Archbishop Oscar Romero

Archbishop Oscar Romero
(1917 - 1980)

Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, formally recognized by Pope Francis as being martyred “in hatred of the faith,” is to be beatified in San Salvador on May 23, 2015.

Born into a poor El Salvadoran family, Romero received the public education that extended from grades one to three only. He was accepted into a minor seminary at age 13, and, showing promise, was sent to study in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood there in 1942. When he returned to El Salvador, he served as a parish priest, was appointed auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de Maria, and finally, in 1977, archbishop of San Salvador.

Many Catholics were dismayed at Romero’s appointment because of his reputation as a conservative in a time where there existed tremendous economic and political repression in El Salvador. The ruling military junta was controlled by a small oligarchy of the wealthiest families who dominated the economy.

A month after taking office, Romero’s close friend, Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, was assassinated by a Salvadoran death squad for speaking out against the inequality and injustice. It was to change Romero’s life. He said later, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I, too, have to walk the same path.’ ”

Archbishop Romero turned the facilities at the cathedral into a space for people to come for relief, food and medical assistance. He also began hearing the stories of countless Salvadorans who told him how their family members were tortured and killed, or just disappeared. He quickly began to speak out on behalf of the poor and powerless. His weekly sermons, broadcast throughout El Salvador by radio, cited human rights violations by the government. He soon earned the hatred of the military junta and by many in the wealthiest classes. His life was threatened on several occasions, to which he responded: “I have frequently been threatened with death. I must say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in the resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

The day before his death, Romero appealed directly to members of the military, pleading with them in a national broadcast not to obey orders that were immoral and illegal: “In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression!” On March 24, 1980, as he was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Sisters’ hospital for cancer patients, where he lived, he was shot to death. His martyrdom bore striking resemblance to the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

Pope Francis recently quoted from a homily by Archbishop Romero: “We must all be willing to die for our faith even if the Lord does not grant us this honor.” The May 23 Mass and beatification ceremony has been referred to by Pope Francis as a gift to the world.

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