SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez, better known as Blessed Oscar Romero, once said that if El Salvador’s military oppressors killed him, he would “arise in the Salvadoran people.”
On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was assassinated in the middle of celebrating Mass, likely by a right-wing death squad. Not long afterward, the country devolved into a devastating civil war that would last 12 years and claim more than 75,000 lives.
Though Romero’s earthly life may have ended, his love for God and the principles for which he stood — care and dignity for the poor and freedom from oppression — have been far from forgotten. Archbishop Romero, along with Paul VI and Father Franceso Spinelli, will be canonized Oct. 14 at the Synod of Bishops taking place in Rome. The Vatican had recognized him as a martyr in 2015.
Archbishop Romero’s words have a prophetic resonance today with the people of El Salvador, according to Rick Jones, technical adviser for policy in Latin America for Catholic Relief Services.
“You go into poor neighborhoods and everybody has a little card, a poster, a picture of Romero. He is in those poor communities, and he’s still the signpost for the Church and what they hope for,” Jones told CNA.
“He was the voice of those voiceless people who were suffering the violence and repression in the ’70s, and now people still look to him as the beacon and as the example,” he said.
“Canonizing someone in the Church is to hold them up as an example: ‘This is what we want people to be like.’ And so I think, still today, that’s who the poor point to for hope and for a sense that there is meaning and purpose and a different way to do things.”
‘A Voice of Those Voiceless People’
Archbishop Romero became archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 and was perceived as a “safe choice” who wouldn’t cause too much trouble. At the time, right-wing military death squads were terrorizing many of the citizens of El Salvador, especially the poor, mainly because of protests over the extreme economic inequality that marked the country in the 20th century.
Just three weeks after his appointment as archbishop, a death squad ambushed and killed his friend, Father Rutilio Grande, who was an outspoken defender of the rights of the poor. Five more priests from the archdiocese would be assassinated during Romero’s time as archbishop.
Archbishop Romero’s weekly homilies, broadcast across the country on radio, were a galvanizing force for the country’s poor as well as a reliable source of news. He railed against the killings and urged the government to let people live in peace.
A military junta seized the government of El Salvador in 1979, with training and financial backing from the United States. Archbishop Romero criticized the U.S. government for backing the junta and even wrote to Jimmy Carter in February 1980 — a month before his death — asking him to stop supporting the repressive regime.
The Carter and the subsequent Reagan administrations continued their support in the hopes that El Salvador would not fall to the communist revolutions that had already engulfed Cuba and Nicaragua. All told, the United States had provided more than $1 billion in aid to El Salvador’s government by 1984, while in 1980 alone the Salvadoran armed forces killed nearly 12,000 people. The casualties were mostly peasants, trade unionists, teachers, students, journalists, human-rights advocates, priests and anyone perceived to be a part of the popular leftist movement.
‘Both the Victims of Violence and the Perpetrators’
The civil war between military-led governments and left-wing guerilla groups officially ended in 1992, but El Salvador remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
In light of the synod on youth taking place this month in Rome, Jones said a number of factors, including hardline policies meant to curb gang activity, have led to the rise of devastating violence among young people in El Salvador.
“It really has a lot to do with the lack of opportunities,” Jones said. “Kids get in gangs primarily because of dysfunctional families and living in marginalized neighborhoods where they don't have any other opportunities. Young people, coming out of a situation where there’s domestic violence, walk out their doors onto the street, and there’s a gang waiting to recruit them, saying, ‘We’ll be your family.’ And so kids join gangs to get a sense of power, belonging and identity, and a lack of hope for any other alternatives.”
Jones said after the United States began deporting large number of Salvadorans from Los Angeles after the civil war ended, many of the young people who returned were already involved in gang activity.
“You have a situation where in the mid-1990s most young boys were out of school and unemployed and only made it to sixth grade. And so they started organizing, and [the gangs] spread through the metropolitan area,” he said. “Then, in 2003, the government decided to put out the ‘Iron Fist’ policy: meaning zero tolerance; meaning any kid with baggy clothes, tattoos and a hat on backwards could get picked up and thrown into prison.”
These hardline policies backfired, however, as the homicide rate continued to increase, despite the changes.
“The level of violence has risen ever since the country put in these hardline policies,” Jones said. “What you have in the country, as I said, is you have the underlying conditions of people living in marginal, overcrowded neighborhoods that were created spontaneously because of the war, so there’s no social service, kids don’t have access to school, and the communities are all living in fear during the war, and that just gets translated to the next generation. And this generation acts out on that by joining gangs.”
“I think it’s the latest manifestation of both structural issues, lack of opportunity, and then trauma from the war getting worked out in a new way; and, thirdly, the levels of repression that they’ve had now under the ‘Iron Fist’ policies for over a decade,” he said.
The youth of El Salvador have the capacity to do better, Jones said, if they are given a chance.
“Young people even from the most marginal neighborhoods want to make a positive change in their neighborhood, in their families and in the country. And what they need is the support to do that,” he said. “Repression isn’t the kind of support they need. They need access to education, to jobs and to alternatives to violence.”
‘Fleeing a Nightmare’
Just as Archbishop Romero and his contemporaries did nearly four decades ago, the Catholic clergy in El Salvador continue to be broadly outspoken about human rights in the country. In addition to advocating that access to water should be a human right, the bishops spoke out in April against the Trump administration’s decision to end “Temporary Protected Status” for Salvadorans in the U.S. The bishops say ending the program would send unprepared people back into a highly dangerous situation in El Salvador.
“It’s critical that people there understand that most people are leaving now because of violence, and it’s not migration as usual,” Jones said. “I think we need to understand that the dynamics have changed. It’s not just about pursuing the American dream. ... They’re really fleeing a nightmare here in these poor neighborhoods. … Just sending people back [to El Salvador] will put them in harm’s way.”
Jones said the clergy and organizations like CRS are also working hard to address the problem of gangs and violence from several fronts. This includes working with young people early on, as well as speaking out against El Salvador’s highly overcrowded prison system and the hardline policies that have led to it.
“We need to work with adolescents and their families before they get engaged in gangs,” he said. “And so they need some policies, highly focused, very targeted, around secondary prevention. And then we’re also focused on tertiary prevention: meaning, you have to work with the guys that are locked up. So that when they get out, they don’t just go back into the gangs or into criminal behavior — that they actually become peace promoters among some of these neighborhoods.”
“We’re now working with governments; we’re trying to work with the police, to try to help them understand that the repressive tactics are not being effective, and to get better community policing, and more targeted, focused policing, and working with the kids before they get to the point where they need to be locked up.”
‘Church of the Poor’
Oscar Romero remains a controversial figure in some circles, mainly because of what some perceive as a tacit approval, or even outright endorsement, of the movement known as liberation theology. This belief, which gained traction especially in Latin America, combined elements of Marxism with Catholicism with the goal of “liberation” for the poor and lower class.
Msgr. Jesus Delgado, former secretary of Archbishop Romero, told CNA in 2015 that although “liberation theology” proponents visited the archbishop and left him their books, he was never swayed by their ideas, adding that Romero “knew nothing about liberation theology; he did not want to know about it. He adhered faithfully to the Catholic Church and to, above all, the teachings of the popes.”
Liberation theology was rebuked by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984.
“The ‘theologies of liberation’ ... go on to a disastrous confusion between the ‘poor’ of the Scripture and the ‘proletariat’ of Marx. In this way, they pervert the Christian meaning of the poor, and they transform the fight for the rights of the poor into a class fight within the ideological perspective of the class struggle,” wrote then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Beyond the Catholic world, the political divisions between the left and right, present during the time Archbishop Romero was assassinated, are still present in El Salvador, despite the civil war having ended.
“I’d like to point out, [Archbishop Romero] is still very controversial,” Jones admitted. “We have to remember that there were people who applauded him being assassinated.”
Jones said he sees Romero’s upcoming canonization as a vindication of his thought.
“Archbishop Romero still stands as the beacon for what is the best that the Catholic Church can be, in terms of standing up for the poor and the voiceless and human rights,” he said. “And especially in a context in which we are today, globally, I think he represents the best of what the Catholic Church can offer and as a symbol for people to follow.”