As a thoroughly secular person, I do not put much stock into things like sainthood. But if anyone deserves to be given accorded a status revered by over a billion people worldwide, it is Archbishop Oscar Romero, who died on this day in 1980 for standing up against a murderous (and U.S. backed) regime.
When he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador in 1977, the country was embroiled in bloody civil unrest resulting from decades of military misrule; the subsequent conflict would claim over 75,000 lives in a country of just 4.6 million.
As The Conversation reported:
Salvadorans, critical of an economy in which 8 percent of the population earned 50 percent of all national income, began marching on the streets and demanding equality. Protests were violently crushed. Dissidents began disappearing or turning up dead.
By the late 1970s, during the peak of the Cold War, guerrilla groups were calling for a revolution in El Salvador.
The incident seems to have triggered something in the once-conservative Romero. He began boycotting government ceremonies, saying police weren’t doing enough to investigate his fellow priest’s murder. In protest, he insisted that Grande’s funeral mass, on March 14, 1977, be the only mass celebrated in El Salvador that day.
Amid this fearful and oppressive environment, the once-conservative Romero embraced an idea of social revolution that had much in common with liberation theology, a movement that was gaining traction throughout Catholic Latin America at the time. Its proponents believed that salvation was not something to be awaited for in the afterlife, but rather a project to be undertaken in the here and now, through service to humanity and the promotion of social and political change. Then as now, this Catholic movement was controversial for its allegedly Marxist and socialist leanings, reflecting a deep division within the Church between its right-wing and left-wing elements.
Needless to say, Romero’s adherence to this idea, as well as his outspokenness against political oppression, did not endear him to El Salvador’s right-wing military autocracy (especially one backed by the U.S. government during the Cold War).
In weekly masses in the San Salvador cathedral, Romero would dedicate part of each Sunday’s service to discussing “the events of the day” – labor strikes, massacres and kidnappings. Because the government tightly controlled Salvadoran media, his sermons, which were broadcast nationwide on the radio, were a key source of news and information.
In 1980, Romero published an open letter to President Jimmy Carter demanding that the U.S. cease sending military aid to a government that killed its own citizens.
For his efforts, Salvadorans called Romero the “voice of the voiceless” and “journalist of the poor.”
Despite his courage and humanism, Romero was regarded with suspicion by not only the military regime, but by the Catholic establishment, Salvadoran elites, and the U.S. government (which asked the Vatican to pressure Romero to tone down his opposition). In the face of so much opposition from all side, he continued to double down in his commitment to the voiceless and powerless.
In 1978, Romero founded Socorro Jurídico, a legal aid office that would go on to document hundreds of kidnappings, tortures and murders carried out by the Salvadoran armed forces and paramilitary troops.
On March 23, 1980, Romero concluded his Sunday sermon with an appeal to Salvadoran soldiers to cease killing their fellow citizens.
“Les suplico, les ruego, les ordeno en nombre de Dios: Cese la represión!” he cried to a frenzied ovation in the cathedral. “I beg you, in the name of God, stop the repression!”
He was killed the next day. The murder remains unsolved.
Almost 15 years later, when a peace agreement ended the violence, Socorro Jurídico was a key source for the United Nations Truth Commission’s report on the Salvadoran civil war.
Despite his courage and subsequent legacy, Romero’s association with the still-controversial liberation theology movement has made his canonization — which will be the first of Central America-born figure — troubling to some conservative Catholics.
Fortunately, the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, was a Jesuit with a similar background in social work. His tenure has subsequently been marked by a strong emphasis on traditionally progressive causes, such as environmentalism, supporting refugees, and alleviating poverty and inequality. Romero’s recognition as a martyr and saint thus suits the current direction of his papacy — and may start a precedent.
Pope Francis’s decision to recognize Romero as a martyr troubles some Vatican officials, who believe Romero was killed for his leftist politics. Supporters of his canonization argue that Romero’s human rights work flowed from his faith.
The Catholic Church has previously recognized martyrs murdered under similarly unclear circumstances, including the Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in place of another captive at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Recognizing Romero as a martyr–saint opens the door for the canonization of other slain Latin American bishops. Top in line are Enrique Angelelli, assassinated in 1976 during Argentina’s military dictatorship, and the Guatemalan Juan Jose Gerardi, who was beaten to death in 1998, two days after publishing a chronicle of his own country’s bloody civil war.