The Martydom of Archbishop Oscar Romero

Nowadays an authentic Christian conversion must lead to an unmasking of the social mechanisms that turn the worker and the peasant into marginalized persons. Why do the rural poor become part of society only in the coffee-and-cotton-picking seasons?

—– Archbishop Oscar Romero

In concrete terms capitalism is in fact what is most unjust and unchristian about our own society.

—–Archbishop Oscar Romero

The dammed blood burst, a scarlet torrent cascaded through his skull, down into his mouth, then gushed onto his purple-and-white vestments as he slumped to the floor at the foot of the large crucifix behind the altar. Opening his arms to offer the Eucharist, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot in the heart, the most forgiving heart in San Salvador. The unforgiving bullet scattered fragments through his chest, triggering massive internal hemorrhage.

While friends dashed to his side and flipped him on his back, the killer, escorted to the mass by two police patrols, escaped into the street. Then a photographer shot Romero again with flashes.

Unconscious, gasping, lifeblood ebbing away, Romero was carried from the chapel to a small truck and driven to the hospital, where he was laid out on a table in the emergency room. A nurse probed for a vein in his arm, but all had collapsed.

He strangled to death in his own blood.

Stunned by the news blaring from every radio, Salvadoreans poured into the streets as twilight fell. Sadly chimed the church bells of the Cathedral of San Martin, quickly followed by those of Palmar and San Francisco. In Santa Ana all the bells rang in unison, while back in San Salvador enormous crowds wandered the streets aimlessly, staring in disbelief.

Mourners swarmed into the capital for days, standing in line for hours to catch a glimpse of the man whose belief in their humanity cost him his life. Dozens of foreign bishops and church dignitaries flew in to pay their last respects.

Six days after the assassination, one hundred thousand people jammed the cathedral square for the funeral. A sudden burst of machine-gun fire from the second floor of the National Palace interrupted the proceedings. Bullets ripped into the grieving crowd, killing forty people. The Salvadorean government issued a press release denying troops were in the area.

Few could have guessed that Romero was destined to be a martyr. When he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, he was a conservative who only felt at ease when he was alone with God, a God that stood apart from the people. Distrustful of new ideas and social change reformers, he issued polite sermons that earned him the applause of the powerful.

But living among the poor gradually converted him to the radicalism of the Gospel. Witness to their suffering, he developed an insatiable appetite for justice, and came to see God as the risen Christ of the crucified Salvadorean people. When he began speaking of redemption for them, he was accused of hatred.

By 1979 he openly welcomed the Christian-Marxist revolution in neighboring Nicaragua, its guarantee of human rights, independent judges, freedom of speech, worship, and association, the termination of arbitrary arrest, search, torture, and murder. He applauded its efforts to bring dictator Anastasio Somoza’s officials to justice for crimes against the people.

His sole ambition became to intoxicate the world with the Gospel, and he held out hope that even the nuncios and military vicariates might someday be converted. A disciple of Vatican II, he embraced liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor,” seeing the Church’s mission as establishing community in harmony with Divine law while enlightening the people’s legitimate aspirations for a just society by the example of Christian faith and hope. Peace would come, he preached, but could not until justice and love opened the way for it.

He denounced violence as “unchristian,” and believed its most acute form was institutionalized violence, the planned injustice of depriving poor majorities of the necessities of life. Encouraged by an emerging culture of resistance, he saw Salvadorean popular organizations struggling for change as “signs of God’s presence and purposes,” while their violent persecution represented “structural sin embedded in our society.” He conceded that Marxism was a useful tool of social analysis, but denied it could substitute for the inner conversion essential to loving community. Private property was legitimate, but he insisted it came with a heavy social mortgage: derived from God, wealth “should reach all in just form, guided by justice and accompanied by charity.”

In El Salvador, such an interpretation of the Gospel was guaranteed to be treated as a social cancer requiring immediate radical surgery, and so it was. According to the Human Rights office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, Archbishop Romero’s assassination was one of 8062 cases of “Persons of the popular and progressive sectors killed for political reasons” in 1980, “not in military confrontations, but as a result of military operations by the Army, Security Forces, and paramilitary organizations coordinated by the High Command of the Armed Forces.” These were just the murders where information could be “fully checked”; they did not include bombing victims or the more than 600 campesinos butchered in the Rio Sumpul massacre by a joint Honduran-Salvadorean military operation, not to mention killings in the countryside, where “verification was impossible.”

United States officials conceded that Salvadorean security forces were responsible for 90 percent of such atrocities, which was the political response to the growth of unions, Christian base communities, and peasant associations seeking to advance the interests of the poor majority against the entrenched Salvadorean oligarchy Washington had long favored. The U.S. never wavered in its support for this oligarchy, and in the years from 1979 to 1994 approximately 70,000 Salvadoreans were massacred by death squads to preserve its privileges. The tactics employed derived from U.S. counterinsurgency training, and included bombing, napalm attacks, razing of villages, rape, torture, crop burning (to create starvation), machine-gunning of patients in hospitals, and public display of mutilated corpses as a form of political education.

Attempts to document the tsunami of violence were savagely repressed. Churches and Human Rights offices were attacked, and the judge investigating Romero’s assassination was driven out of the country by death threats and assassination attempts, this in the wake of government interference to make sure no investigation of the assassination could succeed. Meanwhile, Washington and its Salvadorean client government denied the involvement of the military and police in atrocities, whom they knew were responsible.

In such circumstances it would have been impossible for even the greatest faith not to doubt itself. Romero’s faith faltered in 1978 when Marianela Garcia Vilas, attorney for tortured and disappeared Salvadoreans, came to him not with the usual request to denounce or investigate a recent atrocity, but to report that she herself had become a victim of the security forces. She told him that the police had kidnapped her, tied her up, beaten and humiliated her, stripped her, and raped her. Romero was stunned into silence, not by the story itself, which was hardly unusual, but by the resonance of hatred in Vilas’s voice, that had never been there before. After a prolonged silence, Romero began his standard reply, saying that the Church did not hate or bear grudges against anyone, that all sins and crimes were part of the Divine order, that even criminals were spiritual brothers who should be prayed for, that one had no choice but to accept suffering. But in the midst of his sermon Romero abruptly stopped, lowered his gaze, and put his head in his hands. Shaking his head, he said, “No, I don’t want to know,” and began to cry. In that instant even he could not believe in a neutral God who loved and protected everyone equally. Instead of preaching, he wept.

The three years that Romero was Archbishop of San Salvador (1977-1980) coincided with the period when Washington became profoundly concerned about (1) the fall of the Somoza dictatorship in neighboring Nicaragua, and (2) the growth of Salvadorean popular forces (animated in no small measure by Bible study), which threatened to turn El Salvador into a real democracy with mass popular participation in the political process. This was intolerable to Salvadorean and U.S. elites, and they responded with unrestrained brutality.

In a public relations gambit designed to give the ruling junta a gentler image, the Carter Administration backed a coup by reformist military officers in October 1979, while simultaneously guaranteeing that the most ferocious military elements retained their dominant position. The reformist facade quickly crumbled amidst rising state terror, and power shifted completely to the murder machine churning out thousands of mutilated corpses a year. While crop dusters sent by plantation owners dropped DDT on the massive procession, sharpshooters and guardsmen opened fire on the largest peaceful march in Salvadorean history, leaving fifty dead on the sidewalk, a hundred wounded, and every sanctuary of Archbishop Romero’s diocese overflowing with terrified refugees. Romero announced that “the most repressive sector of the armed forces” was running the country, and called on the opposition Christian Democrats to resign the government. In his weekly homily to the nation, he quoted from a letter he wrote to President Carter, imploring the American president to suspend aid to the blood-drenched junta, which, if sent, could only serve to “intensify injustice and repression” against the people, who were fighting for their “most basic human rights.”

A right-wing group blew up the Church radio station. President Carter dispatched the aid.

Eleven days before Romero’s death the Salvadorean Human Rights Commission published a list of 689 political killings since the first of the year, nearly 90 percent by government security forces and affiliated death squads. In a reply to Romero’s letter, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance blandly intoned that, “The defense of human rights has been, and continues to be, one of the principal goals of the foreign policy of this administration.”

The day before his assassination, in a packed Metropolitan Cathedral, an eerie hush fell over the congregation when Romero appealed directly to the young conscripts ordered to kill in the name of national security: “Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. 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….In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you: stop the repression!”

For preaching this message, he was killed.

Romero once stated that he had been converted to the real meaning of Christ by the Salvadorean people. Once he saw God did not stand apart from them, he abandoned individualistic approaches to religion and began to draw strength from their struggles. Two weeks before he was gunned down he anticipated an untimely death, but also resurrection: “My life has been threatened many times. I have to confess that, as a Christian, I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadorean people.” (emphasis added)

Thus, Romero died with his faith in redemptive suffering intact. Two months before his death he had said that “so much bloodshed and so much suffering . . . will not have been shed in vain,” but would nourish demands for change: “This blood and this suffering will fertilize a new and increasingly extensive seed, producing Salvadorans who will be conscious of their responsibility to build a more just and human society.” The appalling carnage that he witnessed in his final days were the birth pangs of a new society: “This blood and this suffering will bear fruit in the bold, radical structural reforms that our country so urgently needs.”

Today the beatification of Romero clears the way for him to be canonized by Rome. It should be recalled that when Romero visited Rome in 1979 to ask for help from Pope John Paul II, he was rudely rebuffed by the pontiff, who accused him of exaggerating his description of repression in El Salvador. In any case, a more fitting tribute has already been paid by the Salvadorean people, and described as follows by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano: “In Cuscatlan Park, names on an infinitely long wall commemorate the civilian victims of the war. Thousands upon thousands of names are etched in white on black marble. The letters of Archbishop Romero’s name are the only ones that show wear.”

“From the touch of so many fingers.”

Michael K. Smith is the author of  The Madness of King George, and “Portraits of Empire,” from Common Courage Press. He can be reached at


Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells – The Spiritual Journey of a People, (Orbis, 2003) 

James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life, (Orbis, 1989)

Ana Carrigan, Salvador Witness: The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan (Simon and Schuster, 1984)

Michael McClintock, The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in El Salvador, (Zed, 1985)

Noam Chomsky, Turning The Tide – U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace, (South End, 1985)

Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire, Vol. 3, (Pantheon, 1988)

Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors, (Nation Books, 2009)