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Social Justice

ARCHBISHOP OSCAR ROMERO – A Great 20th Century Martyr

The Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors came to what is now Latin America in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries ‘with a sword in one hand and a Bible in the other.’

The Republic of El Salvador (‘Republic of the Savior’) is the smallest and most densely populated country – with just 6 million people –  in Central America. Since the 16thcentury there was a succession of armed uprisings between the disaffected, often landless rural ‘campesinos’ and the political and military elites, much of the warfare driven later by the need to protect the country’s #1 export industry, coffee.  This all culminated in the devastating Salvadoran Civil War (1979 – 1992), sparked by the murder of a ‘troublesome priest’, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who’d become ‘the voice of the voiceless’. He was assassinated by a death squad while saying Mass on 24 March 1980.  

Oscar Arnulfo y Galdamez was born in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, on August 15, 1917. His father, the town postmaster and telegraph operator, apprenticed him to a carpenter when he was 13, but Oscar felt a vocation to the priesthood, and left home the following year to enter seminary. He studied in El Salvador and Rome and was ordained a priest in 1942.

Romero spent the next two and a half decades as a parish priest and diocesan secretary in San Miguel. In 1970 he served for two years as auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, then the Vatican named him to the see of Santiago de Maria, a poor, rural diocese which included his boyhood hometown. On February 22, 1977 he returned to the capital as metropolitan archbishop.

‘Conscientization’ and the Journey Towards Social Justice

In spite of Vatican 2 (1962-5), and the follow-up Medellin Bishops’ Conference (1967) endorsement of the radical idea of God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’, Romero determined for most of his priestly life to keep Church and politics separate, denouncing the ‘mysticism of violence’ preached by revolutionaries.

But several events led to his ‘conversion’ as he realized that his reluctance to speak out on political and social evils was a passive endorsement of repression and corruption. In El Salvador the privileged few enjoyed great wealth, at the expense of the impoverished majority. Romero  eventually endorsed Gustavo Gutierrez’ dictum ‘to know God is to do justice’.


Archbishop Oscar Romero at home, 20 November 1979. Known locally as Monseñor Romero, Archbishop Romero was assassination by a gunman inside El Salvador's cathedral shortly after his homily on 24 March 1980. His death provoked international outcry for human rights reform in El Salvador. (Photo by Alex Bowie/Getty Images)

Archbishop Oscar Romero at home, 20 November 1979. Known locally as Monseñor Romero, Archbishop Romero was assassination by a gunman inside El Salvador’s cathedral shortly after his homily on 24 March 1980. His death provoked international outcry for human rights reform in El Salvador. (Photo by Alex Bowie/Getty Images)

Some highlights (and some ‘lowlights’) from this journey:

·        On June 21, 1975, Salvadoran National Guardsmen hacked five campesinos to death in a tiny rural village. Romero rushed to console the families. When he denounced the attack to the local National Guard commander, the soldier pointed his finger at the bishop and replied ‘cassocks are not bulletproof’ – Romero’s first, but not his last, death threat.

·        In 1976, reflecting on the awful plight of thousands of coffee plantation workers in his diocese, he wrote: ‘The Church must cry out… God has meant the earth and all it contains for the use of the whole human race. Created wealth should reach all in just form, under the aegis of justice and accompanied by charity.’

·        On March 12, 1977, a death squad ambushed his close friend and trusted aide Father Rutillo Grande, killing also the old man and the seven-year-old boy who were giving Father Grande a ride to a rural church. Romero demanded that the President of El Salvador investigate the atrocity, but the government offered only lip-service… Romero then decreed that representatives of the archdiocese would no longer appear with government leaders at public ceremonies. He also made the controversial decision to cancel masses throughout the entire country the following Sunday, except for one on the steps of the cathedral (where more than 100,000 attended). Many times since, Romero would remark that Father Grande’s assassination was the crucial event in his own conversion experience.

·      The opposition of a majority of his bishops and their critiques of his ministry sent to Rome caused him great pain. They denounced the Archbishop as a communist and a Marxist, accusing him of being ‘politicized’ and of seeking popularity. (One of those bishops – Jose Alvarez – held the rank of colonel in the Salvadoran Army, and attracted international attention in 1981 by blessing new war planes). All this led, in June 1978, to Romero’s seeking an audience with Pope Paul VI. The Pope’s response: ‘… You must love these people… Be patient and strong and help them… Tell them to never seek for a solution to their problems in irrational violence… never to be caught up in the currents of hatred… Work together to build unity, peace, and justice upon a foundation of love…’  (A later meeting with Pope John Paul II was not so encouraging: ‘[I recommend] courage and boldness, but at the same time, tempered with the necessary prudence and balance’).

·        As Romero defended the community leaders and priests who spoke out about the nation’s pervasive poverty – and were being killed by death squads in the pay of the coffee barons – he gathered a large popular following. Thousands crowded into the cathedral to hear him preach, or listened to his homilies over the archdiocesan radio station YSAX – the only medium in the country where persons who’d ‘disappeared’ were named. Mothers and wives visited him and sent letters begging for help in finding their missing husbands and children. As he would repeat painfully… ‘[I am constantly…] claiming dead bodies… These days I have to walk the roads gathering up dead friends, listening to widows and orphans, and trying to spread hope.’

·        He famously wrote to President Jimmy Carter, appealing to him as a fellow Christian to stop sending military aid to El Salvador. ‘We are fed up with weapons and bullets,’ he wrote. Carter did not respond directly, but he did suspend aid in 1980 after the murders of four churchwomen. (Aid was resumed – and increased – by Ronald Reagan).

·        Meanwhile, as tensions heightened and atrocities increased, Romero promised that life, not death, would have the last word. ‘I do not believe in death without resurrection,’ he said. ‘If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.’

·        On March 23, 1980, in a two-hour homily, after listing the previous week’s deaths and disappearances, Romero addressed the nation’s soldiers and police: ‘Brothers… you kill your fellow peasants… No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God… In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people, I ask you – I implore you – I command you in the name of God: stop the repression!’ The following evening he was shot. Moments before his death he had said: ‘Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies… The harvest comes because of the grain that dies… We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us…’

Seven days later – March 30, 1980 – 50,000 of the faithful gathered in the square outside San Salvador Cathedral to pay their last respects to Archbishop Romero. As they waved palm fronds and sang ‘You are the God of the poor’, some small bombs were hurled into the crowd. Four cars on all four corners of the square exploded into flames. Then volleys of gunfire killed and injured many. Witnesses saw army sharpshooters, dressed in civilian clothing, firing from the roof of the adjoining National Palace. An estimated 7000 people rushed into the cathedral, which was designed to hold 3000. Others were crushed against the security fence and closed gates that were intended to provide security for the funeral mass. Cardinal Ernesto Ahumado, representative of Pope John Paul II was delivering his tribute to Archbishop Romero when the first bomb exploded. The service was immediately postponed as clergy tried in vain to calm the panicked crowd. As the gunfire continued outside the cathedral, Romero’s body was buried in a crypt below the sanctuary.

An eyewitness account published the following day in the Washington Post, included these prophetic words: “A highly popular and controversial figure and outspoken critic of the military that has long dominated this Central American nation, Romero was looked upon as one of the few people who could keep the violence-ridden society from plunging into all-out civil war.”

Oscar Romero tombstone

But soon after, the country suffered a full-blown civil war which lasted for twelve years. The UN Truth Commission called the war “genocide”. According to the Salvadoran government more than 75,000 lives were lost. Most international investigating agencies put the figure at three times that number.


Pope Benedict XVI had supported Romero’s beatification: he had ‘no doubt’ that Romero ‘will be declared blessed some day’. Earlier, during a 1983 pilgrimage to El Salvador Pope John Paul II – despite pleas from Latin American bishops and the Salvadorean government – asked local priests to open the door of the cathedral which was locked by the military. He spent a long time in prayer in front of Romero’s tomb… John Paul II insisted that during the 2000 Jubilee Year celebration in Rome’s Colisseum Romero’s name be mentioned among the great martyrs of the Americas.

For three decades Conservatives stalled the canonization process. In the context of the Cold War, they saw the radical pro-poor movement as a Marxist Trojan horse that would cause Latin America to espouse communism.

But with Francis we now have a pope whose spiritual journey paralleled that of Romero – and also to some extent that of the saintly Dom Helder Camara. All three began as conservatives, but their pastoral work irrevocably radicalised them. All three were both orthodox – in their own way – and radical. Francis’ prolonged contact with the poor as Bishop of the Slums in Buenos Aires changed him. The poor were not simply victims in need of charity: rather they were encouraged to take charge of their own lives – through self-help groups, basic ecclesial communities, cooperatives, and unions.

And so those who knew him were not surprised when Francis declared within days of his election that he wanted ‘a poor Church for the poor’. And he accelerated the process of Romero’s beatification. Romero was declared a martyr in February, and beatified on May 23 in his home country of El Salvador.

Finally… Romero’s most ‘Quotable quotes’

‘There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried’.

‘Those who have a voice must speak for those who are voiceless’.

‘A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that?’

‘When we say “for the poor” we do not take sides with one social class. We… invite all social classes, rich and poor without distinction, to take seriously the cause of the poor as though it were their own. The cause of the poor is the cause of Jesus Christ — “whatever you did to one of these poor ones… you did to me.”‘

‘There aren’t two categories of people. There aren’t some people who were born to have everything… and a majority of people who have nothing and cannot taste the happiness that God has created for all. The Christian society that God wants is one in which we share the goodness that God has given to everyone.’

‘When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises’.

‘Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world’.

‘Peace is the product of justice and love’.


Resources: James R. Brockman SJ, Romero: A Life (1989); The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, (1988, 1998)

Placido Erdozain, Archbishop Romero, Martyr of Salvador (1981) 

Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections, 1990


The Archbishop Romero Trust – romerotrust.org.uk    


Rowland Croucher




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