Remembering Romero

Nearly 30 Years After His Murder, The Slain Archbishop’s Death Haunts Salvadoran Elections

An unidentified Salvadoran man prays at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, San Salvador Cathedral crypt, July 2008. Photo by Roy Joseph, SJ
An unidentified Salvadoran man prays at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, San Salvador Cathedral crypt, July 2008. Photo by Roy Joseph, SJ

Corrupt and Cruel
Father Dean Brackley, an American Jesuit who teaches at the University of Central America, says the Salvadoran Left continues to draw heavily on the memory of Romero and six Jesuit priests who were assassinated in 1989.

“Romero and the martyrs continue to be an inspiration as moral models in a very corrupt and cruel situation,” says Brackley. “In that sense they inspire people, probably a minority of people, who push for change. It is always a minority that pushes for change, and El Salvador is no exception.”

Both political parties are careful to respect, if not exploit, Romero’s reputation.

They do so because it is impossible to ignore Romero’s name recognition with young and old, rich and poor. Whether one labels him a communist or a saint, Romero is a political lightning rod, the best-known public figure in Salvadoran history.

Although the cathedral crypt holds the bodies of other Catholic bishops, they are interred in an unadorned mausoleum. Only Romero lies beneath a regal bronze tomb bearing his sculpted image and pastoral staff, with four angels guarding the corners. Only Romero inspires tears and —sometimes—curses. Flanked by ropes and flowers, his tomb is open daily for visitors, with mass celebrated there each Sunday. On the tomb itself, a red ball lies in the center of Romero’s chest, symbolizing the sniper’s bullet that killed him while celebrating mass for Carmelite nuns 28 years ago.

“Romero and the martyrs continue to be an inspiration as moral models in a very corrupt and cruel situation.”

Shy Smile
During his lifetime Romero was personally apolitical, never endorsing anything stronger than the Legion of Mary and Cursillo religious movements. He was particularly active in Alcoholics Anonymous retreats. Yet since his death Romero has been adopted as a hero by secular leftists, who see in him a symbol of the martyred left—martyred, that is, by what they insist was government-planned terrorism during the civil war.

Walking the streets of the capital today, one cannot escape Romero’s image. The bespectacled prelate’s shy smile pops out from buildings and t-shirts, key chains and postage stamps. Religious kitsch depicts “Saint Oscar Romero of the Americas” as a white-robed martyr framed by a halo and whirling helicopters.

On August 23, the nation’s leading newspapers ran full-page ads celebrating D’Aubisson’s birthday. According to Brackley, this fits with the ARENA party’s tendency to whitewash the war, honoring “freedom fighters” at the expense of peacemakers like Romero, who were killed for speaking out against the killing of peasants.

“That party promotes D’Aubisson as a champion of liberty, an enemy of Communism and a role model, especially for youth,” says Brackley. “In fact, I suspect that is one reason why the beautification process for Romero is being stalled. Romero and the martyrs remain a symbol of the brutal past of the war. Wounds remain open.”

Brackley came to the UCA in 1990, replacing one of the six Jesuits assassinated during the civil war a year earlier. International outcry over the Jesuit deaths is sometimes credited with hastening the 1992 peace accords, a sort of “bookend” on the opposite end of the war from Romero.

State Terrorism

It is precisely the official version of these killings — and many others — that may be upended if the leftists triumph in March.

The “official version” of the civil war, peddled in government history books, is that the war was a conflict between violent guerillas and paramilitary groups who were equally reprehensible. Nothing could be further from the truth for the supporters of Romero and the former guerillas who comprise FMLN. They insist the civil war was a systematic campaign of “state terrorism” waged by national army troops against political undesirables, rather than a conflict between equally matched opponents.

“Although the martyrs won’t influence voting directly, what will happen if the party of the former guerillas comes to power?” asks Brackley. “The truth about the war, covered up so long, will be harder to cover up. The truth, according to the UN Truth Commission, is that the government practiced state terror.”

Collective Memory of Tragedy
There is something about Romero and the civil war — some collective memory of tragedy — that lurks beneath this year’s election. That war is an elephant in the room, and even a moderate left-wing government is not likely to leave the history books untouched. The people involved in FMLN have too many empty chairs around their dining room tables to let that happen; they have been waiting too long to tell their version of what happened.

“The right has been unchastened and arrogant, and wounds have never healed,” says Brackley. “The truth about the martyrs is the key to the truth about the whole war, and the truth about the past war is key to the truth about the present situation.”

He adds, “That is a truth that can help set us free from lies, corruption and injustice. It can help bring about the long-delayed reconciliation. You can’t eat it or buy a house with it, but it will be very important for many people to advance along that road.”

The small house where Romero lived next to a Carmelite hospital is now a museum. In the hospital chapel, a sign marks the altar where Romero “offered his life to God for his people.” For the pious leftists who flock to these and other sites, Romero and the Jesuit martyrs were not communists, but faithful Catholics killed for taking a stand against terrorism.