Chapter 10: The Martyrdom of Archbishop Romero, by M. Reginold
In the violent and tragic struggle for justice In El Salvador, the name of one man stands out as a symbol of Christian commitment and unusual courage. There were many who died for the cause of justice and many who became victims of injustice and exploitation. We remember all these martyrs as faithful witnesses to the gospel who sealed their witness with their blood.
The assassination of Archbishop Romero in March 1980 shocked the world. Oscar Romero lived all his life in the midst of poverty and injustice in Latin America. As the archbishop of San Salvador, he became the leader of the church, and he also became a man who stood for the poor, he became their voice when they were voiceless. He suffered and gave his life for them.
The situation and historical set up of Central America and El Salvador may be entirely different from our context and situation in India. Yet there are certain similarities which need to be acknowledged. Firstly, the poor, voiceless ones everywhere. Secondly, injustice and oppression present in India, also may be in different forms. In this context the life and witness of Archbishop Romero is important for us to remind us of the price that we, as Christians, are called to pay. It is a price we must pay for our vision of the kingdom of justice.
II. Social and Political background
1) There had been agitations and rising tensions between the poor peasants and the land owning business class of El Salvador for generations. (James, R. Brochman, Romero: A Life, New York, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989, pp. 1-3.)
2) The government of Colonel Arturo Armando Molino passed a land reform law in 1975, but the landowning business class made sure that its implementation was slow when the congress finally distributed 150,000 acres to 12,000 families, the ruling class started a campaign against it through the newspapers, radio and television stations owned by them. (Ibid., p. 4.)
3) This disappointed the peasants who had formed peasants’ Unions which were in themselves against the law in El Salvador. This is because the government was totally in the hands of the rich landowning business class. (Ibid.)
4) The poor peasants unions were a symbol of hope for a decent piece of land to live on, but to the landowning rich, these unions were ‘communist’ and satanic’. (Ibid.)
5) The Church of San Salvador supported the peasants right to organize themselves and exert political pressure. Many rural pastors and Jesuit priests joined the peasant’s struggle for social justice. This stand has brought upon them the anger of the rich ruling class. Since the peasants unions lacked legal approval, they were considered to be illegal and subversive. (Ibid., p. 33.)
4) Another incident which gave rise to the anger and uprising of the Salvadoran peasants was the ‘presidential elections’. (Ibid., pp, 35, 36) The election was to be held on February 20th, 1977, two days before Romero was to become the Archbishop of San Salvador.
One candidate represented the government party, General Carlos Numberto Romero. He was a former minister of defense and public security. He represented the rich landowning business class who did not want the distribution of land to the poor peasants. The other candidate was colonel Arnesto Claremount, a retired cavalry officer. He was sympathetic to the peasants cause and Salvadorans had some hope that if he won the elections he could change some things that were not right. But the government tried to stop the peasants from going to the elections. People who were working for the government added and duplicated names in the voters lists, the police threatened, arrested and assaulted the voters. (Ibid., p. 38.) In the midst of such a situation, Oscar Romero was to become the Archbishop of San Salvador, it was two days after the election that Romero was appointed as Archbishop. (Ibid., p. 47) On February 26th the Government declared General Romero as the winner of the presidential elections on a two to one margin. After this announcement many protested against the injustice of the manner in which the elections were conducted. Many priests who supported the poor peasants were arrested and tortured.
III. Main Incidents of Romero’s Life
Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdamez was born in Ciudad Bornios, in the department of San Miguel, at 3:00 A.M. on August 15, 1917. (Bruno Chenu, et.al., The Book of Christian Martyrs, p. 202.) The village in which he was born was very remote and could be reached only on foot or by horseback.
When Romero was about two years old he was baptized by father Cecilio Morales on May 11, 1919. His father was a telegrapher, so Romero spent most of his childhood delivering letters and telegrams in the village. Romero also did his schooling in the local public schools, later his parents sent him to study under a teacher named Anita Iglesias. In his spare time he learnt to play the bamboo flute, piano and harmonium.
Since his father did not want him to duty any further, he got him to learn carpentry under an old man.
When Oscar was thirteen years old, he met a certain Father Monnoy to whom he expressed his desire to go to the seminary. Romero’s father was reluctant to let him go, but Oscar left to study in a seminary in San Miguel. In 1937 Oscar went on to study in the National Seminary in San Salvador which was run by the Jesuits. For some reason Oscar Romero had to stop his studies in midyear and go to Rome to study in the Gregorian University. These were the instructions of his Bishops. (Ibid., pp. 205, 206.)
Although Romero completed his degree in theology in 1940/ 41, he had to wait because he was not yet twenty four years old, to be ordained. He was finally ordained on April 4th 1942. He left Rome in 1943 to El Salvador. (Ibid., p. 201.)
He was appointed as Parish priest to a small town called Anamoros. A few months later, he was called back to be the secretary of the diocese. He held this post for twenty three years. Later he became the editor of the diocesan weekly called ‘Chaparrastique’. In June 21, 1970 Romero was ordained as bishop. (Ibid.) In May 1971, Archbishop church appointed Romero as editor of the Archdiocesan newspaper, ‘Orientacion’. On June 21st, 1975, a serious incident took place in Romero’s diocese. Guardsmen raided a village called Treseallus and killed five confesinos. This incident instilled in Romero anger and pain towards the ghastly incidents that were happening in the country Romero gradually began to see that the country was controlled by a repressive military government. He also realized that a few in the society had everything and that rest lived in destitution.
On February 21st, 1977 Oscar Romero was appointed as the Archbishop of San Salvador.
IV. Romero’s death and martyrdom
When Romero was appointed as Archbishop, many people saw him as a conservative churchman. (Ibid.) But Romero was going through a stage of transition, the grim realities of the struggles of the common people for justice had a profound impact on him. (Ibid.) On the eve of his assassination, his sermon was being broadcast on the radio, in which he condemned the attack on human rights and the violence done to the men, women and children. He made a special appeal to the army to stop the killings.
On the evening of March 24th, 1980 Romero was celebrating mass in a hospital near his house. While preaching his sermon, Oscar Romero was shot in the stomach by an explosive bullet, he collapsed on the altar and was later taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. The person who was the assassin was presumed to be a paramilitary commando. (Ibid.)
Conclusion and Reflection
The message that we receive from the bloody and inhuman deaths of Latin America is a controversial message. My first reactions were amazement and shock. The most important aspects to me were that the martyrs including Archbishop Romero were Catholics. Yet they were killed in a country which was and is culturally Catholic. There is also a blind belief that the era of dictatorial and fanatic governments has ended in the West. But Latin America reemphasizes the struggles for power and domination by vested interests.
The martyrdoms in Latin America are perfect examples of the struggle for justice against an unjust system. This is the clear difference between martyrdoms of early Christianity and present day martyrdoms. In the early Christian resistance, martyrdom did not directly involve opposition to the social or power structures.
When I saw the movie on Archbishop Romero I was struggling with the issue of "violence" which has become a part of the daily life of the oppressed in Latin America. To see so many Jesuits and Catholic priests taking up arms and pledging that they will not lay down arms, until justice is done invokes an inward struggle within me. This testimony in the face of failure asserts that victory when it is achieved by the oppressed is God’s gift even if it is won by taking control of history through resistance. The martyrs in their resistance proclaim a hope for the poor, it is the proclamation of the dawning of the kingdom of God which is a gift to the exploited, marginalised and the oppressed.
Brochman R. James, Romero: A Life, Mary Knoll, New York: Orbis Books,1989.
Chenu, Bruno, The Book of Christian Martyrs, London: SCM Press Ltd., 1990.
Lefebure, Marcus, Martyrdom Today, New York: T & T Clark Ltd. and The Seabury Press, Inc., 1983.