Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (August 15, 1917 – March 24, 1980), commonly known as Monseñor Romero, was a priest of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. He later became the eighth Bishop and fourth Archbishop of San Salvador, succeeding the long-reigning Luis Chávez y González.
As archbishop, he witnessed numerous violations of human rights and began a ministry speaking out on behalf of the poor and victims of the country’s civil war. Chosen to be archbishop for his conservatism, once in office his conscience led him to embrace a non-violent form of liberation theology, putting him in the line of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Like them, he was martyred for his non-violent advocacy. In 1980, he was assassinated by gunshot shortly after his homily. His death provoked international outcry for human rights reform in El Salvador. After his assassination, Romero was succeeded by Msgr. Arturo Rivera y Damas.
In 1997, a cause for beatification and canonization into sainthood was opened for Romero, and Pope John Paul II bestowed upon him the title of Servant of God. The process continues. He is considered by some the unofficial patron saint of the Americas and El Salvador and is often referred to as “San Romero” by the Catholic workers in El Salvador. Outside of Catholicism, Romero is honored by other religious denominations of Christendom, including the Church of England through its Common Worship. He is one of the ten 20th-century martyrs from across the world who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London.
Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was born on August 15, 1917 to Santos Romero and Guadalupe de Jésus Galdámez in Ciudad Barrios. On May 11, 1919, at the age of two, Óscar was baptized into the Catholic Church by a Fr. Cecilio Morales. Romero had six brothers and sisters: Gustavo, Zaída, Rómulo, Mamerto, Arnoldo and Gaspar.
He could often be found at one of the town’s two churches during his free time. At age seven Romero came down with an unknown life threatening illness, which he eventually recovered from.
Romero entered public school, which only offered grades one through three. When finished with public school, Romero was privately tutored by Anita Iglesias until age twelve or thirteen. Throughout this time Óscar’s father, Santos, had been training Romero in carpentry. Romero showed exceptional proficiency as an apprentice. Santos wanted to offer his son the skill of a trade, because in El Salvador studies seldom led to employment.
In 1930, at age 13, Romero entered the minor seminary run by the Claretians in San Miguel. He remained in San Miguel for seven years, when in 1937 he left for the national seminary run by the Jesuits in San Salvador. There he began his studies in theology when shortly after arriving Óscar’s father died. Halfway through his first year Romero was sent to continue his studies in Rome in the Gregorian University, living in a dorm with other Latin American seminarians at the Latin American College. He continued his studies in theology and excelled academically.
However, by 1939, World War II was spreading throughout Europe. Italy found itself right in the middle of conflict, having officially entered the war by 1940. Many of Romero’s fellow seminarians chose to return home before the conflict worsened, but Romero and several others stayed on. In the 1940 to 1941 school year, while war and uncertainty weighed heavily on his mind, Romero managed to earn his licentiate degree in theology cum laude.
On April 4, 1942, Romero was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome. Romero remained in Rome to obtain doctoral degrees in theology, working on ascetical theology. In 1943, before finishing, he was summoned back home from Fascist Italy by the bishop at age 26. He traveled home with his good friend Fr. Valladares, who had graduated in 1940 and was also doing doctoral work in Rome. In route home they made stops in Spain and Cuba, being detained by Cuban police for having come from Mussolini’s Italy and placed in an internment camp. After several months in prison Valladares became sick, and some priests of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer helped to have the two transferred to a hospital. From the hospital they were released from Cuban custody and allowed back home, where they sailed for Mexico and traveled back home to El Salvador.
He began working as a parish priest in Anamorós but then moved to San Miguel where he worked for over 20 years. He promoted various apostolic groups, started an Alcoholics Anonymous group, helped in the construction of San Miguel’s cathedral and supported devotion to the Virgin of the Peace. He was later appointed Rector of the inter-diocese seminary in San Salvador. In 1966, he began his public life when he was chosen to be Secretary of the Episcopal Conference for El Salvador. He also became Director of “Orientación”, the archdiocesan newspaper, which became fairly conservative while he was editor, defending the traditional magisterium of the Catholic Church.
In 1970 he was appointed auxiliary bishop to San Salvador Archbishop Luis Chávez y González, a move not welcomed by the more radical progressist elements in the priesthood. He took up his appointment as Bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de María in December 1975.
On February 23, 1977, he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador; his appointment was met with surprise, dismay and even enthusiasm among groups. While this appointment was welcomed in government circles, it was met with disappointment by those radical priests (especially those openly aligning with Marxism) who feared that with his conservative reputation he would put the brakes on their liberation theology 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”. Romero urged the government of Arturo Armando Molina to investigate the crime, but they ignored his calls. The press, which was censored, also remained silent. A new tension was noted with the closure of some schools and the absence of Catholic priests in official acts. In his response to this murder, he revealed a radicalism that had not been evident before. He began to speak out against the poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture taking place in the country. He began to be noticed internationally, with a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. In February 1980, he was given an honorary doctorate by the Catholic University of Leuven. On his visit to Europe to receive this honor, 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 government in El Salvador because it legitimized the terror and assassinations.
In 1979, the Revolutionary Government Junta came to power amidst a wave of human rights abuses from paramilitary right-wing groups and from the government. Romero spoke out against U.S. military aid to the new government and wrote to President Jimmy Carter in February 1980, warning that increased 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”. Carter, concerned that El Salvador would become “another Nicaragua”, ignored Romero’s pleas.
Archbishop Romero denounced what he characterized as the “persecution” of his Church:
In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened and slandered. Six of them are martyrs, having been assassinated; various others have been tortured, and others expelled from the country. Religious women have also been the object of persecution. The archdiocesan radio station, Catholic educational institutions and Christian religious institutions have been constantly attacked, menaced, threatened with bombs. Various parish convents have been sacked.
Catholic priests assassinated in El Salvador during Óscar Romero’s archbishopric (1977 – 1980):
- Rutilio Grande García, S.J. – assassinated March 12, 1977
- Alfonso Navarro Oviedo – assassinated May 11, 1977
- Ernesto Barrera – assassinated November 28, 1978
- Octavio Ortiz Luna – assassinated January 20, 1979
- Rafael Palacios – assassinated June 20, 1979
- Alirio Napoleón Macías – assassinated August 4, 1979
assasination and funeral
Romero was shot to death on March 24, 1980 while celebrating holy Mass at a small chapel near his cathedral, the day after he gave a sermon in which he called for 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 moments after the homily, which he had concluded with an improvised pre-Eucharistic prayer thanking God (the homily in the Roman Catholic Rite more or less signifies the end of the Liturgy of the Word and the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist or Mass of the Faithful). It is believed that his assassins were members of Salvadoran death squads, including two graduates of the U.S.-run School of the Americas. This view was supported in 1993 by an official U.N. report, which identified the man who ordered the killing as Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, who later founded the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), a political party which came to power in 1989 and still rules today. Rafael Alvaro Saravia, Roberto D’Aubuisson’s driver, was found liable in connection with the murder by a U.S. court in 2004.
When he was shot, his blood was spilled over his own altar and some say it went into the communion wine.
Romero is buried in the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Holy Savior (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 Barrios) and subsequently there were shots that probably came from surrounding building. While almost no one died of the bomb or the shots, many people were killed during the following mass panic; official sources talk of 31 overall casualties, journalists indicated between 30 and 50 dead. 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.”
Twenty-five years later, the BBC recalled the horror:
“Tens of thousands of mourners who had gathered for Romero’s funeral Mass in front of the cathedral in San Salvador were filmed fleeing in terror as army gunners on the rooftops around the square opened fire. … One person who was there told us he remembered the piles of shoes left behind by those who escaped with their lives.”
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.
In 1997, Pope John Paul II bestowed upon Romero the title of Servant of God, and a cause for beatification and canonization was opened for him. The path to sainthood stalled for the next two decades due to objections from the conservative papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but it was finally reopened by the latter pope in 2012. Romero was declared a martyr by Pope Francis on February 3, 2015, paving the way for his beatification on May 23, 2015. and finally his sainthood on October 14, 2018.
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The movie Romero (1989) was based on the Archbishop’s life story. It was directed by John Duigan and starred Raúl Juliá and produced by Paulist Productions. Timed for release ten years after Romero’s death, it was the first Hollywood feature film ever to be financed by the Roman Catholic Church.
Amazon’s Oscar Romero page
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