St. Oscar Romero: Martyred in Hatred of the Faith

On October 14, Pope Francis canonized Oscar Romero, the late archbishop of San Salvador. Romero was martyred by an assassin’s  bullet on March 24, 1980 while he was celebrating the Mass. Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former Salvadoran army officer and notorious death squad leader ordered the murder.

Oscar Romero’s story

El Salvador in the early 20th century

In the early 20th century, plantation agriculture dominated the Salvadoran economy. A few wealthy families owned the land, which rural peasants worked. Beginning in 1931, military dictatorships ran the government, protecting the interests of the wealthy elites. Until late in the century, virtually all Salvadorans were Roman Catholics. Into this world, Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was born on August 15, 1917.

Romero: priest and bishop

Oscar Romero entered the seminary as an adolescent in 1931. He was ordained a priest in 1942 at the age of 24. He reportedly was hard-working, conscientious, and genuinely compassionate towards the poor.

In 1970, Romero was ordained a bishop. For the next seven years, he became known for his conservative, even reactionary, views. He was particularly critical of the evolving liberation theology spreading throughout Latin America.

Archbishop of San Salvador

An archbishop for the status quo?

In 1977, Oscar Romero replaced Luis Chávez González as archbishop of San Salvador. Romero’s appointment surprised – even disappointed – some. Chávez, who participated in the Second Vatican Council, vigorously supported the Church’s social teaching. But would Romero reverse course? Oscar Romero had always felt deeply the needs of the poor. Was this merely an other-worldly concern only for the salvation of their souls? After all, Romero appeared satisfied with the status quo.

A few days after becoming archbishop, Romero seems to have been shaken to his core. A death squad gunned down Fr. Rutilo Grande, a close friend, and two companions, Manuel Solórzano and Nelson Lemus. The three men were on their way to say Mass in a country village.

Romero steps up

In the 1970s, the extreme inequalities of Salvadoran society coupled with repressive governmental policies led to increasing civil unrest. Eventually, the wealthy elites no longer felt they could leave matters to the government. Therefore, they took things into their own hands, cracking down on popular reform and resistance movements. Often they set loose private or quasi-official death squads to eliminate real or perceived threats. On March 12, 1977, a death squad murdered Fr. Grande and his companions.

At the funeral Mass two days later, Archbishop Romero delivered a homily in which he described the murdered men as “Christian liberators inspired by faith.” He affirmed that they based their lives on the Church’s social doctrine. “[T]he Christian religion is not one dimensional, spiritualistic, unmindful of the misery that surrounds people.” For the final three years of his life, Oscar Romero spoke truth to power in El Salvador.

Oscar Romero was a martyr for social justice

Over the following three years, the army, as well as death squads, murdered thousands of civilians. They beat and raped many more. Catholic leaders – priests, religious and lay – were targets. Throughout this time, Archbishop Romero spoke out. He provided aid and shelter to many who fled their homes in fear. He was uncompromising in defense of his flock.

The day before Romero’s martyrdom was the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Romero delivered a homily that described many of the horrors experienced by the Salvadoran people. He concluded the homily with an appeal to the army’s soldiers:

Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail. Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to take back your consciences rather than the orders of sin.

The next day, March 24, 1980, a sniper acting on D’Aubuisson’s orders, struck down Archbishop Romero. Romero had been a priest for 38 years, and Archbishop of San Salvador for three years. He was 62 years old.

The Salvadoran civil war and its aftermath

In 1980, the violence in El Salvador devolved into civil war. A well organized popular insurgency attempted to overthrow the existing government and social order. Peace did not come until 1992.

Today, violence continues to plague the people of El Salvador. It is not political violence, but rather gang violence from the drug trade. This too is a social problem that should concern Christians. St. Oscar Romero must certainly be interceding on behalf of his Salvadoran brothers and sisters: let there be peace.