St Oscar Romero Parish
St Oscar Romero

St Oscar Romero

1917 – 1980

Oscar Romero was born to a family of modest means in the small town of Ciudad Barrios in El Salvador. He went to the seminary at thirteen, studied for the priesthood in Rome, and was ordained in 1942. At work in San Miguel he was a zealous pastor with a simple lifestyle, shy and bookish. He was close to and much loved by the communities he served.

In 1970, he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of San Salvador, the titular bishop of Tambeae, as bishop of Santiago de María, and finally as the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador to the shock of many. There followed three tumultuous years of ministry at the head of the archdiocese, in his strife-torn country, before his assassination.

El Salvador is a small country in Central America named after Christ the Saviour. In 1977, it had a population of about four million. The country was deeply divided between a tiny land-owning elite and the mass of landless poor. There was economic exploitation, social deprivation, and malnutrition in the countryside, on the coffee estates and sugar plantations. The whole system was kept in place through electoral fraud and wholesale repression. Around the mid 1970s, the government and the army began killing and torturing those poor people who stood up for their rights. Killings, torture, disappearances, and political imprisonment became the routines of the military regime. The Church put itself alongside the poor in their struggle for basic rights and human dignity and suffered persecution too. Civil war was imminent.

Archbishop Romero had a deep and prayerful spiritual life and he cared greatly about the poor and social justice. He preached a message of change, peace, and reconciliation. Week by week, from the pulpit Romero confronted the human rights violations, the political violence, the corrupt system of justice, the iniquitous land tenure system, and the suffering of El Salvador’s poor.

He became known as the voice of the voiceless. His homilies were legendary – even being broadcast live on the radio. He sought to make the Word of God come alive in the lives of the poor. He teased out all the meaning from the Gospel and applied it to contemporary El Salvador.

He pleaded to the right and the left for an end to the violence and killings. He urged dialogue. He demanded human rights for all. By speaking out, he put himself in immense danger.

Bumper stickers appeared: ‘Be a Patriot—Kill a Priest’. Six priests were killed before Romero.

On 24 March 1980, he was shot dead as he celebrated Mass in the hospital chapel where he lived. His funeral took place in his Cathedral on Palm Sunday, forty-two years ago. But the Requiem Mass was never finished. Smoke bombs were thrown into the massed crowds of mourners and some forty people were killed in the ensuing stampede and shooting.

One month before he was killed Oscar Romero preached these words that seem apt for our time:

I hope that this appeal to them from the church doesn’t harden even more the hearts of the oligarchs but instead moves them to conversion. You must share who you are and what you have. Don’t keep silencing with violence those of us who extend to you this invitation.

More importantly, don’t keep killing those of us who are trying to achieve a more just distribution of the power and the wealth of our country. I speak in the first person because this week I was advised that I am on the list of those they are planning to eliminate next week. But let it be shown that the voice of justice cannot be killed by anybody.

For this reason I think that this call to conversion extends also to the Armed Forces. At the beginning of this year the supreme authorities of this institution promised to support a process of reform that was anti-oligarchic and for the benefit of the people. It is now time, especially during Lent when we hear the urgent appeals of the Gospel, for them to honour this commitment if they wish to be true to their military pledge.

Don’t let the oligarchy continue to use you to defend their interests! Guarantee freedom of expression, of movement, of organisation, and the rest. Support the efforts to bring about the authentic changes the country requires.

Outside of El Salvador, only Liverpool has held a Mass to mark the anniversary of the martyrdom of St Oscar Romero every year since his assassination.

A twentieth-century martyr for the poor, Romero’s ministry exemplified a faith that does justice, courageously and consistently. He evokes affection and admiration across the globe, within and beyond the Church. He stands now as a credible witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ for the twenty-first century. An ecumenical icon, Oscar Romero is an inspiration to lay Christians and clergy alike, who embrace the cause of the poor as their own—and through prayer and action, join in the quest for peace and justice today.

Archbishop Romero was officially recognised as a saint by Pope Francis on 14 October 2018.