“Before an order to kill that a man might give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God … in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God, stop the repression.”
These words, carried live on his own radio station to all the nation, are perhaps Archbishop Oscar Romero’s most well known. They were issued from the pulpit of the Sacred Heart Basilica in San Salvador on Sunday March 23, 1980. In effect, they constituted a heartfelt plea to members of the government security forces and their death squads who had been shooting and massacring El Salvador’s poor and dispossessed – men and women whose only crime was to ask that they have a more equitable share of the country’s land and wealth.
Effectively, the sermon was Romero’s death sentence. Within just over 24 hours of uttering these words, he was dead.
Romero knew well enough that his uncompromising stance to defend the poor would have only one outcome. On a visit to Rome in late January 1980, he had told Fr Lucas Moreira Neves, secretary to the Congregation of Bishops, that he would be assassinated very soon. Rome had offered him a temporary sanctuary away from the almost unbearable tension building up in a tiny Central American country no bigger than Wales. He declined.
On Monday March 24, the archbishop returned from a lunchtime trip to La Libertad on the coast with a small group of Opus Dei students and made for the Jesuit house at Santa Tecla, where he sought out his spiritual director, Fr Segundo Azcue, for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
“I want to be clean when I come before God,” he is reported to have said. His brief Confession was over by 5pm. By 5.30pm, he was back at his home, in the community of the Carmelite Sisters at the Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador, preparing to celebrate a Mass of commemoration for Doña Sarita, mother of Jorge Pinto, a friend and owner of the daily El Independiente, whose newspaper offices had been bombed only a few weeks previously.
Romero’s closest friends and advisers were worried. The details of the liturgy had appeared in the national press. They had advised anonymity, but he had insisted that his name be left clearly on the press notice. His flank was now clearly exposed to anyone who wanted to take his life.
Mass began promptly at 6pm in the hospital chapel, attended by the nuns and family and friends of Doña Sarita. The Mass readings appear, with hindsight, to be prophetic. The first reading was 1 Corinthians 15:20-28: “Christ must reign until God has put all enemies under his feet, and the last of the enemies is death.” There followed Psalm 23, with its portentous reference to walking “in the valley of death” and, to cap it all, the Gospel, John 12:23-26: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a grain.”
Following a brief sermon, in which he urged those listening to give their bodies, like Christ, for the “justice and peace of our people”, at precisely 6:24pm the celebrant noticed a red Volkswagen drawing up close to the chapel door. Romero was preparing for the Offertory and was reaching out for the paten on the altar when a single shot rang out. He slumped to the floor behind the altar at the foot of a large crucifix, unconscious, blood pouring from his mouth, nose and ears.
Inside the small chapel there was pandemonium. A photographer who had been contracted to take images of the commemoration celebration snapped away.
The archbishop was quickly carried to a nearby truck and rushed to the Policlínica Hospital. His vestments were saturated in blood. Within a few minutes of his arrival there, he gasped his last breath. It appears that this was exactly as Archbishop Romero had wished. His overriding fear had been that either he would be captured by the repressive regime and tortured, or that others might be killed as collateral damage alongside him in any attempt on his life.
That he should die as he was about to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass only served to throw into relief the example of a truly holy man who had taken Christ’s words, “This is my body which will be given up for you”, directly into the essence of his own spiritual life.
The miracle is, perhaps, that he had lived even that long. Ever since the brutal murder of his Jesuit friend Fr Rutilio Grande in March 1977, Archbishop Romero had been on a course of spiralling confrontation with the murderous forces of political repression. A man who once might have counselled behind the scenes compromise and wheeler-dealing came to an understanding through his rich prayer life that the demand of loyalty to the Gospel brooked no room for such concessions.
The poor of El Salvador knew they had a saint and martyr in their midst from that very moment. Thirty-five years on, the universal Church will finally echo and confirm what they have known in their hearts all along.
To this day, the identity of his sniper assassin remains unknown.
Mark Dowd is a writer on religious affairs
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (22/5/15).