of their missing relatives.

Following the murder of still another priest, Archbishop Romero preached at the funeral, “How sad it would be if, in a country where such horrible murders are being committed, we were not to find priests among the victims. They are a testimony of a church incarnated in the problems of her people.”

Advocate for the poor

His Sunday homilies, which were quite long, included both reflection on the Scriptures of the day and reporting on the events of the past week, especially the violence and human rights abuses that the government would not allow to be reported in the traditional news media. They were broadcast live, and people all over the country tuned in to listen. (The radio station that aired the homilies was bombed several times.)

In a pastoral letter, he wrote: “The Church would betray its own love for God and its fidelity to the Gospel if it stopped being the voice of the voiceless, a defender of the rights of the poor. ... This demands of the Church a greater presence among the poor. It ought to be in solidarity with them, running the risks they run, enduring the persecution that is their fate, ready to give the greatest possible testimony to its love by defending and promoting those who were first in Jesus’ love.”

But Archbishop Romero was not one-sided about the criticism he doled out. He clearly rejected Marxism and the violence of leftists who opposed the government, too. When revolutionary forces kidnapped a government official, he tried to mediate for his release and said in his Sunday homily, “This is what we preach: No to vengeance! No to the class struggle! No to violence!” At the homily of one slain priest, he preached, “We, as priests, live with a hope. We cannot be communists because they have mutilated this hope in the life hereafter.” And in March 1979, he met secretly with a leftist guerilla group and tried to persuade them to follow a path of Christian nonviolence.

Romero mural
A mural depicting Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is seen in 2005 outside the San Salvador hospital where he was killed while celebrating Mass, March 24, 1980. CNS photo

‘Stop the repression!’

On February 1980, Romero read aloud in his Sunday homily a letter he had sent to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who had proposed sending significant military aid to El Salvador to help the government prevent the spread of communism. The archbishop asked that no support be sent, saying the government would “only use it to kill my people.” (This aid was temporarily suspended after the 1980 murder of four American church women in El Salvador, but later restored then greatly increased under Ronald Reagan.)

Romero parade
People carry a banner of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador, El Salvador, on March 22, 2014. CNS photo

The final straw, though, was his homily of March 23, 1980, insisting that members of the armed forces refuse any order that was contrary to the law of God. He pleaded directly with soldiers to keep in mind that they were killing their own people, and he concluded dramatically: “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.”

He was assassinated the next day — shot through the heart at long range — while he celebrated Mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital. No killer has ever been brought to justice for the crime. The name most often associated with leading the attack is army Major Roberto D’Aubuisson. It is widely known that D’Aubuisson was also responsible for many other politically-motivated kidnappings and murders around El Salvador during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He even earned the nickname “Blowtorch Bob” for his interrogation tactics. He died of cancer in 1992.

Romero knew his life was in danger. Several of his priests had been killed and many more tortured. He received death threats, and once an unexploded bomb was found beneath the pulpit in a church where he celebrated Mass the previous day. He rejected the offer of military bodyguards, saying, “I don’t want protection as long as my people are not given protection. With them, I want to run all the risks that my vocation demands of me.”

In one conversation with a newspaper reporter, he said, “Can you tell them, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon and bless those who do it? But I wish that they could realize that they are wasting their time. A bishop may die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never die.”

Barry Hudock is the author of “Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II” (Liturgical Press, $19.95).

Other Resources
Interested in learning more about Archbishop Oscar Romero? Here are some great places to begin.

Controversy over sainthood cause
There are many reasons for the Church’s delay in recognizing Archbishop Oscar Romero as a martyr that have been cited over the past 35 years. These includes claims such as:

Politics at play in Archbishop Romero's Assassination
Name almost any Christian martyr killed with the involvement of a government — Perpetua and Felicity in the early third century, Thomas Becket in the 12th or Miguel Pro in the 20th — and you will find a story that includes strong political elements. What makes them martyrs is that their Christian faith was their primary motivator and a powerful factor that led someone in government to seek their deaths.

Romero mural
Archbishop Oscar Romero receives a sack of beans from parishioners following Mass in El Salvador in 1979. CNS photo