Voice for the Voiceless

Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador

August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, honors the assumption of Mary’s body and soul into heaven when her early life was over. This year, August 15, 2017, is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Oscar Romero. A fearless champion of justice and advocate for the poor in his native El Salvador, Archbishop Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass, the first bishop slain at the altar since Thomas Becket in the twelfth century. He was beatified in May 2015. 

Romero was appointed archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. In the 1970s, the poor of El Salvador suffered under the weight of an oppressive oligarchy. Social tensions were rapidly reaching the boiling point. Coups, countercoups, widespread corruption, and fraudulent elections led to a succession of governments, each promising reform, while leaving the military and death squads free to suppress the popular demand for justice.

A pious, timid, conventional cleric, there was little in Romero’s background to suggest that within three years of becoming archbishop he would challenge the status quo and become a “voice for the voiceless,” denounced by the oligarchy, the rich and powerful, and fellow conservative bishops. In his weekly homilies, broadcast by radio throughout the country, he described the week’s human rights violations, kidnappings, killings, and atrocities perpetrated by both the military regime and leftist guerrillas.

On Sunday, March 23, 1980, the day before his death, he appealed directly to the military:

“We are your people. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear the voice of the man commanding you to kill, remember instead the voice of God. Thou Shalt Not Kill. . . . In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression.”

The next day, at 6:26 p.m., while celebrating Mass in the Carmelite Sisters’ chapel at Divine Providence Cancer Hospital where he lived, a single rifle shot was fired from the rear of the chapel. Romero was struck in the heart and died within minutes.