On Sunday, the Catholic Church will have half a dozen new saints as Pope Francis I canonizes five people including Óscar Romero, the former archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated by a US-backed death squad in 1980 after years of peacefully fighting for the rights of his poor and oppressed compatriots.
Romero’s canonization follows a March decree by the Pope attributing two “miracles,” or extraordinary events considered to be the work of the Abrahamic deity figure “God,” to the archbishop. However, it was Romero’s life and deeds, not any purported supernatural powers, that have earned him worldwide recognition and renown as a champion of oppressed people throughout Latin America and beyond.
Chosen by conservative bishops and often critical of left-leaning clergy who spoke out for the poor, Romero, who was 60 when he was consecrated archbishop in 1977, underwent a dramatic transformation after his friend and fellow priest Rutilio Grande was murdered along with two of his parishioners later that year. Grande was killed for speaking out against the grave injustices suffered by El Salvador’s poor, especially indigenous people in the countryside.
As El Salvador slid into a civil war in which around 3,000 people would be murdered each month by US-backed state security forces, Romero stepped up to defend those who needed it most. His weekly radio broadcasts stirred the spirits of the poor and stoked the ire of the authorities and many among the nation’s tiny but wealthy and largely right-wing elite. Government death squads responded by occupying villages, attacking churches and indiscriminately murdering indigenous peasants and often the clergy who sought to protect them.
It was a time when survival meant silence, but Romero chose a different path. He appealed to the international community, particularly to then-US leader Jimmy Carter, who was often called the “human rights president, for help. But the devout Christian farmer from Georgia authorized funding, training and weapons for the right-wing Salvadoran regime, which was an ally in the ideological Cold War against communism. While Romero would get no help from Washington, the death squad government would get a million and a half dollars a day for the next 12 years in military aid from the Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush administrations. American taxpayer dollars would, as they have so often, fund the kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder of tens of thousands of men, women and children.
As regime forces murdered with impunity, Romero traveled his country ministering to and helping the poor. Despite all the bloodshed and the emergence of a potent leftist insurgency, Romero remained a steadfast champion of nonviolence. He wrote:
The counsel of the Gospel to turn the other cheek to an unjust aggressor, far from being passive or cowardly, shows great moral force that leaves the aggressor morally overcome and humiliated. The Christian always prefers peace to war.
Romero knew the risk he was taking. He would often accompany grief-stricken Salvadorans as they searched for murdered loved ones along roadsides and on trash heaps where regime forces dumped the bodies of their victims. Mark Danner, a reporter for the New Yorker, described the atmosphere in El Salvador at the time:
Mutilated corpses... littered the streets of El Salvador’s cities. Sometimes the bodies were headless, or faceless, their features having been obliterated with a shotgun blast or an application of battery acid; sometimes limbs were missing, or hands or feet chopped off, or eyes gouged out; women’s genitals were torn and bloody, bespeaking repeated rape; men’s were often found severed and stuffed into their mouths. And cut into the flesh of a corpse’s back or chest was likely to be the signature of one or another of the “death squads” that had done the work.
Through all this horror, Romero never wavered from his message of hope and nonviolence. “These days,” he said toward the end of his life, “I walk the roads gathering up dead friends, listening to widows and orphans, and trying to spread hope.”
On March 23, 1980, Romero delivered his most impassioned sermon ever. He spoke directly to the murderers, rapists and torturers:
“I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own peasant brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination… In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
The following day, Romero held a mass, preaching the imperative to die as Jesus did so that others could be saved. As he finished speaking, an assassin entered the chapel and shot him through the heart.
“If they succeed in killing me,” Romero once said, “I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”
Romero’s funeral mass at Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador on March 30, 1980 drew over 250,000 mourners from around the world. It was also the largest demonstration in the country’s history. The forces of repression did not rest on that day — regime troops attacked the funeral with bombs and guns, killing at least 40 mourners.
According to participants, Romero’s murder was planned and ordered by the extremist politician and death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson and army Captain Ernesto Avila. Both men were trained at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), also known as the “school of assassins” and “school of coups” because it has produced so many of both through the decades. US trainers taught kidnapping, torture, assassination and democracy suppression at the SOA and D’Aubuisson, who was feared as a “pathological killer,” was an outstanding student. He would later serve as president of El Salvador and would be staunchly supported by the Reagan administration as it ramped up its covert war against leftist regimes and rebellions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
During the meeting planning Romero’s assassination, D’Aubuisson’s men drew straws for the “honor” of murdering the priest of peace. US ambassador Deane Hinton knew about this macabre meeting. So did top US officials, whom Hinton had informed. They did nothing to stop the murder.
Though dead, Romero would continue to inspire others to carry on his work for decades. Sadly, some of them would meet similarly horrific and heartbreaking fates. On December 2, 1980, US Catholic missionaries Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan — the latter who worked with Romero — were kidnapped, raped, tortured and executed by SOA-trained Salvadoran troops. The Reagan administration then attempted to blame the slain churchwomen for their own deaths. On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were massacred by an SOA-trained death squad.
By the time El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992, some 70,000 men, women and children were dead, most of them killed by the US-backed regime. A similar but deadlier US-backed, right-wing genocide of mostly poor Mayan peasants claimed 200,000 lives in neighboring Guatemala. Tens of thousands more were killed by US-backed, SOA-trained right-wing regimes throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, including in Honduras, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru and elsewhere.
Through all the violence and repression, Romero’s message of peace inspired countless oppressed people throughout the region and around the world:
“Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.”