On This Date in Latin America – March 24, 1980: The Assassination of Oscar Romero
Thirty-two years ago today, a Salvadoran death squad with ties to the government gunned down Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador, while he was celebrating mass.
Romero became an ordained priest in 1942, and worked his way up through the Catholic hierarchy in his home country, becoming auxiliary bishop after serving as a parish priest, seminary rector, and secretary of the Bishop Conference in El Salvador. While Romero was a capable and adequate representative of the Church, he also appeared to be more conservative than many who had begun adopting the messages and visions of liberation theology, which used the Gospels and teachings of Jesus to advocate for social justice for the poor and which had become an increasingly important branch of Latin American Catholicism in the 1960s and 1970s. Romero stayed away from such teachings, however, opting for a more ascetic vision of the world. Thus, when the Church appointed Romero Archbishop of El Salvador in February 1977, ironically, the conservative Salvadoran government was thrilled and many who advocated social justice and liberation theology were angry.
However, Romero soon began to adopt many of the causes, if not the name itself, of liberation theology. Less than three weeks after Romero’s appointment, his close friend and practitioner of liberation theology Rutílio Grande, a Jesuit priest, was assassinated, along with two companions. The event proved to be a turning point in Romero’s theology; after saying mass over the bodies, he spoke with local peasants who suffered from poverty and increasing repression. The next day, Romero declared he would not attend any government functions until the government investigated the case, which it never did, and Romero remained true to his word, not attending a single state function during his time as archbishop. Romero also spoke out against the murder, suggesting political opponents had murdered Rutílio Grande due to “his prophetic and pastoral efforts to raise the consciousness of the people throughout his parish. Father Grande, without offending and forcing himself upon his flock in the practice of their religion, was only slowly forming a genuine community of faith, hope and love among them, he was making them aware of their dignity as individuals, of their basic rights as words, his was an effort toward comprehensive human development. “
From that point forward, Romero made it a point to promote social justice and speak out for El Salvador’s poor, allegedly declaring that “if they killed him [Rutílio Grande] for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.” Romero increasingly visited the villages of the Salvadoran poor, thus breaking with the Catholic Church’s traditional role in El Salvador, one that had implicitly supported the government and its use of repression to protect the rights of the wealthy, landed, and powerful minority. As paramilitary groups increased their use of violence against those fighting for and alongside the poor, Romero continued to promote social justice and equality, speaking out against the ongoing failure to address the situation of El Salvador’s impoverished majority, torture, repression, and the persecution of the church, especially those who advocated social justice. He was also critical of the US government, which had been providing aid to the Salvadoran army, declaring that ongoing aid to the Salvadoran military would only increase and perpetuate the repression and human rights abuses, a plea that Jimmy Carter (and, later, Ronald Reagan) ignored.
While Romero’s message was popular among many Salvadorans and liberation theologists, it also increasingly angered the political and economic elites, as well as more conservative military forces. By 1980, the country, which had seen a military coup the previous year, was descending into civil war. In this context, Romero continued to speak out for the poor. On March 24, while giving mass in a small chapel near a hospital, a car drove up to the front of the chapel, shots fired out, and Romero fell dead, allegedly shot while lifting the chalice for mass.
Many throughout the world mourned the loss of the archbishop, and 250,000 people gathered for his funeral, where violence again marred the scene after gunshots, most likely fired by government forces, rang out from the National Palace, and as people fled in panic, at least 31 bodies were lying dead on the ground. While no charges were ever filed in the years and decades since the assassination, investigations have found that a government-supported death squads led by Captain Álvaro Rafael Saravia, with direct ties to Major Roberto D’Aubisson (who died of cancer in 1992), were responsible for the act, and on the thirtieth anniversary of Romero’s assassination, Salvadoran President Maurício Funes issued an official apology for the murder and acknowledged the participation of state agents in the death of Romero.
While Romero’s death was the highest profile murder in that El Salvador’s nascent civil war, another 75,000 would die before hostilities finally ceased in 1992. However, many of the social inequalities continue to plague El Salvador. Meanwhile, for his theological transformation and his efforts to speak for justice and peace, combined with his assassination, made Romero a martyr and a hero to many. Although the canonization process of Romero had begun, it has ground to a halt under Pope Benedict XVI, one of the major opponents to liberation theology, and Ratzinger was a key figure in the Church’s refusal of and crackdown on its practitioners. However, while Romero’s official canonization has stalled, to many in El Salvador today, he is already a popular saint.