In February 1977 Pope Paul VI appointed Monsignor Oscar Romero as the Archbishop of San Salvador. A priest for 35 years, Romero had experience in the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church and was perceived as a quiet, bookish “safe” choice for this important position.
His good friend and fellow Salvadoran priest, Rutilio Grande, had established Christian base communities in the countryside and trained ordinary people to be Delegates of the Word to lead them. Local landowners saw this organizing of the peasants as a threat to their power. Grande also challenged the government for its harassment and silencing fellow priests. About a month after Romero became Archbishop, Grande was murdered. In retrospect, many people see this murder as having a transformative effect on Romero as he increasingly spoke out against the repression of the people by the government and the military.
In October 1979 young reformist Salvadoran military officers carried out a coup and formed a new Revolutionary Governing Junta that promised democracy and land reform and dismantling of paramilitary forces that were attacking workers, peasants, priests, teachers, union leaders, doctors and other professionals. Yet the coup also unleashed a new period of intense violence. Thousands of people who were seen as supporters or members of the growing guerilla movement were murdered while increasing numbers of death squads were active. In January 1980 the civilian members of the Junta resigned, and in early March 1980, six leading Christian Democrat members resigned from the Junta and their political party because they could not produce reforms and stop the repression. Jose Napoleon Duarte, another Christian Democrat, took over leadership of the Junta and immediately announced expropriation of large landholdings and nationalization of the banks.
The abuses of 1979-early 1980 were overwhelmingly committed by the paramilitary groups and death squads that were opposed to any reforms and that engaged in violent means to carry out their opposition to the Junta and its proposed reforms. One of the leaders of the opponents to reform was Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former military officer, founder of the ARENA political party and organizer of death squads.
Archbishop Oscar Romero in his Sunday homilies and other statements increasingly denounced the human rights abuses in the country. He also talked about spiritual issues for all people in all countries in all times. He is a saint.
In his February 17, 1980, homily he read his letter to President Jimmy Carter that said U.S. military aid “will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect for their most basic human rights.” Recent events, he said, had demonstrated that the Junta and the Christian Democrats “do not govern the country, but that political power is in the hands of unscrupulous military officers who know only how to repress the people and favor the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.” Therefore, Romero asked President Carter to end U.S. military aid and to pledge non-intervention in Salvadoran politics and life.
In this homily Romero also preached about the church’s special care for the poor. He said, “The existence of poverty as a lack of what is necessary is an indictment. Those who say the bishop, the church, and the priests have caused the bad state of the country want to paper over the reality. Those who have created the evil are those who have made possible the hideous social injustice our people live in. Thus, the poor have shown the church the way to go. A church that does not join the poor in order to speak out from the side of the poor against the injustices committed against them is not the true church of Jesus Christ.” Therefore, he continued, “the church suffers the fate of the poor which is persecution. Our church glories that it has mingled the blood of its priests, its catechists, and its communities with that of the massacred people and has continually borne the mark of persecution. Because it disquiets, it is slandered, and its voice crying against injustice is disregarded.”
On March 23, 1980, Romero’s homily responded to criticism that he was preaching politics, not the Gospel. He said, “I have made an effort . . . [of] preaching the gospel as it should be preached for our people in this conflict-ridden reality. I ask the Lord during the week, while I receive the cries of the people and the sorrow of so much crime, the disgrace of so much violence, to give me the fitting word to console, to denounce, to call to repentance. And though I continue to be a voice that cries in the desert, I know that the church is making the effort to fulfill its mission.” He concluded the homily that day with these powerful words:
- “I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, and in particular to the ranks of the Guardia Nacional, of the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No solider is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
 Oscar Romero, A Shepherd’s Diary (St. Anthony Press 1993); Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Oscar Romero (Harper & Row 1988); Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements (Orbis Books 1985); James Brockman, The Church Is All of You: Thoughts of Oscar Romero (Winton Press 1984); James Brockman, The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero (Orbis Books 1982); Maria Lopez Vigil, Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic (EPICA 2000); Romero (Equipo Maiz 2000) (photographs of Romero); Romero (Equipo Maiz & Yolocamba I Ta Music 2000)(CD-ROM of music about Romero plus audio excerpt of his March 23, 1980 homily); Homenaje a Monsenor Romero 30 Aniversario Marzo 1980-2010 (Government of El Salvador 2010)(CD-ROM of music about Romero).
 Romero touched my heart with his statement, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.” This is one of the foundations of my Christian faith. (See Post: My Christian Faith (April 6, 2011).)