Oscar Romero: one-time conservative who became a nation's social martyr

Late Salvadoran archbishop is to be canonised by Pope Francis on Sunday

There is something about the murder of a priest saying Mass that has always stirred the Christian imagination. The priest is then at his most vulnerable while celebrating the central rite of his calling, the Eucharist, which is at the very core of communion between believers and God.

It is a most sacred event for priest and worshippers. His murder in its midst is so shocking that believers deem it not just a sacrilege but an act of such blasphemy and utter barbarity it could even be seen as an assault on God himself.

The innocence of the priest celebrating the central role of his vocation contrasts so graphically with the cold evil that cuts him down that believers, almost immediately, elevate him to the status of saintly martyr.

So it was with St Stanislaus Bishop of Krakow in the 11th century; with Thomas Beckett Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century; and with Archbishop Oscar Romero in the 20th century. He will be canonised in Rome by Pope Francis on Sunday, October 14th.


St Stanislaus had a difficult relationship with King Boleslaw II of Poland who is said to have himself killed the Saint in 1079 as he was saying Mass in Krakow.

At Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170 four knights loyal to King Henry II killed Archbishop Thomas Becket there as he was on his way to Vespers. They sliced the crown off his head with their swords.

It was claimed that, in exasperation at the Archbishop’s actions, King Henry had said sometime beforehand “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

The knights obliged.

Refused to be silenced

Archbishop Romero was assassinated in San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, in March 1980 by a right-wing death squad because he refused to be silenced in condemning the murder and torture of the people by the country's regime as well as the poverty and injustices being inflicted on them.

His murder had about it something of vengeance inspired by the sense of betrayal felt by authorities of church and state in El Salvador who had expected Romero would be an altogether more compliant archbishop based on his track record. Romero had been a very careful, orthodox, safe (where the status quo was concerned) pair of hands up to then.

But he became isolated by a deed, the murder three years beforehand of his friend Jesuit priest Father Rutilio Grande by security forces of El Salvador, The priest was an outspoken critic of injustices perpetrated by El Salvador’s government and had organised impoverished rural farmers to demand their rights. This displeased local landowners, to say the least.

Fellow priests told him he suffered with scrupulosity (a spiritual equivalent of obsessive compulsive disorder)

Later Archbishop Romero said: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path’. ”

Born in eastern El Salvador on August 15th, 1917, Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez was one of eight children. After school he was training to be an apprentice carpenter with his father when he felt the call to priesthood and entered the junior seminary in the city of San Miguel at the age of 13.

Later he attended the national seminary in San Salvador and completed his studies for the priesthood in Rome where he was ordained in April 1942.

Returning home in 1943 he worked in San Miguel for 25 years. He lived a simple life and was a popular preacher who responded warmly to the poor. In 1966, suffering from exhaustion, he went on retreat and also visited a psychiatrist who told him he suffered from an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

Fellow priests told him he suffered with scrupulosity (a spiritual equivalent of obsessive compulsive disorder).

There followed seven years in the capital city San Salvador as an ecclesiastical bureaucrat. He became secretary to the Bishops Conference of El Salvador and also director of the diocesan newspaper Orientación. Under his editorship it was very conservative, faithfully following the line from Rome.

In 1970 he was ordained Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of San Salvador, an appointment welcomed by El Salvador’s government but a disappointment to many priests who believed his conservativism would frustrate their commitment to the poor, so central to the liberation theology they espoused.

His reputation was as a reactionary prelate who was seemingly unsympathetic to social justice issues. He was believed to be suspicious of those priests and communities in the archdiocese which were working with the rural poor and promoting social organisations as well as land reform.

A period in rural El Salvador as Bishop of Santiago de Maria opened his eyes to the misery and hardship of the people. It was there he witnessed murders and the repression they suffered at the hands of security forces.

To everyone’s surprise he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977. The following month his friend Fr Grande was murdered. Archbishop Romero called on the government to investigate the murder but was ignored. A censored media also remained silent. The die was cast.

Social and political voice

He found his voice and began to speak out publicly against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. He began to be noticed abroad, particularly when he criticised the US for giving military aid to the government in El Salvador.

In 1980 he wrote to US president Jimmy Carter warning that such military aid would "undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the political repression inflicted on the organised people, whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights."

Just as the El Salvadorian authorities ignored him in calling for an investigation into Fr Grande’s death, president Carter now ignored him too and US military aid to the government of El Salvador continued.

Social and political conflict in El Salvador intensified with electoral fraud blocking change and peaceful protests being met with massacres and death squad killings. From his cathedral pulpit Archbishop Romero became the voice of the voiceless poor.

He was vilified in the press, attacked and denounced to Rome by wealthy Salvadoran Catholics, harassed by the security forces

He denounced the killings, the torture and the disappearances of community leaders; he demanded justice and recompense for the atrocities by the army and police and set up legal aid projects and pastoral programmes to support the victims of violence.

With the emergence of armed guerrilla groups on the far left, civil war seemed inevitable. Rejecting the violence perpetrated by the left as well as the right, he promoted peaceful solutions to the crisis.

He was vilified in the press, attacked and denounced to Rome by wealthy Salvadoran Catholics, harassed by the security forces and publically opposed by several brother bishops.

But he was not without honour beyond his homeland. In February 1980 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Belgium's University of Louvain. In a speech there, he denounced the persecution in El Salvador of members of the Catholic Church who worked with and for the poor.

“In less than three years, more than 50 priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs – they were murdered. Some have been tortured and others expelled [from the country]. Nuns have also been persecuted. The archdiocesan radio station and educational institutions that are Catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been attacked, threatened, intimidated, even bombed. Several parish communities have been raided.

“If all this has happened to persons who are the most evident representatives of the Church, you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christians . . . There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands . . . But it is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted.

“Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the Church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defence. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the Church: the poor,” he said.

A gunman emerged from a red coloured vehicle outside and stood at the door of the chapel

Archbishop Romero had also begun broadcasting and built up a huge following on Catholic radio in El Salvador. He broadcast the names of those who had disappeared, were murdered and tortured, and used the diocesan weekly, Orientación, for the same purpose.

Death threats against him multiplied. He believed he was going to be killed and he came to accept it. Throughout all of this he also remained strongly attracted to the spirituality of the conservative Opus Dei and received weekly spiritual direction from an Opus Dei priest.

On March 23rd, 1980, he gave a sermon calling on El Salvador’s soldiers, as Christians, to stop carrying out government orders in violation of basic human rights. He spent most of March 24th at a retreat organized by Opus Dei, reflecting on the priesthood.

That evening, he celebrated at a small chapel in San Salvador’s Divine Providence Hospital. He had finished his sermon, and taken a few steps to the altar. A gunman emerged from a red coloured vehicle outside and stood at the door of the chapel.

He fired.

At 6.26pm with a single marksman’s bullet to the heart Archbishop Romero fell at the foot of a huge crucifix. The gunman fled, never to be caught.

The funeral Mass on March 30th at San Salvador’s cathedral was attended by more than 250,000 people. During the Mass smoke bombs went off on the streets outside and rifle shots were heard. Many people were killed by gunfire and others died in a stampede of people trying to get away. Estimates of how many died range from 30 to 50.

Archbishop Romero was buried in a crypt beneath the cathedral sanctuary.

Almost immediately moves were made for his canonisation as a martyr but these were hampered at the Vatican and by senior figures in the South American Church who feared it could be seen as an endorsement of liberation theology, also strongly disapproved of by Pope John Paul.

However in 1983 and again in 1996 Pope John Paul himself visited Archbishop Romero’s tomb in San Salvador. In 1997 the Archbishop was declared a Servant of God by Pope John Paul, the first step towards canonisation.

Not much else happened until the election of Pope Francis in 2013. Archbishop Romero was beatified in 2015 as a martyr (no miracle required). Four miracles attributed to the Archbishop were then submitted to the Vatican as grounds for canonisation. All but one were rejected.

The one approved concerned Cecilia Maribel Flores, a woman in San Salvador who was expected to die during the latter stages of pregnancy but who, inexplicably, survived as did her baby. The miracle was approved last March by Pope Francis, clearing the way for next Sunday's canonisation.

But as the Catholic Church dithered about making Archbishop Romero a saint, there was no such hesitation where the Anglicans were concerned. They have long looked on Oscar Romero as a saint.

On March 24th, 1980, the day that Oscar Romero was murdered at the altar, Dr Robert Runcie was installed as Archbishop of Canterbury in the cathedral there. He insisted the ceremony be adjusted so he could go to the spot where Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in a political murder 800 years before, and there he offered a special prayer for the still unburied Archbishop in San Salvador.

Beforehand Dr Runcie, as Bishop of St Albans, was one of the first to speak in support of Archbishop Romero at the House of Lords; while the British Government was selling crowd control equipment to the Salvadoran regime.

In 1998, Westminster Abbey decided to place 10 statues of modern martyrs over its great west door; one of them was of Archbishop Romero.

The Anglican Communion had, effectively, canonised Oscar Romero 20 years before the Catholic Church will do so.

Ireland and Oscar Romero

On the day Archbishop Romero was murdered, the then chairman of Trócaire and its founder Bishop Eamonn Casey, then Bishop of Galway, disclosed it had received a letter from the Archbishop, dated March 1st, 1980, seeking funds to rebuild radio equipment destroyed by security forces.

Trócaire had funded the El Salvador Human Rights Commission, founded by Archbishop Romero in a response to the killing of thousands of people. "Not having the radio," Archbishop Romero wrote, "deprives us of a means so important here." He also said to Bishop Casey: "I would like once more to thank your kindness and preoccupation for our country and our Church and the kindness of the Irish Bishop's Conference and Trócaire's." Trócaire made a grant of £10,950 for the transmitter's replacement.

On March 31st, 1980, Bishop Casey attended the Archbishop’s funeral in San Salvador. Despite massive intimidation thousands of Salvadorans packed the cathedral and the plaza outside. It ended in a bloodbath. Before the coffin could be carried to the cathedral crypt guns were fired on the crowds.

Bishop Casey was an eye witness to the murder of dozens of mourners. He saw snipers operating from the presidential palace and the panic of the people. He helped the wounded and the dying and over the following weeks he travelled to Washington, the UN, and the capitals of Europe to explain the barbarity of the Salvadoran government and sheer brutality of its army.

Trócaire has continued its support of the work of Archbishop Romero, announcing its Romero Awards last October to highlight the efforts of people in Ireland and across the world who raise awareness of human rights violations and support people who are experiencing hardship.

It has also set up a Romero Fund to help its human rights programmes in DR Congo, Guatemala, Occupied Palestinian Territories and Pakistan. Trócaire's Ambassador for the Romero Fund is John McColgan, director of Riverdance.

Irish Anglicans are also interested in Archbishop Romero. In 2002 then Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Walton Empey visited Oscar Romero's tomb in San Salvador. As he recalled in a letter to this newspaper in 2005 "We went down into the crypt to see Archbishop Romero's tomb and were astonished to find a huge congregation of poor people, in stark contrast to the handful of people in the cathedral nave.

“When they heard we were Anglicans from Ireland I was literally pushed to the very front of the congregation and invited to address them at the end of the Mass. The reason for this warmth and enthusiasm was that they were fully aware that Archbishop Romero was honoured in Westminster Abbey as one of the significant martyrs of the 20th century, which was something not acknowledged by the Vatican.”

In 2013, President Michael D Higgins visited the tomb in San Salvador's Cathedral and said the assassination in 1980 set off the great interest in Ireland in the small war-torn country.

He said “the struggle of the poor” in El Salvador was represented by his murder and by the killing of 30 to 50 mourners at his funeral by government forces. The Archbishop’s death drew “such attention to the situation in El Salvador that the indiscriminate killings [were] suddenly in the gaze of the world,” he said.

In 1979, the year before Archbishop Romero was assassinated, Dubliner Brendan Butler co-founded the Irish El Salvador Support Committee. His brother-in-law, Franciscan priest Fr Gerry Moore, ministered in one of the most war-torn areas of El Salvador in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

One of the group’s first actions was to write to Archbishop Romero offering solidarity and to invite him to Ireland. His reply thanking them remains one of the group’s more treasured possessions.

Mr Butler attended the beatification of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador in 2015 and will attend the canonisation in Rome next Sunday.

It was at a 2005 Mass in Dublin to mark the 25th anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s murder, organised by the group, that Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin announced the death of Pope John Paul.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times