Monsignor Romero’s Lesson for Today’s Students

On March 24, 1980, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero was celebrating mass in the open-air chapel of a hospital in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. A red Volkswagen pulled up outside. A man in the car raised a rifle and took aim through an open door. He fired one shot striking Romero in the chest. The priest died at the altar. 


Thirty-eight years later, on March 24, 2018, thousands of young people will converge on Washington for the March for Our Lives calling for real actions to curb gun violence. In Romero, they will find an urgent lesson about what can happen when justice is denied and gun violence runs rampant.

The assassination of Romero, a gentle and fearless champion of the poor who persisted in his work despite savage, U.S.-sponsored military repression, set off the Salvadoran civil war, which raged from 1980-1992.  

Martyrdom was an unexpected role for this modest cleric, whose friends were street vendors and whose hobby was photography. The conservative Catholic hierarchy welcomed his appointment as archbishop of El Salvador in 1975. They assumed his mild manner would lead him to bless the oligarchic status quo in a country dominated by 14 wealthy families.

Romero surprised his colleagues. As spiritual leader of the overwhelmingly Catholic country, he did not espouse the “liberation theology” of the country’s more radical priests. But he dedicated his ministry to the poor majority and did not hesitate to denounce the country’s armed forces, which defended the country’s largest landowners with assassinations and massacres.

Romero knew his nationally broadcast calls for soldiers to disobey orders to kill made him a threat to the Salvadoran military and its CIA advisers.

“If they kill me,” he said, “I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.”

Three weeks after he spoke those words, he was shot and killed. Nearly four decades later, he has risen again. Earlier this month, the Vatican of Pope Francis took another step toward the canonization of Oscar Romero. 

Legacy of Guns

The impact of the Salvadoran civil war on the United States, though largely forgotten today, was profound.

In December 1980, nine months after Romero was killed, four American churchwomen were murdered by Salvadoran government forces because of their work with the poor. A month after that, two American advisers from the AFL-CIO were gunned down by a right-wing death squad for their work on land reform.

The war in El Salvador polarized the politics of Washington throughout the 1980s, with liberal Democrats opposing military aid to a murderous regime that was backed to the hilt by President Ronald Reagan.

The conflict, wrote reporter Ray Bonner recently in the Atlantic,

“pitted leftist revolutionaries against the alliance of countries, oligarchs, and generals that had ruled the country for decades—with U.S. support—keeping peasants illiterate and impoverished. It was a bloody, brutal, and dirty war. …. Peasants were shot en masse, often while trying to flee. Student and union leaders had their thumbs tied behind their backs before being shot in the head, their bodies left on roadsides as a warning to others.”

When the conflict finally ended in a peace agreement in 1992, an estimated 75,000 civilians had been killed. Investigators for a U.N. truth commission concluded U.S.-backed forces, advised by the CIA and the Pentagon, were responsible for 95 percent of the civilian deaths.

Exodus

Most consequentially, the Salvadoran civil war set off an exodus of a million Salvadorans to the United States—which President Trump now seeks to reverse.

In January, Trump vowed to end the protected status that was granted to Salvadorans in 2001 following two devastating earthquakes. A few days later, during a White House meeting on immigration policy, the president characterized countries like El Salvador as “shithole” (or was it "shithouse"?) countries. 

Trump’s disdain is a symptom of American amnesia. In the 1980s, El Salvador was the subject of presidential speeches and front-page stories in the Washington Post and New York Times. Today is it is a forgotten country, the footnote to an insult.

Romero would have defended his country from such abuse, but without rancor. He would not shrink from or downplay El Salvador's terrible problems of gang violence, unemployment and malnutrition. “The pastor must be where there is suffering,” he said.

As a man of peace who did not disdain politics, Romero would also celebrate the country’s free press, especially its most independent news site, El Faro (The Lighthouse), as well as its functioning democracy in which left- and right-wing parties compete in free, fair and peaceful elections.

And Romero would have reminded the president of the U.S. government’s complicity in the deterioration of El Salvador. The gunman who killed him, and then escaped, was an associate of ultra-rightist leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was trained in the United States at the International Police Academy. The IPA was predecessor to the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, which activists dubbed School of the Assassins for the terrible human rights records of some of its graduates. 

Several Salvadoran generals who have blood on their hands lived unmolested in the United States for years after the war ended.

“Many Americans would prefer to forget that chapter in American history,” notes Bonner, who covered the war for the New York Times. “Those under the age of 40 may not even be aware of it. Salvadorans haven’t forgotten, however."

Today, Oscar Romero is perhaps the most famous Salvadoran in the world. The country’s only international airport is named for him. His life and legacy are celebrated at San Salvador’s Museum of the Word and the Image. Pope Francis may certify him as a bonafide saint as early as May.

But there was nothing otherworldly about Romero. To those who knew him, he was an ordinary man guided only by his deep faith in humanity that compelled him to speak truth to power. In his life and martyrdom, the students marching on Washington will find an inspirational exemplar of peaceful change, a man who risked his life to stop the scourge of gun violence and who will never be forgotten.

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