Today, March 24, is the feast day of Saint Óscar Romero. It was on this day 42 years ago that then Archbishop Romero was assassinated by the Salvadoran military forces as he celebrated mass at a small hospital chapel. The Salvadoran Civil War began with a military coup d’état in October 1979. The military group was trained and funded by the United States government. The American-trained death squads terrorized the people and anyone questioning or opposing the government was subject to being disappeared or killed under the assumption of being a rebel. However, most of the population was overwhelmingly in support of the rebels, seeing the movement as hope for combating the extreme poverty that encompassed their lives.
In response to the oppression of the poor and the military protection of the wealthy minority, Romero spoke out. He wrote an open letter to President Jimmy Carter in February of 1980 pleading that he end the military support. He stated, “Political power is in the hands of the armed forces. They know only how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.” He explained that involvement from the United States “sharpen[ed] the injustice and repression” toward people who were “struggling to gain respect for their fundamental human rights.” Military support from the United States did not stop. Instead, it continued through the 1980’s reaching almost $5 billion.
The day before his assassination, Romero preached a sermon broadcast throughout the country. He spoke directly to the military, reminding them that the people their military orders called on them to oppress, kidnap, and murder were their own people. He cried out for them to disobey orders to murder the people of their own nation! “In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you; in the name of God, I command you to stop the repression!”
The Salvadoran Civil War continued for twelve years. At least a hundred thousand people died or disappeared, and it resulted in millions of refugees. No one was ever arrested for the assassination. In fact, no official investigation took place.
Romero addressed the unjust systems of society that seek to maintain the status quo—to keep in line the law and order—that sustains the growing prosperity of a few at the cost of crushing poverty and oppression of the many. His words cause us to stop and take account of our place in such systems. They call us to reassess our understanding of the Good News we receive in the Holy Scriptures.
“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is proclaimed – what gospel is that?” St. Óscar Romero