A Deadly Path Towards Sainthood: The Assassination of Monsignor Oscar Romero

Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero | Courtesy of St. Patricks R.C.

Winner of the Fall 2018 StMU History Media Award for

Best Overall Research

It was March 24, 1980. At 6:30 PM, Monsignor Oscar Romero was officiating his daily mass, just as any other day. Believers were lined up on the benches of the small hospital chapel, all absorbed by his passionate and defiant words. It was not long before their peaceful surrounding was violently disrupted by the deafening sound of a gunshot. They all looked around, screaming, wailing, roaring out the fear within them. Monsignor had been killed. A shot straight into the heart, and his body sank immediately to the ground.1 Without any notice whatsoever, El Salvador had witnessed the death of the most influential and brave man they had ever had: the man who would one day become the Saint of America.2

Monsignor Romero’s blood-stained shirt from the day of his assassination, displaying the bullet hole created by the shot | Courtesy of Mauro Arias
Between January 1980 and September 1992, the Central American country of El Salvador faced the struggles of a violent and consequential war.3 In the previous decades, Salvadorians had been under a military dictatorship that had abused the rights of the poor.4 A major part of the Salvadorian economy is based on the produce of coffee, which is also the main source of income for farmers and land owners alike; however, during these times, the military government used a repressive ideology to unfairly separate Salvadorian farmers from their lands, and give those lands to the already wealthy instead. All of this injustice, combined with severe political instability, corruption, and an economic crisis, eventually motivated the poor farmers and coffee growers to unite their forces and rebel against those military government authorities.5

In the 1970’s, the decade previous to the war, many revolutionary groups were formed in opposition to the authorities. Many attempted coup d’états took place, as young people united to try to bring down the military authorities, who, in turn, responded to the uprising with violent suppression. Many were murdered as a result of their opposition, and many public massacres took place as tensions rose on both sides.6 The military had orders to murder anyone suspected of opposing the government. El Salvador had never found itself in such a bad position, and its citizens were all worried about their uncertain futures. Their lives were threatened by the hands of soldiers who would murder anyone, regardless of their age or gender. In the middle of that turmoil, however, one hero arose. One sole individual who was brave enough to stand up for those whose family members had been killed, and for all those whose human rights had been violated. Monsignor Romero knew that he had to fight for peace, in the name of God, even if this would cost him his own life.7

Priestly ordination of Monsignor Romero , April 4, 1942 | Courtesy of Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Servantes
Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero was born in 1917. He officially became a priest in 1942, and within a few years he was assigned the position of “Monsignor,” an honorable form of address that is given to certain individuals of the Catholic Church because of their valuable service. In 1975, several farmers were assassinated as they walked home after attending a religious service, and this was the life-changing event that motivated Romero to begin his journey as a fighter for peace. After this event, he developed a strong desire to speak out for the rights of the oppressed, and he began preaching against the injustice and the repression being inflicted by the authorities. Day by day, monsignor addressed the themes of war, violence, and human rights in his masses. And in his homilies, he denounced the unfair and cruel acts of the military and the importance of maintaining peace within the community. As his popularity began to grow, the authorities and the military were outraged by his denunciation of their actions, and given that his fame was extending within the country, they regarded him as a threat.8

Nevertheless, Romero was anything but scared. He continued preaching that El Salvador badly needed God’s love, and insisted in the need for reconciliation between the two sides. For instance, in one of his homilies, he mentioned: “I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the Army: Brothers, you are from our own people, you kill your own peasant brothers and, upon an order to kill that is given by a man, must prevail the law of God which says: You shall not kill in the name of God…”9

As time went by, controversy arose in terms of monsignor’s fight for peace, and many developed hatred towards him and his preaching. Certain groups even believed that his preaching was simply about politics, and that they were causing even greater harm and worsening the conflict in the country. Romero, however, addressed this by saying that those people were forgetting that the church is simply “illuminating” the evil that exists in the world, not creating it, and that the “word of God wants to get rid of that evil.” Monsignor was no longer defending only the oppressed, but also his church and faith.10

In May 1979, Romero received a death threat from a group named “La Falange,” which was actually an arm of the authorities. They claimed that he was “at the head of a group of clerics who at any moment will receive about 30 projectiles in the face and chest.”11 On several other occasions, Monsignor received letters filled with violent accusations and threats. Anyone who spoke about him publicly was at risk of being killed by the soldiers, and all of those carrying a crucifix or a bible were equally exposed to murder because they showed evidence of supporting the Catholic views of peace that he preached.12

Monseñor Romero with Pope Paul VI | Courtesy of Catholic News Agency

Overwhelmed by the fact that monsignor’s safety was at risk, Pope Paul VI reached out to him, and asked him “to be careful with what he said, because his mission was to be in harmony with the powerful class.” Monsignor bravely responded: “Saint Father, in El Salvador, denouncing justice is not being communist, it is a reclaiming of rights.”13 The pope even offered him an opportunity to abandon El Salvador and be transferred to any city or republic he desired for his own safety, but once again, Monsignor respectfully rejected this proposal and claimed that “he would never even think about leaving El Salvador.” The death threats against him continued to grow, and numerous priests, brothers, and bishops broke their relationships with him, for fear of being harmed themselves. In a matter of time, he was all alone.14

Monsignor Romero, a few minutes after the shooting, being aided by several women, nuns and a gentleman in the altar. March 24, 1980, Divine Providence hospital Chapel San Salvador, El Salvador | Courtesy of Agencia de Prensa Salvadoreña

Monsignor had never imagined that those threats would one day become a painful truth. In March 24, 1980, he was officiating a mass, as he often did, in the Divine Providence Hospital chapel in San Salvador. During his homily, however, the most surprising event took place in a matter of seconds. A red Volkswagen appeared outside the church. The car stopped right before the front door, and an unknown individual made his way towards the back window. From there, thirty meters away from the altar, he held a rifle with a telescopic sight in his hands, pointed it in the precise direction at Romero, and fired. The bullet went straight into monsignor’s heart, drilling his main artery, and bringing him down to the floor, where he laid in his own blood while everyone around him watched in horror. He had been killed. The people in the church began wailing in fear, and rapidly ran towards him, hoping he was still alive. Some nuns that were present during mass took hold of him and did everything they could to help. But it was useless. One of them, however, stood aside, and began to pray. She knew that what had happened was a terrible tragedy, and she could not do anything better than drown herself in prayer.15

 

An audio of Monsignor Romero’s last homily. At second 52, the gunshot that killed him can clearly be heard. | Courtesy of Youtube

A catholic nun laying on her knees on the altar, as she prays right next to Monsignor’s dead body. March 24, 1980, Divine Providence hospital Chapel San Salvador, El Salvador | Courtesy of El Nuevo Diario.

The next few days were of great alarm for El Salvador, as everyone received the news of the terrible event. All newspapers were displaying the details of the murder, and all were questioning who might have done something as terrible as that. It wasn’t until the 23 November, 1987, that a member of the national guard provided the name of someone he knew that had been involved in the murder of Romero: Álvaro Saravia. There was an investigation, and he was later found guilty of the murder, for which he was condemned to pay a 10 million fine to the priests’ family.16 Soon before his trial, however, he fled, making his escape and has been in hiding ever since, reportedly claiming that he is innocent of Romero’s murder and that he was not the only one involved in the crime. In several interviews, he declared that although he was, indeed, at the crime scene, it was not him who actually shot Romero.17 And to this day, no one has ever been able to find who killed Monsignor, despite all the investigations that has been done. Only one fact has been confirmed: the murder had been a  “conspiracy between the government of El Salvador and a ‘death squad’, an extreme right-wing paramilitary group commanded by then-Army Major Roberto D´Aubuisson.”18 It was also discovered that the killer was given only $114 to carry out one of the most atrocious murders of Salvadorian history. Nevertheless, the proof as to who was paid to shoot Romero is still unclear, and so far, no one has been directly accused of his murder.19

A few days after the assassination, on March 20, 1980, a public funeral was held in his honor. The event was officiated in the metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador, and it is estimated that around 250,000 people showed up. In the plaza, however, as the funerary commemoration was held, a huge explosion caused terror among the people. A bomb had been placed in the area, and people were being shot by snipers hiding around the zone. Approximately two hundred people were injured in the incident, and forty were killed. Clearly, Monsignor Romero’s preaching has continued to incite controversy, even after his unexpected death. Authorities were not happy with his impact and the admiration people felt towards him.20

Funeral of Monsignor Romero at the Cathedral of San Salvador, before and after the shooting. March 30, 1980, Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador, San Salvador, El Salvador | Courtesy of La Prensa Gráfica and Daniel Rucks.

However, it was his bravery and his tolerance that made Monsignor’s story reach the Vatican a few years later, in the 1990’s, when Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia decided that his life was worth considering for sainthood. He therefore solicited to the Vatican that Romero should be admitted into the process of beatification and canonization. Although his case was quite stagnant for a couple of years, in 2005, Pope Francis took greater interest in monsignor’s story, such that he could finally take the steps towards becoming an actual saint.21  According to the beliefs of the Catholic Church, there are five preliminary steps for one to be named a saint. To begin with, it is usually expected that five years must pass after the death of the individual before he or she can be considered for sainthood. After this, the bishop of the diocese where the person died opens a file and begins an investigation to verify that the person’s life was indeed holy and virtuous enough to be considered a saint. Then, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints evaluates the evidence that shows the impact of the person’s works, and his influence on other people’s religious lives. The next step involves verifying any miracles that have been made possible through their intercession. Once all of these steps have been made, the person can be beatified and finally canonized to become an official saint in the Catholic Church.22 Monsignor Romero’s case for sainthood traversed all of these steps, and on the 23 of May, 2015, he was finally beatified in an official ceremony held in El Salvador.23 The miracle that served to approve his sainthood was related to a pregnant woman, who was sick with a terminal disease. It was proven that after prayer to Romero for his intercession, the woman was healed and gave birth to a healthy baby.24

According to Pope Francis, Monsignor Romero will be officially named saint on October 14, 2018 in Rome, and there is no doubt that in El Salvador, people will stand proud with their heads up high, looking to heaven for their bravest man: the Saint of America.25

  1. Ismael López, “Monseñor Romero, vida y muerte del primer santo centroamericano,” LA PRENSA, March 11, 2018, https://www.laprensa.com.ni/2018/03/11/suplemento/la-prensa-domingo/2388833-monsenor-romero-vida-y-muerte-del-primer-santo-centroamericano.
  2. Cristina Cabrejas, “El papa Francisco canonizará a “El Santo de América,” Oscar Arnulfo Romero,” infobae, March 7, 2018, https://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2018/03/07/el-papa-francisco-canonizara-a-el-santo-de-america-oscar-arnulfo-romero/.
  3. Ignacio Martín Baró, “La guerra civil en El Salvador,” Biblioteca P. Florentino Idoate, S.J. Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, http://www.uca.edu.sv/coleccion-digital-IMB/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/1981-La-guerra-civil-en-El-Salvador.pdf.
  4. Rodrigo Noyola and Jaime Mancía, “Dictadura Militar Cafetalera,” Litasal (2005), https://www.listasal.info/articulos/dictadura-militar.shtml.
  5.  Historia de El Salvador, (El Salvador: Ministerio de Educación de El Salvador,  2009), 16, https://www.mined.gob.sv/descarga/cipotes/historia_ESA_TomoII_0_.pdf.
  6. “1979: El Salvador cathedral bloodbath,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/may/9/newsid_2520000/2520219.stm.
  7. “El Salvador El espectro de los «escuadrones de la muerte»,” Amnestía Internacional (1996), https://web.archive.org/web/20060303063256/http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/eslAMR290151996?open&of=esl-slv.
  8. “Oscar Arnulfo Romero,” Biografías Y Vidas, https://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/r/romero_oscar.htm.
  9. Ismael López, “Monseñor Romero, vida y muerte del primer santo centroamericano,” LA PRENSA, March 11, 2018,https://www.laprensa.com.ni/2018/03/11/suplemento/la-prensa-domingo/2388833-monsenor-romero-vida-y-muerte-del-primer-santo-centroamericano.
  10. Monseñor Oscar Romero, “La Reconciliación de los Hombres en Cristo, Proyecto de la Verdadera Liberación,” SISCAL (1980), http://www.sicsal.net/romero/homilias/C/800316.htm.
  11. “El martirio de monseñor Romero,” CUBADEBATE, February 5, 2015, http://www.cubadebate.cu/especiales/2015/02/05/el-martirio-de-monsenor-romero/#.W6cTRmhKjIW.
  12. “La noche en que mataron a monseñor Romero: entrevista con el hermano del mártir,” Prensa Libre, May 22, 2015, https://www.prensalibre.com/la-noche-en-que-mataron-a-monseor-romero-entrevista-con-el-hermano-del-martir.
  13. “La noche en que mataron a monseñor Romero: entrevista con el hermano del mártir,” Prensa Libre, May 22, 2015, https://www.prensalibre.com/la-noche-en-que-mataron-a-monseor-romero-entrevista-con-el-hermano-del-martir.
  14. Tomás Andréu, “’Yo sabía que iban a matar a monseñor Romero’: los recuerdos de Gaspar Romero, el hermano del obispo mártir de El Salvador que será hecho santo por El Vaticano,” BBC News, March 7, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-43321774.
  15. Ismael López, “Monseñor Romero, vida y muerte del primer santo centroamericano,” LA PRENSA, March 11, 2018,https://www.laprensa.com.ni/2018/03/11/suplemento/la-prensa-domingo/2388833-monsenor-romero-vida-y-muerte-del-primer-santo-centroamericano.
  16. Carlos Dada, “Así matamos a monseñor Romero,” Elfaro, March 22, 2010, https://www.elfaro.net/es/201003/noticias/1403/.
  17. “Entrevista  Álvaro Saravia, implicado en el asesinato de Monseñor Romero,” Redes Cristianas, (2006), http://www.redescristianas.net/entrevista-a-alvaro-saravia-implicado-en-el-asesinato-de-monsenor-romero/.
  18. “Vaticano revela detalles del asesinato de Monseñor Romero en El Salvador, 38 años después,” Aristegui Noticias, March 25, 2018. https://aristeguinoticias.com/2503/mundo/vaticano-revela-detalles-del-asesinato-de-monsenor-romero-en-el-salvador-38-anos-despues/.
  19. Félix Población, “Al arzobispo Óscar Arnulfo Romero lo mató un sicario por 114 dólares,” Evangelizadoras de los apóstoles, (2011) ,https://evangelizadorasdelosapostoles.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/al-arzobispo-oscar-arnulfo-romero-lo-mato-un-sicario-por-114-dolares/
  20. Ismael López, “Monseñor Romero, vida y muerte del primer santo centroamericano,” LA PRENSA, March 11, 2018,https://www.laprensa.com.ni/2018/03/11/suplemento/la-prensa-domingo/2388833-monsenor-romero-vida-y-muerte-del-primer-santo-centroamericano.
  21. Cristina Cabrejas, “El papa Francisco canonizará a ‘El Santo de América,’ Oscar Arnulfo Romero,” infobae, March 7, 2018, https://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2018/03/07/el-papa-francisco-canonizara-a-el-santo-de-america-oscar-arnulfo-romero/.
  22. “How does someone become a saint?” BBC News April 27, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27140646.
  23. Ismael López, “Monseñor Romero, vida y muerte del primer santo centroamericano,” LA PRENSA, March 11, 2018,https://www.laprensa.com.ni/2018/03/11/suplemento/la-prensa-domingo/2388833-monsenor-romero-vida-y-muerte-del-primer-santo-centroamericano.
  24. “Esta es la fecha de canonización de Monseñor Romero y Pablo VI,” ACI Prensa, May 19, 2018, https://www.aciprensa.com/noticias/pablo-vi-y-oscar-romero-seran-canonizados-el-14-de-octubre-en-roma-95969.
  25. “Esta es la fecha de canonización de Monseñor Romero y Pablo VI,” ACI Prensa, May 19, 2018, https://www.aciprensa.com/noticias/pablo-vi-y-oscar-romero-seran-canonizados-el-14-de-octubre-en-roma-95969.
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81 Comments

  • Congratulations to the author on the nomination. Monsignor Romero was a true hero to the people of El Salvador despite the fact it caused his death. The author not only gives the reader a descriptive overview in the article of Romero’s life but also what he fought for personally and socially. The Catholic Church bestowed the honor of making Romero a saint and his memory can live on in El Salvador and throughout the world. Great article! (reposted)

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