Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdamez, Archbishop of San Salvador, was born on August 15, 1917 in Ciudad Barrios. He was assassinated on March 24, 1980 in the midst of celebrating mass. During the last three years of his life, he devoted himself tirelessly to the service of the poor and oppressed. This was a significant departure from his earlier career in the priesthood. He was at that time a different person; he was severe in manner and his spirituality was focused upon the institution of the church, its teachings and dogma. He did not have any quarrel with the repressive policies of his government.
At that time, the government of San Salvador was under the directorship of General Molina, who led an ultra-conservative right wing government. Molina was so confident that Father Romero was a man he could deal with that he promoted his candidacy for the office of Archbishop. The Vatican chose Romero over the apparently more radical Bishop Rivera y Damas. The radical transformation that would later take hold in Romero's mind would ultimately arouse the concern of the Salvadoran government, the U.S. State Department and the Vatican, for he became an eloquent and charismatic spokesman for the people, especially the downtrodden.
In the final months of his life, his passion for social justice, encapsulated within his pastoral messages, was heard directly throughout Central America, Columbia, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. His letters and homilies, continue to be translated to this day.
On February 3, 1977, Oscar Romero, Bishop of Santiago De Maria, was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. This was a crucial appointment for Romero, for the country was in the midst of a wave of government-sponsored repression spawned by an attempt to enact some modest land reform measures. Molina came to power in 1972 as a result of an election that was considered by many to be fraudulent. At first, Molina attempted to placate the reformists by approving the First Project for Agrarian Transformation.
Prior to Molina's election, the Legislative Assembly attempted to appeal to the growing demand for land reform from the people of San Salvador by convening the National Agrarian Reform Congress. At that time, the majority of arable land was in the hands of a small population of wealthy individuals – a pattern that could be found throughout the region. The goal of land reform was to break the land down into smaller parcels and redistribute it so that a far greater proportion of the population could own and work the land. The congress included representatives from the government, the opposition, labor, and business groups. The delegates determined that landholdings above a certain size could be expropriated under the nation's constitution; this was a definitive call for expropriation. Although the work of this congress was only to make recommendations, it made the wealthy land owners particularly anxious, especially given the fact that in 1970, the Chilean people democratically elected Salvador Allende, an avowed communist, as their president.
When Molina was elected – the legitimacy of his election was held in serious doubt -, the dramatic changes proposed by the National Agrarian Reform Congress were essentially abandoned and replaced by proposals that were, in fact, small and not terribly significant. Nevertheless, the ruling oligarchy felt pressure from the landowners and ultimately cancelled the project entirely on October 19, 1976. This was soon followed by violent repression. A significant aspect of the government's reaction was the persecution of the church.
Molina was eventually replaced by General Romero who assumed power on July 1, 1977, and immediately dispensed with any attempt at agrarian reform and openly backed the financial and agribusiness interests. His regime was marked by harsh repression against those who pushed for reform. This period was also marked by the rise of the infamous death squads that led to the "disappearances" of great numbers of people. On November 25, 1977, the Law of Defense and Guarantee of Public Order was passed. This law legitimized the arbitrary imprisonment of opponents, the use of torture and the suppression of public meetings.
The event that marked Father Romero's transformation, which he personally viewed as a conversion, was the assassination of Father Grande along with his two companions as he was on his way to celebrate mass. This event represented an attack on the pastoral approach of the church with its preference for the poor, for Father Grande had been a key figure in the movement for apostolic renewal in the archdiocese – a proponent for the application of Vatican II to the Salvadoran church.
The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II, was the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church. It opened under Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962. At that time the Catholic Church was faced with a world in a state of flux where dramatic social, cultural and economic changes were occurring throughout human societies. Pope John made it clear that it was time for the church to adapt to the new world. As a result, Christians outside the church were encouraged to send observers to the Council. This unprecedented action was met by universal approval.
Following the disturbing news of the assassination of Father Grande, Romero began to speak out eloquently for the poor and against repression. He once stated that, "These days I have to walk the roads gathering up dead friends, listening to widows and orphans, and trying to spread hope."
We will examine in some detail the contents of three of his pastoral letters that provide clear insights into his thinking. The first pastoral letter entitled, The Easter Church was written on April 10, 1977. It was essentially Romero's way of introducing himself to his people. In this letter, he embraced Liberation Theology that was inspired by the conclusions reached by Vatican II. In it, he quotes from a meeting of the bishops of Latin America in 1968. "We are on the threshold of a new epoch in the history of our continent. It appears to be a time full of zeal for full emancipation, of liberation from every form of servitude, of personal maturity, and of collective integration. The church cannot be indifferent when faced with a muted cry that pours from the throats of millions of men, asking their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else." He goes on to say, "Hence, when preaching liberation and associating ourselves with those who are working and suffering for it, the Church is certainly not willing to restrict her mission only to the religious field and dissociate herself from man's temporal problems." This represents a significant statement with powerful political implications, and obviously posed a significant threat to the established order.
The second pastoral letter entitled, The Church, the Body of Christ in History deals essentially with what Romero perceives to be the church's contemporary mission. In it he states, "The church looks upon the world with new eyes, it will raise questions about what is sinful in the world, and it will also allow itself to be questioned by the world as to what is sinful in the church." He goes on further to state, "This preference of Jesus for the poor stands out throughout the gospel. It was for them that he worked his cures and exorcisms; he lived and ate with them; he united himself with, defended and encouraged all those who, in his day, were on the margin of society, whether for social or for religious reasons: sinners, publicans, prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers. This choice of Jesus to be with those who are marginalized is the sign that he gives to confirm the content of what he preaches: that the kingdom of God is at hand." With this statement, Romero clearly establishes his affinity for the poor and marginalized, and proclaims an activist mission. This kind of declaration was particularly disturbing to those in power.
Finally, in his third pastoral letter entitled, The Church and Popular Political Organizations, Romero clearly aligns himself with political organizations seeking social justice; these were the same organizations that were under attack by the security apparatus of the State. In this missive, he unambiguously states that, "We want simply, in this section, to restate the right to organize and to denounce the violation of that right in our country." Furthermore, he denounces the use of violence, especially against those who seek to organize in response to the repressive policies of government. He also takes issue with violent conflict between various campesino groups clearly taking a stand for peace and against violence regardless of the perpetrators.
The power of his ideas resonated not only with the poor of San Salvador but throughout the region. He was perceived as a real threat to the established order and was ultimately silenced for his activism. His words, however, still live on, and his message continues to resonate within the hearts and minds of those who suffer at the hands of the powerful.