Oscar Romero: A true Catholic martyr

The murdered Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero is a step closer to possible sainthood after Pope Francis approved a martyrdom declaration that moves him closer to beatification – a process of “blessing” and a prelude to sainthood.

By declaring that Romero was “killed in hatred of the Faith” ends two decades of Vatican debate as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith studied his life’s work to decide if his murder was politically motivated or merely down to his Catholic faith. Others blocked the process due a fear (misplaced or otherwise) that Romero was Marxist.

A year ago, Pope Francis lifted the ban on Romero’s beatification.

In 1977, Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. A year late, a coup brought initial support from Romero but it disappeared as the poor and Church continued to suffer. In 1980, he penned an open letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter calling for their military aid to the regime to end. “We are fed up with weapons and bullets,” he pleaded.

In the three years he served as Archbishop, Romero called for an end to state violence and gave voice to the disposed who sought regime change, a stance that won him no favours from the junta or Roman Catholic Church.

In a post-coup climate, executions, disappearances and torture of political activists became a common feature of life in El Salvador. The slogan “Be a patriot – Kill a Priest” indicated the threat they faced if they sided with the poor – a threat Romero understood all too well.

Yet, Romero grew increasing popular, not just by the crowds who went to hear him preach but also on YSAX (archdiocesan radio). Romero became the “Voice of the Voiceless” as his moral authority afforded him the platform to denounce the civil war and the underlying roots of social injustice.

On March 24 1980, a car pulled up outside the quaint chapel at Divina Providencia Hospital, a place where Romero lived, and nuns ran the centre. But this guest had no desire to listen to Romero’s sermon. Only death.

A single .22 calibre shot from an assault rifle killed Oscar Romero. During his funeral, violence broke out, leaving dozens dead and many injured. It provoked global outrage but it would act as a microcosm of the violence that engulfed El Salvador. A civil war lasted until 1992 as leftist groups fought against the right-wing junta left, which resulted in over 70,000 deaths.

To this day, nobody has been convicted for his murder. But after the UN brokered a peace agreement in 1992, a truth commission pointed the blame at ex-army general Roberto d’Aubuisson, who died that year.

In 2010, the former President of El Salvador (and the first left-wing leader since 1992), Mauricio Funes, issued an official apology for Romero’s murder.

In spite of Pope Francis’s announcement, no date of beatification is set. Romero’s underlying legacy of Liberation Theology, still permeates.

Oscar Romero is now a recognised Catholic martyr, a man murdered for his religious beliefs and support of the poor.