On 24 March 1980, Archbishop Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass. He was the most high-profile victim of El Salvador’s civil war between powerful landowners and the dispossessed.
“No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God…The church is the defender of God’s rights, God’s law, human dignity and the worth of persons. It cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We ask the government to consider seriously the fact that reforms are of no use when they are steeped in all this blood. In the name of God and in the name of this suffering people whose screams and cries mount to heaven, and daily grow louder, I beg you, I entreat you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression.”
The voice of the voiceless
Oscar Arnulfo Romero uttered these words to a packed cathedral on March 23, 1980. He was the Archbishop of San Salvador, capital city of a small nation of roughly four million people. The following day, as he said Mass at Divine Providence Hospital, a shot rang out, shattering the solemnity of the service and taking with it the life of a man who came to be known as the “voice of the voiceless”.
The twelve-year civil war in El Salvador officially ended in 1992, and efforts to rebuild the country’s economy and morale continue. In addition to Romero, an estimated 100,000 Salvadorans died during those twelve years. Many more Salvadorans were displaced. An estimated 200,000 live in the Washington DC area alone.
The blood of the martyrs
I was fourteen years old when Romero was assassinated. I watched the television reports from a safe distance. I had only been in the US for a year, so the reality of war and the conditions that led to the political upheaval were still fresh in my mind. Having grown up in the scenically beautiful but politically unstable Guatemala City, I felt a kinship with the people of El Salvador.
As I sat in front of the TV, listening to the CBS evening news, I was dumbfounded upon learning of Archbishop Romero’s death in the most sacred of places. He was not the first Salvadoran or religious to be killed and he would not be the last. His death came upon the heels, three years earlier, of the assassination of Rutilio Grande, a Salvadoran Jesuit who was shot dead along with two civilians. Many believe that Grande’s death was the catalyst which transformed Romero from a ‘conservative’ Church representative to a conscientious representative of God’s word. The call by Catholic priests and other religious, to bear ‘true witness’ to Christ was heard throughout the Salvadoran reality of the 19808. Be it in the words of Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas – “Even if the voice of the Church dies in the desert, we will continue shouting” – or in those of Ignacio Martin-Baró, one of the six Jesuits murdered in 1989 – “Go where the real people are and get in touch with their suffering” – the call is loud and clear throughout.
Archbishop Romero’s death is reminiscent of that of another courageous theologian who resisted towing the party line, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Much like Bonhoeffer, who died at the hands of the Nazis while proclaiming a more authentic commitment to the word of God and to the role of his Church, Romero died professing not only his faith, but also his commitment to those whose voices would be silenced by oppression. Romero died twenty-three years ago, but his words and the meaning of his life still resound in the spirit of the Salvadoran people and in the spirit of many who stand in solidarity with them.
Martyrdom and resurrection in Latin America
Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ is the former Provincial of the British Province and currently works in the San Antonio Abad parish in San Salvador. He remembers the heroism of Romero and the spirit of hope and justice which survived his murder.
The Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellín in Columbia in 1968 marked a turning point for the Catholic Church in Latin America. From being one of the pillars of the establishment together with the military and the landowners, the Church found itself confronting that establishment in the name of the poor and dispossessed. The results were predictable: an increased hostility from those whose interests were threatened, expressing itself in arrests, torture, assassination and the general persecution of a Church which the wealthy and powerful no longer controlled and no longer cared to recognise.
This was the general background against which Monseñor Romero began his three year ministry as Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. He was by no means the obvious choice for the job. Timid, retiring, hesitant, conservative in thought and action, his past record had not commended itself to the majority of priests in the diocese. He was the candidate of the Nuncio (who had consulted the government), the military, business circles, and the society ladies, all of whom felt he would be “one of ours”. When the announcement was made, there was an avalanche of protests and widespread dismay among the more progressive.
The road to Damascus
The story of Romero’s conversion is well known. While its importance should not be exaggerated, the assassination, three weeks after Romero had taken over as Archbishop, of Rutilio Grande, a young Salvadoran Jesuit, together with an old man and a 15 year old boy as they were on their way to celebrate Mass, had a profound and lasting effect on him. Romero and Rutilio had come to know each other 10 years before when both were living in the diocesan seminary.
As soon as he heard of the assassination, Romero left the city and went to the church where they had laid out the three bodies. There, he celebrated Mass with the Jesuit Provincial, César Jerez, and then, with peasants, he spent part of the night in prayer and part seeking advice on what should be done. As he recounted afterwards, that night he read the Gospel anew through the eyes of the poor and oppressed. He began to understand what Jesus has to say, and therefore what he as Archbishop should also be saying, to the persecuted and the underprivileged.
When morning came, he summoned his priests and advisers and decided to boycott all state occasions and meetings with the president until an investigation into Rutilio’s death was carried out. It never was, and Romero, all the time he was Archbishop, never attended any state occasion. In the face of strong opposition from the Papal Nuncio, he decided to suspend all Masses in the capital the following Sunday and celebrate just one Mass in the Cathedral with all his priests, as a sign of protest to the Government and of solidarity with Rutilio and the cause for which he died. Over 150 priests concelebrated the Mass, which was attended by 100,000 people. For many, and not just Romero, it marked a turning point.
Romero, growing in strength and conviction, became the defender of the oppressed, the conscience of a nation. His Sunday sermons in the cathedral often lasted up to one and a half hours. When they were broadcast by the diocesan radio they were listened to by friend and foe alike throughout the country.
To the government and the military, Romero was a permanent threat, a thorn in the side, a subversive voice that had to be silenced. The radio station was twice blown up and repaired, but in the end the powerful and wealthy saw no other solution but to silence him for good.
Two weeks before his assassination, Romero replied to a Mexican journalist, who asked him if he were afraid of death: “I have often been threatened with death. I have to say, as a Christian, that I don’t believe in death without resurrection: if they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. If the threats are carried out, even now, I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace of God I don’t think I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my blood be the seed of liberty and the sign that hope will soon become reality. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”
This article first appeared in AMDG, a publication of the Irish Jesuits.