By Jose Adan Cuadra
On the 24th of March 1980, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, was shot and killed as he said mass at the altar of the Hospital of Divine Providence in El Salvador.
Earlier this year, almost 35 years after his death, Monsignor Romero was declared a martyr of the Catholic Church, paving the way for his beatification, which will take place on Saturday (May 23rd) in the Holy Saviour’s Square in San Salvador.
This event has filled those of us who have been inspired by the life and martyrdom of Monsignor Romero with great joy. It strengthens our faith and our belonging to a church that has demonstrated closeness to and solidarity with the poor, the weak, the excluded and the forgotten of this world.
To understand the importance of Monsignor Romero’s legacy and the significance of his martyrdom, one must understand the context under which he practiced his pastoral duties. Monsignor Romero was named as Bishop for the Diocese of Santiago de María in October 1974. During his ministry there he began to witness and experience the harsh reality of poverty and exploitation in which the vast majority of the peasants in his diocese lived. He began to realize how the poverty and social injustice suffered by so many of his parishioners contrasted with the ostentatious lifestyle of a very few rich and powerful families. These rich families who attended church and gave money for works of charity were the same ones who denied the peasant farmers access to land, better wages and an improved standard of living.
Monsignor Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977 in the midst of a growing climate of injustice, social protest, insecurity, repression and political assassinations and disappearances. The military regime, which had come to power as a result of electoral fraud, was ruling the country through a reign of terror and repression as a means of defending its own interests and the interests of major financial and agricultural exportation industries of the time.
The repressive state apparatus of the military regime was increasing its use of executions, murders, massacres, disappearances and torture against peasant leaders and workers who were organizing to defend their human rights. Certain sectors of the Catholic Church, including priests, nuns and lay people, were also targeted as a result of their devotion to the needs of the poor and the oppressed in El Salvador.
Monsignor Romero was profoundly affected by the misery and injustice that were so evident in El Salvador, the constant violations of human rights of the most vulnerable people and the killings of innocent people, many of whom were close to him. He was converted to the struggle for peace and justice and throughout his ministry as Archbishop of San Salvador he was a great defender of the poor, as well as a harsh critic of social injustice.
A letter written by Archbishop Romero to Trócaire just two weeks before he was assassinated. Trócaire funded the Archbishop's work in El Salvador.
Monsignor Romero preached from the pulpit about the events taking place in El Salvador. He denounced the violations of human rights, he defended victims of the regime and urged the aggressors to choose peace over violence. He also called for an end to the violence and repression. Monsignor Romero put the Archdiocese at the service of the truth, justice and reconciliation.
As a result of his activism, the powerful Salvadoran economic, political and military elites came to perceive Romero as a dangerous enemy. They feared the power of his discourse and his public denunciations of human rights violations, and they resented his closeness to and solidarity with the poor. For these reasons, they defamed him, harassed him and eventually plotted his murder.
If those who murdered him thought that with his death they would silence his voice and thus end the commitment of the Catholic Church in El Salvador to the struggle for the liberation of the poor, they were wrong. His martyrdom sparked a fresh wave of enthusiasm, commitment and hope among the people of El Salvador. They were filled with the conviction that a different El Salvador was possible, one free of misery, injustice, repression, exploitation and oppression of the many by the few.
Following his martyrdom, support for Monsignor Romero’s vision inside and outside of El Salvador only grew. I was one of many of the people who recognized Monsignor Romero as a man of God; a good man, an honest man, with a large heart and a man who died while working towards a better world. More of us recognized his deep spirituality, his love for the poor, his bravery in defending life and his exceptional saintliness.
Since the moment of his death, the majority of Salvadorans and many people of good will throughout the world have recognized Monsignor Romero as a saint.
The official recognition of Monsignor Romero’s martyrdom by the Catholic Church and his beatification is, without doubt, wonderful news. It provides both the Salvadoran and the Universal Church with a contemporary role model who, by his actions, demonstrated to us the path to God and how to build His kingdom of justice and love on earth.
Jose Adan Cuadra works for Trócaire's El Salvador office.