ColumnistsFr. Brian D’Arcy

Remembering Oscar Romero: Archbishop who spoke up for the poor was gunned down

Oscar Romero
Oscar Romero

This week 35 years ago a courageous archbishop in San Salvador was killed by a single bullet as he was offering a funeral Mass for a close friend.

Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke fearlessly on behalf of the poor, and paid the ultimate price. He’s a model to inspire us during this Holy Week. 

I’ve always believed Romero is a modern martyr for his faith and next May Pope Francis will formally confirm his martyrdom at a beatification ceremony in Rome, thereby over-turning decades of right-wing spin – which insisted he died for his political convictions and not for the faith.  

Oscar Romero was archbishop for just three years. Initially he was a pious, conservative run-of-the-mill cleric but changed utterly when his friend Fr Rutilio Grande was murdered because of his work with the poor. 

Even though it was out of character, Romero took up the challenge and preached passionately against the unjust regime which impoverished the citizens.

His weekly sermons were so influential that right-wing forces plotted against him. 

Despite them he remained popular. So many gathered to hear him preach that his sermons had to be broadcast on radio. He preached the Good News of the Gospel to the poor. 

“We either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death,” he preached. “We either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death.” 

His fellow bishops abandoned him, as did the ruling elite but the Gospel truth drove him on. 

The day before his assassination, Romero encouraged young soldiers to disobey orders on moral grounds. “The peasants you kill are your own brothers.

When you hear the voice of a man commanding you to kill, remember the voice of God saying ‘Thou shall not kill’.” 

On March 24, 1980, an assassin’s bullet hit Romero in the chest after a single shot was fired during the central part of the Mass he was presiding over. He died instantly.   

However, his influence grows, as he prophesied it would. “If they kill me, I shall live on in the Salvadoran poor… a bishop will die but the people of God will live forever.”

Thirty-five years on, most of those who killed Romero are forgotten and gone. The archbishop’s bravery, however, goes on inspiring us daily.   

Like Pope Paul VI, Romero believed: “If you want peace, work for justice.”