Latin America’s Saint: How Oscar Romero Was a Martyr for Social Justice

Salvadorans march to the National Cathedral in celebration of the canonization of Saint Romero on October 13, 2018. Photo credit: Jeff Abbott

Nearly four decades after the assassination of Oscar Romero, the former Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated by a death squad in 1980, a Salvadoran judge has ordered the arrest of the only living known suspect in the killing.

On October 23, the court issued a warrant for Alvaro Saravia, a former captain in the Salvadoran air force who is widely known to have participated in the assassination of Romero, who was declared a Saint by the Catholic Church on October 14.

All investigations into war crimes during El Salvador’s 12 year-long civil war were ended in 1993, when the Nationalist Republican Alliance party, or ARENA, passed an amnesty law. The war killed over 75,000 people and disappeared thousands more.

The country’s Constitutional Court declared this law unconstitutional in 2016. In 2017, the investigation of the murder of Romero was reopened.

Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, who commanded death squads and was a cofounder of ARENA, is widely believed to be the one who ordered the assassination. D’Aubuisson died of cancer in 1992. Saravia was recruited by D’Aubuisson in the late 1970s and is also accused of being a participant in the assassination.

Days ahead of the October 14 canonization ceremonies at the Vatican, over 100 people marched through the streets of San Salvador to the judicial center to demand the immediate advancement of the investigation into the murder of Romero.

“This is a call for justice for the assassination of Romero,” said Lourdes Esperada during the October 10th march. Esperada is a member of the Romero Society and of Grupo Maiz, a San Salvador organization that works to protect historic memory.

“There was never justice for Romero, or for the people of El Salvador [for crimes during the war],” she said.

The canonization of Romero has aided the push for the advancement of the investigation and for justice for Latin America’s saint.

“All too often the death of saints remain without human justice and in impunity,” said Domingo Solis, a Salvadoran Franciscan priest. “But justice is that the people know who killed Romero. That is a worse end than jail; The people will carry this knowledge and anger with them because they know who killed their saint.”

Romero Was Already a Saint in Latin America

For many people of El Salvador and Latin America, Romero was already a saint. But on October 14, with Pope Francis declaring Romero a saint, the Vatican finally caught up with what so many already knew: Romero is a Saint of the Americas.

Romero is the first Latin American declared a saint by the Catholic Church. The announcement comes as a source of pride for the people of El Salvador and of Latin America.

“Monseñor Romero was a prophet who struggled for the poor and was assassinated by the right-wing for his work,” said Pascita Guerra, a 55-year-old resident of San Salvador who grew up in the department of San Miguel, the same department where Romero was born in 1917. “We are proud that Romero was declared a saint. We are the only country in Latin America to have a saint declared.”

People traveled from across Latin America for the canonization celebration in San Salvador.

A death squad sniper assassinated Archbishop Romero on March 24, 1980 as he held mass in the Church of the Divine Providence in San Salvador, just a hundred feet of his humble residence.

The day before the assassination, Archbishop Romero gave one of his strongest sermons, calling on the military to end the repression. “In the name of God … I beg you, I beseech you, I order you to stop the repression,” he said.

The military’s and oligarchy’s hatred of Romero spilled over into his funeral. The military opened fire on over 100,000 mourners as they visited the National Cathedral to pay their respect for their pastor. Over 40 people were killed in the shooting.

Mario Lengus, a 67-year-old resident of San Salvador, was there that day with his father and young son. It was a miracle that they survived, a miracle he attributes to Saint Romero.

“I thought we were going to die,” said Lengus. “It was a miracle we survived.”

The assassination of Romero marked the country’s entry into its 12-year-long civil war.

“The Preferential Option for the Poor”

The polarization of Romero following his assassination meant that it would be some time before the Catholic Church recognized the miracles attributed to him in order to declare him a saint. Church theologians deemed Romero “too political” to be considered a saint.

It was not until 2015, when Pope Francis, the first Pope from Latin America, opened the path to declaring Romero a saint. The 2018 declaration has deep meaning for El Salvador and Latin America, as it finally recognizes the work of the church in addressing systemic inequalities across the region.

Saint Romero was ordained a priest in 1943 at the age of 25, just before to his return to El Salvador from Rome, Italy, where we conducted theological studies. Romero served for nearly 20 years in the department of San Miguel. He was close with the local elite, but continued to advocate for the poor.

It was in San Miguel where saw firsthand the plight of the poor. The department is among the poorest in El Salvador, with many traveling to the region to work in the coffee harvest. Romero observed the workers staying in the streets and with little food during harvest season.

Many other priests saw similar conditions in communities across Latin America.

Between 1962-1965, the Latin American Episcopal Conference pushed the Second Vatican Council to take on a more social message. The priests of the Conference were driven by the conditions they saw to create a “preferential option for the poor” as a means of addressing rampant social inequalities.

“The preferential option for the poor is a means of reading the gospel that the priests of the conference identified,” said Solis. “It was Jesus that originally made the preferential option for the poor. He was born poor, lived without anything, and he died poor, and God exalted him for it.”

By 1971, the new theology had a name: Liberation Theology. The theology brought together a Marxist critique of political economy and society with the Christian faith. Yet the rise of this revolutionary gospel was met with intense resistance from the United States and the Catholic Church due to the Marxist elements in the critique.

It is in this context that Romero was appointed the Archbishop of San Salvador. The ruling elite and Catholic Church saw Romero as the best option to stifle the growing trends of Liberation Theology in the Salvadoran Church. Yet the problems of poverty and the growing violence of El Salvador’s civil war never left his mind.

None of this meant that Romero was a communist, as many accused him of being. But due to the polarization of the time, these accusations remained.

Yet Romero became a symbol for the people struggling for social justice and human rights. Today his image appears in nearly every demonstration in El Salvador.

“Monseñor gave us the example of how to follow Jesus in the most difficult times,” said Solis. “He made a preferential option for the poor, for the most disadvantaged and work to protect them.”

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. His work has appeared in The Progressive, Al Jazeera English, and the Los Angeles Times. Follow him on Twitter @palabrasdeabajo.