Pope Francis announced on Saturday that Archbishop Oscar Romero will be canonized as a Roman Catholic saint this fall.
The story of Archbishop Romero is one of the most important in Central American history. He was shot and killed on March 24, 1980 as he celebrated Mass at the Chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.
Romero’s assassination resulted directly from his public criticism of the Salvadoran government. Although the country’s political and military elite viewed him as docile and unthreatening when he became archbishop in 1977, Romero instead became the government’s sharpest critic, particularly after paramilitary forces murdered Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and close friend of Romero’s, in March 1977.
Archbishop Romero focused his criticism on the elite’s indifference to the country’s widespread poverty and the military’s brutal suppression of dissent. Despite the immense personal danger it entailed, Romero challenged the Salvadoran government—and its key ally, the United States government—in emphatic and uncompromising terms. One month before his death he condemned the Carter Administration’s aid to the Salvadoran armed forces, which Romero said “only know how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.” The day before his assassination in March 1980, the archbishop ended his Sunday homily by asserting that “[n]o soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God.” He implored the military to end the violence, declaring: “I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, in the name of God, cease the repression.”
Twenty-four hours later Romero was dead, killed on the chapel’s modest altar. The assassination made him the Catholic Church’s first bishop to be “killed in a church since Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury, in 1170.”
The Salvadoran civil war, which erupted in 1979, escalated with Romero’s assassination. It cost at least 75,000 lives and lasted until 1992, when the United Nations and neighboring countries negotiated a peace accord.
In 1993 the United Nations Commission on Truth for El Salvador concluded that a Salvadoran army officer and far right-wing politician named Roberto D’Aubuisson ordered Romero’s assassination. The findings came too late to hold him accountable in a court of law, however. D’Aubuisson died of throat cancer in 1992 at age 48.
The United States has never come to terms with its own role in the Salvadoran civil war. Although the American Ambassador to El Salvador called D’Aubuisson a “pathological killer,” the United States backed D’Aubuisson and other anti-communist, right-wing political figures in the early 1980s, even after the rape and murder of four American churchwomen by Salvadoran government forces. Only in the mid-1980s did the United States begin to pressure San Salvador to curb the most blatant acts of repression. Even then the violence continued, and occasionally captured world headlines, such as when Salvadoran troops murdered 6 Jesuit priests, their cook, and her 15-year-old daughter in 1989.
The reason why the United States backed the Salvadoran regime was Cold War paranoia. A successful communist revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 sparked fears that the Soviet Union’s influence might one day extend across Central America and reach Mexico, a far-fetched scenario that nevertheless seemed perfectly rational during the Cold War. To blunt communist expansion in the region, three presidents—Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush—provided more than $4 billion in aid to the Salvadoran government and military. American taxpayers thus unwittingly facilitated the brutalization of the Salvadoran people.
There have been some interesting legal developments in recent years. In 2004 a federal court in California heard a civil claim brought by one of Romero’s relatives against Alvaro Rafael Saravia, a D’Aubuisson lieutenant who moved to Modesto, California. The court determined that Saravia participated in the conspiracy to kill Romero and entered a $10 million judgment against him under the Torture Victim Protection Act and Alien Tort Claims Act.
Most important of all, in 2016 the Salvadoran Supreme Court overturned an amnesty law that immunized government defendants for crimes they committed during the civil war. Accordingly, the Salvadoran government opened a new investigation into Romero’s assassination in 2017. The country has also taken steps to honor Romero, including erecting a statue in the capital and renaming the country’s international airport in his honor. But Romero remains controversial in some quarters. In 2015, for instance, vandals defaced the Romero statue. As explained by Marisa Martinez, one of the founders of the Romero Foundation (and, ironically, the sister of Roberto D’Aubuisson), Romero “is very much loved by a vast majority of Salvadorans, but he is also one of the most hated by a small minority.”
Romero’s canonization will occur at a Vatican ceremony on October 14.