From the moment Archbishop Romero was killed it was seen by the people in the parishes of El Savador as martyrdom

Yesterday was the feast day of the St Ansgar who was Archbishop of Hamburg and known as the Apostle of the North. It was also amazingly the 38th anniversary of Oscar Romero’s appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador back in 1977. What an entirely appropriate day for Pope Francis to declare Archbishop Romero a martyr of the Church, assassinated in hatred of the faith.

It has taken 35 long years since he was shot dead by a marksman’s bullet as he moved to begin the Offertory of the Mass on the evening of March 24 1980. From the first moment it was seen by the people in the parishes and Christian communities of El Savador as martyrdom; Archbishop Romero had shed his blood for the poor and exploited people of El Salvador; he had given his life trying to prevent the country from falling into civil war.

Romero took to heart Pope Paul VI’s dictum, “If you want peace then work for justice”. He became an outspoken critic of the military regime and its systematic violation of the human rights of those working for and demanding change in the countryside. But his words were distorted or censored altogether by the media. So every Sunday in his homily in the Cathedral Archbishop Romero spoke the truth of what was going on in a land of cover-up and lies; he denounced the killings and atrocities with the ferocity of Amos and the Old Testament prophets; he offered pastoral care from the diocese and sought redress from government and judicial authorities – with little success. But he spoke from his pulpit in the context of his reflections on the gospel, applying it to the real-life situation of his people. He became the voice of the voiceless poor.

Archbishop Romero poses with women and children in El Salvador (CNS)

Archbishop Romero poses with women and children in El Salvador (CNS)

The military and the oligarchy came to despise him and sought to silence his voice. As a result the Church suffered serious persecution with six priests and dozens of catechists killed, churches ransacked and the Blessed Sacrament desecrated. Three times they bombed his radio station that carried his sermons live on Sunday mornings and took it off the air. In the end they killed him in the dramatic setting of the eucharist, foolishly believing that would be the definitive end to Romero’s influence.

It seemed blindingly obvious to many bishops and cardinals and subsequently to St John Paul II that Romero died a martyr having been an exemplary exponent of the magisterium’s social teaching which continually touched a raw nerve amongst the wealthy elite and the army. Sadly many influential Catholics from the upper classes saw him as a naïve man who lent himself to the cause of Marxist agitators and rebels. Their case which was supported by a number of Curial officials in the Vatican was that Romero was not killed for his adherence to Church teaching but for ‘political’ statements and provocations they allege he made separate from his ‘spiritual’ preaching. Hence he was not killed for hatred of the faith, they claim, but for hatred of his intervention in politics.

This battle has gone on behind the scenes in Rome for some years: to what extent are ‘odium fidei’ and ‘odium justitiae’ separable – if at all. Last August Pope Francis challenged the Vatican’s saint–making department to clarify, when classifying martyrdom in hatred of the faith, whether being killed for reciting the creed was really different from being killed for doing what Jesus asks us to do. Last month the theological advisers came up with the unanimous answer that in Romero’s case he died as a martyr in hatred of the faith – full stop. Yesterday Pope Francis gave his own authorisation and Romero’s beatification ceremony in San Salvador will now follow very soon.

There will be an ecumenical service to mark the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 21 at 11am at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square. For more information, visit romerotrust.org.uk