The year 1980 was a bloody one for tiny El Salvador. In the early months of that year, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who had seen and heard of the disappearances and killings of civilians, was doing everything possible to avert a full-fledged war.
In February, the archbishop wrote a letter to then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter to say he was alarmed by the news of the U.S. sending more military aid as well as training repressive government forces of El Salvador. Those forces had been involved in the killings of citizens, including Catholic clergy and their parishioners.
He told Carter that if he really wanted to help, he shouldn’t send any such aid, nor intervene in the affairs of the country, nor support a military “without scruples,” one only interested in the repression of Salvadorans and “favoring the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.”
Archbishop Romero also had negotiated with the leader of a military coup that had taken over the government, urging him to put a stop to gunfire terrorizing a neighborhood near the National University in San Salvador. Finally, he called on soldiers not to follow orders “against the law of God” and to stop killing their brothers and sisters.
Things seemed as if they couldn’t get worse. And then they did.
As he celebrated a memorial Mass for the mother of a friend March 24, 1980, the archbishop became the most famous victim of the more than 70,000 dead the war would produce over the next 12 years. By the end of 1980, four U.S. Catholic churchwomen would add their names to that roster, dying violently.
As the Church in El Salvador and others around the world observe the 40th anniversary of St. Romero’s martyrdom in March, the role Church teaching played in his closeness to the poor has come into sharper focus. And now St. Romero, canonized in 2018, has become a model for those championing social justice, highlighting the role of the Catholic Church when it comes to defending human rights.
Even back then, others understood this role. Leadership of the U.S. Catholic bishops, along with thousands of members of the U.S. Catholic Church, backed Archbishop Romero and constantly spoke against U.S. military funding for El Salvador, lobbied lawmakers to defend human rights and demonstrated in the streets, including in Washington, D.C., making known their opposition to U.S. taxpayer money that paid for forces that terrorized the innocent and produced massacres.
By the time the war ended in 1992 with peace accords, the Catholic Church of El Salvador, along with the U.S. and Italy, would share in the deaths of four women religious, 16 priests, a seminarian, two bishops (including Archbishop Romero), and an untold number of catechists, pastoral agents and parishioners.
Like his counterparts in the United States, Archbishop Romero was moved to speak and act not by ideology, but by Catholic Church teaching that came out of two meetings in Latin America. Though he was slow to warm up to the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, he was influenced by the adaptation of documents from the council produced in Latin America, which, in gatherings of bishops of the region, became focused on social justice.
Before COVID-19 brought public gatherings to a halt worldwide, celebrations for the 40th anniversary of St. Romero’s martyrdom were planned well outside of the Church in El Salvador, in England and Belgium, including a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.
But in the time of coronavirus, bishops in El Salvador, who also had to cancel celebrations for the milestone celebration, told the faithful to find comfort in and turn to powerful intercessors in heaven—including one of their own—in a time of crisis.
“Let us invoke Mary Most Holy and St. Oscar Romero, our saint, that through their intercession we obtain the help of God,” Archbishop Escobar said.