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The Priest As Politician, Fighter And Saint

Romero’s assassination marked the transformation of the Salvadorian protests into a twelve-year civil war which cost over 80,000 lives

Owei Lakemfa

One of the most controversial personalities ever to don the cassock is on his way to sainthood. After a quarter of century of protests and resistance, including by the church in his country, Oscar Romero has been beatified by the Catholic Church. This is coming eighteen years after then Pope John Paul II personally took up the battle to honour him. Romero was actually a non-political and conservative priest when on February 23, 1973, at 56, he was appointed the Archbishop of San Salvador, capital of El Salvador.

The Government and the Church hierarchy were quite happy about his appointment, while the more socially conscious priests were sad. But the bloody repression by the Government, assassination of opposition figures, torture and the grinding poverty were to catapult the apolitical Archbishop into the centre stage of opposition politics. He was horrified by the amount of state violence against the populace and the wide use of torture, detention and murder. Within a few years, he had become a major spokesman of the populace.

On February 2, 1980, Romero at a press conference complained that more than fifty Catholic priests had been attacked with six of them murdered. He cited a long list of Reverend Fathers and Nuns who had been tortured or expelled. Aware he was putting his life on the line, Romero had said: “If I am killed, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.” That month, he wrote United States President, Jimmy Carter protesting the massive American arms shipment to the Salvadoran Army , weapons he said were being used to repress and murder the people. But the US, angered by the radical Sandinistan Revolution in neighbouring Nicaragua, paid no heed. On February 23, 1980, the Archbishop told Salvadoran soldiers not to obey orders which make them violate fundamental human rights.

Turning to the government, he said: “In the name of God, in the name of the suffering people whose cries rise up to Heaven more urgently with each day that passes, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you to stop repression.” The next day, while offering mass in the Chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence, assassins shot him dead. An Archbishop who preached non-violence, who was only interested in the defense of human rights and whose idea of social revolution was spiritual, was gunned down in the church. Rather than being scared, Salvadorans six days later turned out in their hundreds of thousands for Romero’s burial. The angry Salvadoran Government and the right wing militias threw bombs and fired into the funeral procession. Officially, 31 persons were killed. Romero’s assassination marked the transformation of the Salvadorian protests into a twelveyear civil war which cost over 80,000 lives.

Although there has been no prosecution of the criminals who murdered him, it is know that his assassination was ordered by the notorious mass murderer, Major Roberto D’ Aubuisson, leader of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) who led a death squad in that country. One of the assassins, Alvaro Saravia was found liable by a US District Court of conspiring and participating in the murder. But the Government, its international allies and some forces in the country including the Church felt that Romero was a politician who got caught in a cross fire, hence the stiff opposition to any posthumous honour for him. When in 1983, Pope John Paul II during a visit, prayed at his tomb, there were protests by the state and the Church. Brushing aside protests, the Pope in 1997 made Romero the Servant of God.

Three years later, while marking his Jubilee year, he, despite protests decided to put Romero on the Honours List. But the greatest honour for this remarkable priest was to come, not from the Church, but the United Nations General Assembly which in 2010, proclaimed the March 24 date of his assassination as the “International Day for the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims”. With that, the march of Romero towards sainthood, seemed unstoppable; even the initial blockade of the route by the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine, was removed.

In the last three months, the drive towards sainthood became faster with the visit to his tomb in March by President Barrack Obama, the first US President to do so. This was significant because the US was the main backer of the repressive regimes in El Salvador including the death squad that assassinated Romero twenty five years ago. Pope Francis sought to remove whatever obstacle was left by declaring that the reasons for the assassination was not just political but also included hatred for a faith that “would not be silent in the face of the injustices that relentlessly and cruelly slaughtered the poor and their defenders”.

On March 19, the Salvadorian Church that had over the years opposed Romero, sent a delegation asking the Pope to personally come to the country and beatify him. On May 23, Oscar Romero was beatified. When Romero was murdered in 1980, the Catholic priesthood became split into three; one part left the country, a larger part decided to simply teach the Bible and shut its eyes to the reality in the country, while the third group joined the rebels. One of the young priests who picked up the gun and joined the rebels in the mountains was Father David Rodriguez. He said when Romero was assassinated, “We priests were like sheep without shepherd”.

In 1992 when the peace accords were signed, he came down from the mountains. The Church told him that he can never mount the pulpit again. But if he were to become an unofficial helper, he would need to leave the country for three years, make no statements about the happenings in the country, and write a letter of apology for fighting repression. He turned round and went into politics, picking a seat in parliament. With Romero’s beatification, the Church in El Salvador appears to be born again.

•Lakemfa is Secretary-General of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU).

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