The voters chose as the 68th selection Archbishop Oscar Romero, the El Salvadoran prelate who became a martyr on March 24, 1980 when he was shot to death while distributing Holy Communion to patients during Holy Mass in a San Salvador hospital chapel. Though he was an orthodox bishop, he became a martyr for the cause of liberation throughout El Salvador. Even those promoting liberation theology tried to capitalize on his martyrdom, falsely spreading the word that the Archbishop was a proponent of this radical belief that soared in the face of Vatican teaching and which created a showdown with Pope John Paul II during his Papal Visits to the tiny mountainous Central American country in March 1983 and again in February 1996.
Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Goldamez was born on August 15, 1917 in the mountain village of Ciudad Barrios near the Honduras border to the east. He was the second of seven children born to devoted Catholic parents who scraped and worked for all they could to provide for the family. At 12 he set out on a career as a carpenter in the footsteps of Saint Joseph but felt there was more and, a year later, young Oscar felt the calling to the priesthood and entered the seminary at San Miguel and then San Salvador before relocating in Rome to finish his theological studies at the Lateran University. He was ordained in 1942 by Pope Pius XII at St. Peter's Basilica with World War II raging all around. The dangers of war prevented any of his family from attending his ordination. In fact, Father Romero was not able to return to his beloved El Salvador until 1944 where he was assigned as a parish priest in San Salvador. In the fifties he was appointed to the faculty of the minor seminary in San Salvador followed by his promotion to Rector of the same institution. He did such a great job there and showed such a propensity for being an efficient and energetic administrator that his Archbishop promoted him to Rector of the Major Seminary in San Salvador. In 1966 he was appointed Secretary of the El Salvador Episcopal Conference and four years later Pope Paul VI named him a bishop, assigning him as Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador under the aging Archbishop there. In 1974 he was transfered to his own see, becoming the Bishop of Santiago de Maria which covered the area of San Miguel and his birthplace. He became legendary throughout El Salvador for his sermons which were inspirational and dynamic and effected numerous conversions. His homilies became the rage and were broadcast throughout San Miguel on five radio stations. In 1977 the Holy Father elevated him to Archbishop, assigning him to replace the retired Archbishop of San Salvador. Though his tenure as head of El Salvador's largest see would only last three years, his legacy would last forever.
The Republic of El Salvador has always been poor and, consequently a victim of great social injustice aimed at specifically the peasant economy. Much of the land was owned by land barons, many not from El Salvador, who had no consideration for the people who worked the land and they used all methods of intimidation to suppress and repress the people, including bribing a corrupt government. Archbishop Romero had grown up in this atmosphere in Ciudad Barrios. Through his guidance and inspiration, first while he was bishop of San Miguel, many of the peasants began forming Catholic groups into Basic Communities to study the gospel and be guided by a priest as well as a leader elected from the group in an attempt to help others understand their rights and hopefully overcome their plight. Soon they spread like rapidfire across El Salvador. This alarmed the land barons and crooked government leaders who began a smear campaign against the Church, tabbing priests and bishops as the villains who were only stirring up trouble and threatening the people with greater trouble if they persisted with these groups. After all, these poor uneducated people had to be put in their place! They couldn't have the freedom of speech or it would undermine the despotic ways of the government and the rich landowners. Romero saw through this facade and spoke out even stronger. The government retaliated by sending in military troops to stop any kind of uprising. Violence broke out and many innocent people were killed.
One outspoken crusader for the cause Father Rutilio Grande was singled out because he posed the greatest danger and he was denounced. When Archbishop Romero came to his defense stating, "The government should not consider a priest who takes a stand for social justice, as a politician, or a subversive element, when he is fulfilling his mission in the politics of common good." From that time on Romero became a target and the Archbishop also realized his days were numbered when in March 1977 Fr. Grande and two others were brutally murdered by a paramilitary death squad to send a message to the people and the Archbishop who they brought in to see the mutilated body of Fr. Grande. They threatened the Archbishop with, "That's what happens if one meddles." Rather than retreating and being intimidated, Archbishop Romero intensified his efforts. He spoke out even stronger against the improprieties and injustices, holding up the Gospel as the ideal and human dignity as the cause for all El Salvadorans to rally around.
To unite the people Archbishop Romero sent a decree to all his priests in his Diocese and other dioceses not to celebrate Mass on the following Sunday. Instead he would conduct Holy Mass at the great cathedral in San Salvador, inviting all the faithful to come and worship together in a tremendous show of solidarity against the government. The result was an astounding turnout where the faithful overflowed into the town square, further exasperating government officials. Archbishop Romero told the thousands gathered, "We suffer with those who have disappeared, those who have had to flee their homes, and those who have been tortured." He asked for and received from the people detailed accounts of government and land owner abuses which he published. He had definitely become Public Enemy Number One to the corrupt, immoral political and economic leaders of El Salvador.
In 1979 he traveled to Rome where he met with Pope John Paul II and he shared with the Holy Father the plight of his people, presenting him with a huge dossier documenting the atrocities. The Pope was sympathetic, having experienced similar problems in his own nativeland of Poland and promised Romero he would make a point to visit El Salvador but didn't know when. That would come in 1983, three years after Romero had been murdered and at a time when the people were in a frenzy, civil war breaking out all over this tiny Central American country.
Romero returned to El Salvador after his meeting with the Vicar of Christ, renewed and buoyed by the idea that the Pope would come to his country. This peace advocate shared the news with all and strengthened by this backing, became even more outspoken representing the people as the champion of human rights. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. He became the conscience of El Salvador and it wasn't long before his message was reaching around the world. Romero felt that the more he could get the word out to the world, help would come from other countries and that would motivate the present government to back off and acquiesce to the people's voice. He truly felt the more the world knew of the atrocities in El Salvador the less likely the government would embarass themselves by trying to assassinate him. He guessed wrong. For in 1979 a military coup replaced the crooked President Romero (no relation to the Archbishop) and, like Castro replacing Battista, it went from bad to worse. A Military-civilian junta took over and rebellion began with the left-wing Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), a group Archbishop Romero strongly opposed as well because of their use of violence and their intent of really just taking over the spoils.
Civil war broke out in full scale and thousands were killed as Archbishop Romero realized his days were numbered. On March 23, 1980 he made an impassioned plea to the men in the militia, entreating on their compassion and moral duty, "Brothers, you came from our own people. Your 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. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The Church cannot remain silent before such an abomination...In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to Heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression." Those in charge of the military realized the impact of his words. He had to be silenced.
The following day they plotted his travel to the Hospital de la Divina where he was to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the patients there, many poor who had been tortured or starved by the military. Setting up in the chapel there was an air of anticipation from all in attendance. Some pleaded with the Archbishop to go into hiding for they were sure the military was trying to snuff him out. But Archbishop Romero assured them, "While it is clear that our Church and I have been the victim of persecution during these last three years, it is even more important to observe the reason for the persecution...The persecution comes about because of the Church's defense of the poor, for assuming the destiny of the poor. I wouldn't be following Christ's directive if I ran." He began the Mass and during his homily he reiterated the necessity to fight the good fight, "Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grains of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies...We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us."
He continued with the Mass and during Holy Communion four military men, heavily armed, forcefully entered the Chapel and fired two rounds into the helpless Archbishop. He died immediately on the steps of the Altar. The faithful shrieked and were in shock. Archbishop Romero's body and blood was splattered all over mixing with the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ. He had been received into Heaven through martydom, a martydom he knew would come, just not when. When it did come, he was ready and his final prayer was that his people would also be ready as well as strong enough to carry on the standard of justice.
Now nineteen years after his death things aren't much better in Central America. Another bishop who also was a champion of human rights Bishop Juan Gerardi was brutally murdered in April of 1998 in Guatemala City, Guatamala and his murderers are still at large though all suspect the military which has fallen over itself and embarassed itself to the world in trying to cover up the dastardly deed by pointing the finger at an innocent priest who lived in the Bishop's residence. In Columbia mass kidnappings have occurred recently, over 100 snatched during Holy Mass by rebel guerrillas who have been excommunicated and another bishop held for ransom.
Add to this the terrible earthquakes that have visited the regions of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Colombia and havoc still rules. The involvement of the United States Government with the Sandinistas in the eighties didn't help and the people, more confused than ever, have also been victims of left-wing priests who advocate violence and liberation theology which is directly opposed to what Rome preaches. While the Holy Father has been cheered in most places he visits, when he toured Central America in 1983 and 1990 he was met with much opposition and taunts by left-wingers and evangelicals opposed to the Church. The people of El Salvador were upset with the Pope's selection of a bishop who did not share the idea of liberation theology and, because of their ignorance, were not only fodder for the military but disobedient priests and leaders who strayed from Church teaching.
Archbishop Romero would never have stood for that kind of division for he advocated peace and unity for the sake of human dignity and the Sanctity of Life. His efforts were always for Christ and, like his Savior, he was willing to sacrifice himself for others by his words a few days before his death: "It is my hope that my blood will be the seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality." We can only pray his words will ring true.