On 24. March marks 40 years since Oscar Romero was assassinated. He is revered as the "bishop of the poor" in his native El Salvador and beyond. It was not always so.
His likeness is emblazoned on mugs and T-shirts, and he exists as a mural and larger-than-life bust. His portrait hangs in churches, and he lends his name to the country’s most important airport.
40 years after his assassination, Oscar Romero is omnipresent in his native El Salvador: as an icon and national hero; as a symbol of hope for peace in a state whose society is deeply divided – even more than 25 years after the end of that bloody civil war that began with the military junta’s assassination of the archbishop of San Salvador.
Canonized in 2018
And yet Romero has not been so high on the agenda for so long. Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez characterizes him as a "controversial figure". It was only after Pope Francis canonized him in 2018 that a rediscovery of Romero the man began, said the auxiliary bishop in San Salvador, who was instrumental in taking that step.
There was also disagreement about Romero in his own ranks. Shortly after the canonization, the current archbishop of San Salvador, Jose Luis Escobar Alas, publicly asked for forgiveness "for that part of the church that treated Romero badly and defamed him, including his fellow bishops".
The legacy of the saint remains unwieldy. His trajectory from a rather conservative churchman who wanted to stay out of the conflicts between the military and the leftist FMLN guerrillas to a sympathizer of the "theology of liberation," long controversial within the church, and a sharp-tongued critic of the government defies easy interpretations.
A kind of savior
Today, Romero is seen by many people as a kind of savior, no matter which religious or political denomination they adhere to. An important place of remembrance is the hospital chapel "Ospitalito" in San Salvador. Here Romero was killed on 24. March 1980 killed with a well-aimed shot from a passing car. In the chancel, a silhouette is embedded at the place where the clergyman collapsed. Who committed the crime is still unclear. The mastermind, ARENA founder and intelligence agent Roberto D’Aubuisson, died in 1992 without ever facing trial.
Closely linked to Romero’s story is another place of worship, the Church of San Jose in El Paisnal, about 40 kilometers north of San Salvador. Nearby, in Aguilares, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande directed a parish. Witnesses remember how the priest repeatedly denounced the exploitation of farm workers and thus turned the owners of the large plantations against him.
Advocating for justice
"He preached justice," they say about Rutilio Grande. The religious paid with his life. On 12. March 1977, he and two companions were shot in a sugar cane field. The killing brought about a change in the Church’s attitude toward El Salvador’s poor – and a change in Romero’s attitude, who celebrated the funeral Mass in El Paisnal and called for the crime to be investigated. As a result, Romero also found himself increasingly in the crosshairs of large landowners and the military. "You can kill me, but not the voice of justice," the archbishop exclaimed in his last sermon.
Justice has not been served even half a lifetime after the murder of Grande and Romero. In late January, Romero’s successor in the bishop’s chair of San Salvador, Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas, urged that the crimes committed during the civil war be addressed. Still, many bereaved families do not know where the remains of their loved ones are buried. "Time does not heal the wounds; on the contrary, they become even deeper."
Romero found his final resting place in the crypt of the Cathedral of San Salvador. Every day, people from all walks of life make a pilgrimage here to pause in silent prayer before the tomb. It seems that a dead person manages to do what the living still find so difficult: reconcile the country with its difficult history.