Gunshots shattered the solemnity of a March 24, 1980 Mass in a small chapel outside of San Salvador. Moments later, a man many considered a prophet and the voice for the voiceless, lay dead in a pool of his own blood.
The poor of El Salvador soon called Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero a martyr and a saint; the Vatican followed suit 35 years later.
On Feb. 3, Pope Francis, an Argentinean whose familiarity with Latin America is much greater than his predecessors’, unblocked the cause for Archbishop Romero and declared him a martyr for the faith. Monse√±or Romero (a Spanish term used with endearment in reference to the archbishop) will be beatified May 23.
“Martyr means witness,” said Father Cristobal Guardado Gonzalez of Our Lady of Loretto, who was a seminarian in San Salvador at the time of the archbishop’s assassination. “The name martyr is applied exclusively to one who gives witness in blood … gives their life through fidelity in giving testimony to Christ. Monse√±or Romero is a great witness.”
In 1980, an estimated 65 percent of Salvadorans were landless. The oligarchy welcomed the archbishop’s assignment because they thought he would maintain the status quo. Marxists and followers of liberation theology, who were grouped together by right-wing leaders, despite differences in their ideologies, feared he would not be sympathetic to the causes of the poor.
Even with the conservative Archbishop Romero in the cathedral, the government saw the Church as a threat, a force working for the poor and for workers’ rights. Repression, threats and harassment increased.
Three weeks after he became archbishop, the assassination of his friend, Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, radically changed Monse√±or Romero.
Confronted with the bullet-ridden body of Father Grande, the archbishop was newly awakened to the struggle of the poor against repression and the mission of the Church for the poor. At that point, he not only saw their suffering, he embraced it and made it his own, becoming one with them.
Monse√±or Romero now saw in the faces of the poor the face of the suffering and crucified Christ. He understood that to authentically be their shepherd, to be the face of the hope of Christ to them, he would have to take up their cross and carry it, even should that path lead him to his personal Calvary.
Like Christ, who became one of us to redeem us, Archbishop Romero became one of the poor. Like Christ, who bore our cross of redemption, Romero took the sufferings of the people upon himself as his own.
“The greatest sign of a faith in a God of life is the witness of those who are willing to give up their own life,” Archbishop Romero said. “As a Christian, I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”
Father Gonzalez said, “When he talked of his death, he was not speaking in arrogance, but in a humble sense. As a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, he understood that death is not the end.”
Archbishop Romero called for a love and reverence of God first and foremost, particularly in the Eucharist. From there, he believed, peace flowed.
The archbishop continually called upon the forces on the right to repent of their sins and selfishness, experience a conversion and view the poor as their brothers and sisters, as human beings. Romero sought to save souls on both the left and the right.
“He was not a promoter of Liberation Theology,” said Father Gonzalez. “That was not his intention. He was a humble pastor who lived and suffered with the poor, the oppressed and frightened people.”
Concerns about Archbishop Romero’s Marxist leanings were born of cold war era thinking. Father Gonzalez believes it was hard for Saint John Paul II to fully understand the situation in El Salvador because the concept of communism there was so different from that of his native Poland.
“The problem in El Salvador was not communists,” Father Gonzalez continued. “It was the suffering of the oppressed poor who wanted better conditions and better distribution of resources which were in the hands of so few.
“In El Salvador, if you are poor, you are communist. If you are organized in the Church, you are communist,” said Father Gonzalez. “[They thought] everything was communist.”
Archbishop Romero’s Sunday homilies were broadcast over the radio for the entire nation to hear.
“When he spoke, it was a kind of transfiguration,” said Father Gonzalez of Archbishop Romero. “He was such a timid and humble man, but on Sunday, when he was preaching in the cathedral, he was a powerful man of God!
“His homily was literally everywhere. You could walk on the street and you could hear it. Everyone was listening in their houses. He was the voice of the people.”
His enemies were listening also. Scathing attacks of his homily would appear in the newspapers.
The Sunday before his assassination, Archbishop Romero’s homily called upon Salvadoran soldiers to disobey their orders if asked to attack innocent civilians. His homily ended with the words, “In the name of God, I urge you, I plead with you, I order you: stop the killing.”
Despite fear and repression “we had many vocations in the seminary,” Gonzalez said. The other Salvadoran bishops, however, abandoned Archbishop Romero. They sent their seminarians out of the country because they thought the archbishop and his seminarians were a problem.
The hierarchy of the Church was wary of him. Pope Saint John Paul II eased some of those tensions by praying at the tomb of Monse√±or Romero in 1983. Today, he is seen as a unifying figure in the Church and hailed as a great saint of the Americas.
“Today, 35 years later, young people are following Romero and want to learn about him,” said Father Gonzalez. “The bishops promote devotion to him and his cause for sainthood.”
The resurrection of Archbishop Romero in the people of El Salvador has become a reality.