In 1970, Father Oscar Romero was appointed auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Upon his consecration as a bishop, Romero adopted “To be of one mind with the Church” as his episcopal motto.
Today, 34 years after his assassination at the altar and 17 years after Pope St. John Paul II approved his cause for canonization, bestowing upon him the title “Servant of God,” the Church has decided that Romero was indeed “of one mind with the Church.”
During his plane ride home from South Korea on August 18, Pope Francis confirmed that he had lifted a prudential block on Romero’s cause, paving the way for his beatification in the near future.
“There are no doctrinal problems and it is very important that it is done quickly,” said the Holy Father. “For me, he is a man of God.”
Pope Francis was actualy confirming news that had come out last year, though that may have not been noticed by most of the Catholic world. In April 2013, during a Mass honoring the 20th anniversary of the death of Bishop Antonio "Tonino" Bello, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, prefect of the Pontifical Council for the Family and postulator of Romero’s cause, declared that, “Just today … the cause of the beatification of Monsignor Romero has been unblocked.”
A few months later, in July, Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), announced that an examination of Romero’s doctrinal orthodoxy had been completed and that the CDF had no objection to the cause moving forward.
“I see Oscar Arnulfo Romero as a great witness of the faith and a man who was thirsty for social justice,” said Cardinal Müller at the time, noting that as early as 2007 Pope Benedict XVI said he thought Romero “worthy of beatification.”
These developments are of particular importance to Catholics in Central and South America, especially the poor, who view Romero as a champion of their cause for social, political and economic justice. Devotion to Romero has flourished among El Salvador’s poor since his assassination, and he is frequently referred to throughout Latin America as San Romero de América: Saint Romero of America.
Romero was born in 1917 in El Salvador’s district of San Miguel. He was educated in a minor seminary in San Miguel, the Salvadoran national seminary in San Salvador, and at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he was ordained in 1942. For the first 25 years of his priesthood, Romero served in ordinary roles, mostly in the Diocese of San Miguel: parish priest, pastor, and seminary rector. He also served as secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of El Salvador, and editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, Orientación in San Salvador.
But in 1970, with his appointment as an auxiliary bishop, Romero’s life and priestly career got on the fast track. In 1974, he was appointed as bishop of Santiago de Maria, a remote diocese in an impoverished rural part of the country. Then, in 1977, Romero was made Archbishop of San Salvador. At the time, his elevation was cheered by elites, who viewed him as a traditional cleric likely to defend their political and economic domination of the country. It is easy to see why El Salvador’s power elites were inclined to trust Romero. He had staked out a reputation as a traditional churchman who avoided direct involvement in politics and vigorously defended the magisterial teaching of the Church.
But the murder of Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, a friend of Romero’s who had been working to organize the rural poor, changed something in Romero. Grande was shot and killed along with two others less than a month after Romero assumed the chair of San Salvador. An official statement put out by Romero’s Archdiocese said, "The true reason for his death was his prophetic and pastoral efforts to raise the consciousness of the people throughout his parish. Father Grande…was only slowly forming a genuine community of faith, hope and love among them, he was making them aware of their dignity as individuals … It is work that disturbs many; and to end it, it was necessary to liquidate its proponent.”
Then, as now, El Salvador was a desperately poor, densely populated country marked by grotesque economic inequality. For generations, a tiny elite class of landowners had conspired with the government and foreign corporations to appropriate the natural wealth of the country while keeping the majority of Salvadorans poor. Attempts at reform in the 1960’s and 70’s resulted in a ferocious backlash by the landowners and their allies in government and the military. That backlash included brutal repression of the Church whenever it spoke out against injustice and violence.
This was the political environment in which Oscar Romero assumed his responsibilities as Archbishop of San Salvador. He began to speak out on behalf of the poor, decrying the violence of death squads and private militias, calling for political and economic reforms that would bring some measure of dignity to both campesinos – rural peasants – and the urban poor. For his efforts, the government redoubled its persecution of the Church. As Romero wrote in 1980:
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, to the campesinos, catechists, lay ministers, and to the ecclesial base communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands …
A key date in the evolution of events was October 14, 1979. On that day a group of current and former military officers called the Revolutionary Government Junta (JRG) deposed the president and took power in a coup d’etat. The coup was welcomed by, among others, the United States Government, which immediately began providing the new government with military aid, much of which found its way into the hands of private death squads and paramilitary groups. Romero famously wrote a letter to US President Jimmy Carter, begging him to stop supporting the JRG. His pleas were ignored.
On Sunday, March 23, 1980, Romero preached a sermon at the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Holy Savior in which he called upon Salvadoran soldiers to fulfill their responsibilities as Christians and refuse orders that violated the human rights of the people.
I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, "Thou shalt not kill." No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.
The following day, March 24, Romero celebrated Mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital. Most of those attending were nuns from a nursing order. As he elevated a chalice filled with the just-confected Precious Blood, a gunman shot Romero from the back of the chapel. He died almost immediately. At his funeral Mass six days later, nearly a quarter of a million people crowded the area around the cathedral, which apparently enraged the JRG, which opened fire on the crowd, killing between 30 and 50 mourners and wounding scores of others.
Almost immediately, Romero’s legacy was the subject of dispute, both within and outside the Church. Those on the political right charged him with being a Marxist and a supporter of violent revolution. Those on the left appropriated his memory as an apostle of liberation theology.
In fact, he was neither. As the writer Filip Mazurczak has said, “While the left has come to glorify Romero, right-wing politicians in El Salvador have accused him of inspiring leftist guerrilla violence. In reality, Romero sought a peaceful solution to El Salvador’s troubles. In his third pastoral letter, written in 1978, Romero condemned leftist guerrilla violence as ‘terrorist’ and ‘seditious.’ In the fourth letter written one year later, the archbishop of San Salvador reminded the nation that violence was justifiable only in extreme situations when all other alternatives have been exhausted, citing Catholic just war theory.”
Romero’s own words buttress Mazurczak’s assertion. “Marxism is a complex phenomenon,” wrote Romero in a pastoral letter. “It has to be studied from various points of view: economic, scientific, political, philosophical and religious. One has, moreover, to study Marxism in terms of its own history. What the church asserts … is that insofar as Marxism is an atheistic ideology it is incompatible with the Christian faith. That conviction has never changed in the Church’s history. In that sense, the church cannot be Marxist.”
In the same letter, Romero also noted that the charge of Marxism is often cast at contemporary Christians merely seeking justice. “Worldly interests try to make the Church’s position seem Marxist,” he wrote, “when it is in fact insisting on fundamental human rights and when it is placing the whole weight of its institutional and prophetic authority at the service of the dispossessed and weak.”
For all his focus on the poor, Romero rejected Marxism’s crude taxonomy of class division. “We are not demagogically in favor of one social class,” he said, “we are in favor of God’s reign, and we want to promote justice, love, and understanding, wherever there is a heart well disposed.”
Far from being a Marxist, Romero was in fact a Catholic priest with a deep commitment to the magisterial teaching of the Church and a deep, thoroughly orthodox spirituality. He came late to the struggle of El Salvador’s impoverished majority because his abiding concerns were spiritual and ecclesial, not economic or political.
Romero was first and always a follower of Jesus Christ, and that discipleship characterized his life as a pastor, as well as his martyrdom. Three weeks before he was gunned down, Romero composed the following prayer during an Ignatian retreat. Not only is it prescient regarding the brutality of his death, it reveals in Whom he placed his confidence and love:
Thus do I express my consecration to the heart of Jesus, who was ever a source of inspiration and joy in my life. Thus also I place under his loving providence all my life, and I accept with faith in him my death, however hard it be. I do not want to express an intention to him, such as that my death be for my country's peace or our Church's flourishing. Christ's heart will know how to direct it to the purpose he wishes. For me to be happy and confident, it is sufficient to know with assurance that in him is my life and my death, that in spite of my sins I have placed my trust in him and I shall not be confounded, and others will carry on with greater wisdom and holiness the works of the Church and the nation.
Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.
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