On Monday, March 24, 1980, at 6:25 p.m. in the chapel of the Divina Providencia Cancer Hospital, where he lived in a small house, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, the capital of the Central American nation El Salvador, was killed during his homily by a gunman who fired one, well-placed bullet through his heart.
Archbishop Romeros martyrdom came in the midst of terrible civil strife that would become even worse during the 1980s until it was finally resolved by a 1992 peace accord. As has often been the case in the 20th century, Archbishop Romero was martyred even though he had taken neither side in the conflict, but had tried to maintain Christs own position of asking the warring parties to forgo violence and hatred, and to seek a reasonable compromise and reconciliation with one another. Like the Master, he was put to death for his teaching.
In more immediate terms, as later investigations have revealed, he was murdered by figures connected to the highest levels of the Salvadoran military. During the protracted guerrilla warfare of the late 1970s and 1980s, religious figures in El Salvador were subjected to various forms of repression and intimidation, supposedly because they were playing into the hands, wittingly or unwittingly, of Communism. The Cold War was entering its final phases with various proxy wars being fought between the United States and the Soviet Union on several continents. El Salvador was one place where to speak in favor of peace or social reform was regarded by the government as tantamount to calling for Marxist revolution. Archbishop Romero had repeatedly disputed this interpretation and, though trying to discover au authentic form of liberation for his people, denounced violence by rebels as much as by the government.
But the day before his death was a Sunday, and during his homily at the Cathedral, when he often reviewed the events of the week (hechos de la semana) not reported on by the official news sources, he urged his listeners: In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people, whose screams and cries mount to heaven, and daily grow louder, I beg you, I order you in the name of God; stop the repression. For the Salvadoran military forces, who often operated independently of their own government, it was the last straw.
So assassins acting with the support of the Salvadoran military carried out the act; at Archbishop Romeros funeral, 39 people died when a bomb exploded and gunfire was exchanged. That same year, four American churchwomen Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Maura Clarke working in El Salvador were brutally raped, tortured, and murdered. (In 1998, the four former Salvadoran national guardsmen who had been convicted of the crime confessed that they had been told that the order had come from higher levels, and nothing is going to happen to us. ) At the other end of the decade (1989), Father Ignacio Ellacuria and five other Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America in San Salvador, were killed by military forces.
The Romero assassination and massacre of the Jesuits frame an entire decade of violence against religious figures throughout Latin America.
But violence against religious figures was not limited to progressive clergy. In Cuba, for example, where Fidel Castro would later proclaim public support for liberation theology, Catholics suffered because they refused to support the equally violent and anti-Christian Marxist regime. Many Christians, including Jaime Ortega, the current archbishop of Havana, wound up in forced labor camps or prison. Louis Boitel, Catholic layman, who initially welcomed the Castro revolution, spent twelve years in detention, despite petitions from the International Red Cross and his family. He was also tortured. When he died in 1972 in the Catillo Del Principe Prison, his back had been broken and he weighed less than eighty pounds. The family was not even allowed to attend his funeral.
Similar violence spilled over into the 1990s and continues into the new millennium. In April 1998, Bishop Juan José Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in his rectory in Guatemala City just two days after releasing Guatemala: Never Again!, a 1,400-page report on atrocities committed by both sides in that countrys 30-year civil war, which had just ceased. The spirit of revenge, however, had not.
Yet from these deaths something came to life. Not long before he died, Archbishop Romero remarked, If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people. In another man, the indirect comparison of himself with Christ might have seemed presumptuous. In Archbishop Romeros case, it was neither more nor less than the truth. Peasants composed poems and songs about him; his reputation both inside and outside El Salvador grew as the situation itself became worse. His memory could not stop the conflict or lead to an immediate solution.
The deaths of others elsewhere, too, had little short-term effect. But their heroic acts kept an indispensable spirit alive among various peoples in a much troubled region. Pope John Paul II might have been speaking of all the Latin American martyrs of the 20th century when he described Archbishop Romero, while praying at his tomb in 1983, as a zealous shepherd, inspired by the love of God and service to his brethren to offer up his very life.
Royal, Robert. Archbishop Romero and Latin American Martyrs. Arlington Catholic Herald (2000).
Published by permission of Robert Royal and the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History,The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2000 Arlington Catholic Herald
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