Bishop Oscar Romero: Biography, Assassination & Quotes

Instructor: Christopher Staysniak

Chris has taught college history and has a doctorate in American history.

In this lesson you will learn about Oscar Romero, an archbishop in El Salvador, who spoke out on behalf of the country's poor against the country's unjust social order before being assassinated in 1980.

Early Life

Oscar Romero was born in 1918 in Ciudad Barrios, a small mountain community in northeast El Salvador. His father was a postmaster and telegraph operator. The family was not rich, but they were certainly better off than the campesinos, the landless peasant farmers who comprised the majority of El Salvador's population. Growing up, Romero was a quiet and studious child. At the age of thirteen he entered the Catholic seminary to become a priest in the nearby city of San Miguel.

Early Career

Romero went on to study in Rome, where he was ordained. He began doctoral studies, but was summoned back to El Salvador. He became secretary of the diocese of San Miguel, an administrator position that oversaw much of the diocese's day to day business. He later became secretary for the Bishops Conference of El Salvador, and in 1974 was named bishop of the diocese of Santiago de María.

El Salvador itself was rife with social and political tensions. It was dominated by an oligarchy of wealthy families who owned virtually all the land and controlled the government. The army, as well as right-wing paramilitary groups, used intimidation and force to maintain the status quo. Those who spoke against the unequal social order were subject to beatings, torture, and, often, death.

Many Catholic priests in the country believed the church had an obligation to work for justice on behalf of the poor. Romero, however, remained centrist and nonpolitical in his ministry. He developed a reputation for being strict on Catholic formalities, for living a simple lifestyle, being a kind pastoral leader, and having tremendous speaking skills. Social issues were not a concern. As one biographer wrote, during those years, ''Romero was neither conservative nor progressive.''

In 1977 Romero was named archbishop of San Salvador, the country's capital and largest city, in large part because he was so noncontroversial. As he said in a published interview of the time, 'We must keep to the center, watchfully, in the traditional way, but seeking justice.'

A Turning Point

Romero's ministry took a turn shortly after becoming archbishop after the assassination of Rutillo Grande by government security forces. Grande, a Jesuit priest, was a friend of Romero's. He ran a parish in an area of the country north of the capital that was dominated by sugar plantations. There he had encouraged and empowered his campesino parishioners to demand social change. Grande's death was a tipping point for Romero, who was already becoming more concerned with the social injustices much of the population suffered from. It was stark and personal evidence of what awaited those who spoke out against the country's elite.

The following Sunday, Romero cancelled every mass in the archdiocese in favor of a single celebration at the San Salvador cathedral, resulting in a powerful service that had tens of thousands of attendees who packed the cathedral and spilled outside into the square. As Romero declared during the service, ''Whoever touches one of my priests touches me.''

A Prophetic Voice Emerges

Going forward, Romero was far more emboldened in his public denouncement of the military and government for their atrocities, as well as the overall inequality and poverty that fueled the country's unrest. He often filled his sermons with details of recent killings and beatings by government security forces, in part because oligarch-owned media avoided covering government abuses. He denounced violence on the right and the left as the country inched toward civil war. His sermons, broadcast over the archdiocesan radio station, reached the entire country.

His outspokenness on peace, poverty, and injustice earned him the adoration of much of the country's poor. But it earned him few admirers among the country's elite. He did not even enjoy the support of his fellow El Salvadoran bishops. He frequently received death threats, and the archdiocesan radio station was often bombed to try and limit his reach.

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