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Moseñor Óscar Romero (Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez) was a man who lived out his theology and stuck to his principles even in the face of death. No one would have guessed he would transform from a shy, predictable and determined church leader into a bold advocate for the poor, a loud voice for justice and a moral leader for a nation.
Born in Cuidad Barrios, El Salvador in 1917, Romero traveled to Rome to begin his studies to become a priest at the age of 13, despite his parents’ desire that he become a carpenter. For the next 20 years he quietly worked as an church priest, administrator, editor for a local newspaper, and area director of Alcoholics Anonymous in El Salvador. Romero’s loyalty and hard work eventually paid off when he became auxiliary bishop of San Salvador.
His stable, comfortable and peaceful life would radically change in the year 1977 when he was appointed as the Archbishop of San Salvador. He was chosen because he often predictably sided with the government, supported the church hierarchy, respected the wealthy landowners, and stayed out of the political limelight. This “safe bet” for the powerful oligarchy in El Salvador soon became a powerful enemy after one of his close friends, Father Rutilio Grande was murdered by a government sponsored death squad for helping peasants organize farming collectives. At the death site Romero learned about the injustices, torture and unfair living conditions of the peasants. He also called on the government twice to look into Grande’s death, only to have them turn a blind eye. Realizing that his silence was passively supporting the government, Romero broke the traditions of the former Archbishops and announced he would not attend state celebrations or meetings with the president until the corruption was openly investigated.
The ruling oligarchy sponsored mercenaries to roam the country torturing, raping and killing any peasants who tried to unionize, strike, or rally for rights. Because the church often protected and educated the peasants, convents, churches and religious leaders were becoming main targets. In a few years, over 50 priests had been attacked or kidnapped, and 12 had been assassinated. A coup d’état in 1979 brought a ruthless military junta to power. This radical government’s death toll was even worse than the prior. By the time the Junta and following civil war would end, a country of 5.5 million had 75,000 El Salvadorians found murdered and another 300,000 disappeared without record. One million fled the country as refugees and another million became homeless who kept one step ahead of the police and military squads.
“When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” – Romero
This was the El Salvador many would expect a quiet and respectful Romero to flee. Instead he became a heroic leader who worked tirelessly to unite the many churches through a large weekly mass, he called his fellow church leaders to help end the suffering of their congregation, and he wrote to U.S. President Jimmy Carter begging him to end the United States’ involvement in arming and aiding of the Junta. The UN labeled the situation in El Salvador as genocidal, but Romero could not get the international body to intervene, nor could he get support from the Vatican in Rome. His plea to President Carter went unanswered, and his call to fellow leaders fell on deaf ears.
With nothing left but his own voice, Romero continued to preach hope, peace and love to the citizens on the radio and during mass. He called on the El Salvadorian soldiers to end the violence. He reminded them of their common brotherhood, and he prodded them to consider the higher calling that “thou shall not kill!”
“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…” Romero’s appeal to the men of the armed forces”
Considered a “public enemy” by the government who had long labeled him as a agitator, communist and troublemaker. The government hired an assassin who would shoot and kill him as he spoke at Mass. His impact on the citizens of El Salvador was apparent in his funeral which over 50,000 mourners attended. Smoke bombs and car bombs went off trapping thousands in the funeral square, hundreds were injured and dozens were dead with government sharpshooters shooting from the rooftops.
‘One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.’ Romero – Moments before he was shot
However, Romero’s efforts did not die with him. The citizens rallied even more, and the tragedy at his funeral caused some of the ruling elites and organizations to question their motives and distance themselves from the military Junta. A bloody 12 year Salvadorian Civil War would come a few months later as the people fought to secure self determination, democracy, a fair constitution and economic reform.
Though a hero before his death and celebrated in El Salvador to this day, Romero may have won one of his most significant battles as recently as March 24, 2010. On that day, the current Salvadorian President Mauricio Funes formally apologized for the government’s involvement in the military death squads, the torture and the violence towards the citizens.
Óscar Romero is a hero because he gave voice to those without a voice, and stood with and encouraged those who had lost all hope. His whole life was seemingly insignificant until his last few years when he listened to and acted upon his conscience, which changed the future of an entire nation.