“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. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. …In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression”

Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (August 15, 1917– March 24, 1980)1 was a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. He became the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador, succeeding Luis Chávez. As archbishop, he witnessed ongoing violations of human rights and started a group which spoke out on behalf of the poor and victims of the Salvadoran civil war. In 1980, he was assassinated by a right-wing group headed by former major Roberto D’Aubuisson as he finished giving his homily. This provoked an international outcry for reform in El Salvador. After his assassination, Romero was succeeded by Monsignor Arturo Rivera.

On February 23, 1977, he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. His appointment was met with surprise, dismay, and even incredulity. While this appointment was welcomed by the government, many priests were disappointed, especially those openly aligning with Marxism. The Marxist priests feared that his conservative reputation would negatively affect liberation theology‘s commitment to the poor.

On March 12, a progressive Jesuit priest and personal friend Rutilio Grande, who had been creating self-reliance groups among the poor campesinos, was assassinated. His death had a profound impact on Romero who later stated, “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”.2 Romero urged Arturo Armando Molina‘s government to investigate, but they ignored his request. Furthermore, the censored press remained silent.3

Tension was noted by the closure of schools and the lack of Catholic priests invited to participate in government. In response to Fr. Rutilio’s murder, Romero revealed a radicalism that had not been evident earlier. He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. As a result, Romero began to be noticed internationally. In February 1980, he was given an honorary doctorate by theCatholic University of Leuven. On his visit to Europe to receive this honour, he met Pope John Paul II and expressed his concerns at what was happening in his country. Romero argued that it was problematic to support the Salvadoran government because it legitimized terror and assassinations.4

In 1979, the Revolutionary Government Junta came to power amidst a wave of human rights abuses by paramilitary right-wing groups and the government. Romero criticized the United States for giving military aid to the new government and wrote to President Jimmy Carter in February 1980, warning that increased US military aid would “undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights”. [1] Carter, concerned that El Salvador would become “another Nicaragua” and thus less business-friendly, ignored Romero’s pleas and continued military aid to the Salvadoran government.

Romero was killed by a shot to the heart on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”, one day after a sermon where he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. According to an audio-recording of the Mass, he was shot while holding up the Eucharist. When he was shot, his blood spilled over the altar.

It is believed that the assassins were members of a death squad. This view was supported in 1993 by an official U.N. report, which identified the man who ordered the killing as former Major Roberto D’Aubuisson.5 He had also planned to overthrow the government in a coup. Later he founded the political party Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and organized death squads that systematically carried out politically-motivated assassinations and other human rights abuses in El Salvador. Álvaro Rafael Saravia, a former captain in the Salvadoran Air Force, was chief of security for Roberto D’Aubuisson and an active member of these death squads. In 2003, a U.S. human rights organization, the Center for Justice and Accountability, filed a civil action against Saravia. In 2004, he was found liable by a US District Court under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) (28 U.S.C. § 1350) for aiding, conspiring, and participating in the assassination of Archbishop Romero. Saravia was ordered to pay $10 million dollars for extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity pursuant to the ATCA. Doe v. Rafael Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d 1112 (E.D. Cal. 2004) (providing an excellent account of the events leading up, and subsequent, to Archbishop Romero’s death).

Romero is buried in the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador (Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador). The funeral mass (rite of visitation and requiem) on March 30, 1980, in San Salvador was attended by more than 250,000 mourners from all over the world. Viewing this attendance as a protest, Jesuit priest John Dear has said, “Romero’s funeral was the largest demonstration in Salvadoran history, some say in the history of Latin America.”

During the ceremony, a bomb exploded on the Cathedral square (Plaza Gerardo Barrios) and subsequently there were shots fired that probably came from surrounding buildings. Many people were killed during the following mass panic; official sources talk of 31 overall casualties, journalists indicated between 30 and 50 dead.6 Some witnesses claimed it was government security forces that threw bombs into the crowd, and army sharpshooters, dressed as civilians, that fired into the chaos from the balcony or roof of the National Palace. However, there are contradictory accounts as to the course of the events and “probably, one will never know the truth about the interrupted funeral.”7

Twenty-five years later, the BBC recalled the horror:

As the gunfire continued, the body was buried in a crypt beneath the sanctuary. Even after the burial, people continued to line up to pay homage to their martyred prelate.

Read more about Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero

The Lessons Appointed for Use on the Feast of Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero

Free book The Violence of Love