‘Romero is loved by the poor, but hated by the rich’

Salvadorans pray at the crypt where Archbishop Oscar Romero was buried at the cathedral in San Salvador (CNS photo/Luis Galdamez, Reuters)

The bleeding Christ that hangs above the altar where Archbishop Romero was murdered is a symbol of his sacrifice. As the tropical light shines in through a window, our guide José describes how he fell diagonally behind the altar, shot through the heart from 20 metres by a marksman at the chapel door. The accuracy of the neat bullet wound, pocked into his vestment for us to see in his nearby museum, is testimony to the government training of his assassins.

Bloodstained vestments come up a lot in museum exhibits around here. I write this 50 metres from where six Jesuit priests and two women were assassinated, at the Central University of San Salvador in 1989. We drive through narrow, dirty roads to another site that day, where another priest and a group of boys were murdered, all during the civil war. We bump into Patty, a large middle-aged woman who tells us how that night she had hidden in the kitchens that day to avoid being killed.

Despite this catalogue of atrocities Romero’s legacy in El Salvador is mixed. José, who works for a Cafod-funded human rights organisation Tutela Legal, (and received his First Holy Communion from Romero) tells us: “He is the most loved but also the most hated. Like any prophet, he polarised opinion. Jesus was also hated and loved. Romero is loved by the poor, and hated by the middle classes and by the rich of this country… And by the poor who are mistaken. It’s important to make that point.”

José Maria Tojeira, the ex-rector of the Central University of El Salvador, adds: “Big businessmen from ARENA [the Nationalist Republican Alliance], who fly the party’s flag from their high-rises, would never oppose him in public – but the sectors in society with lots of money would have felt themselves criticised by Romero. His sermons about the idolatry of wealth would be seen as nothing but an incitement to kidnap.”