News last month that the investigation into the assassination of El Salvadoran Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero has been reopened has again focused attention on a man whose ministry, in the words of Pope Francis, “was distinguished by a particular attention to the most poor and marginalised”.

Born in Cuidad Barrios in El Salvador on 15th August, 1917, Romero attended school until the age of 13 before taking up an apprenticeship with his father as a carpenter. He apparently showed some skill, but was determined to become a priest and entered junior seminary school at the age of just 14.

 Martyrs

Archbishop Oscar Romero (centre) is among a series of 20th century martyrs depicted on the west front of Westminster Abbey in London. PICTURE: David Adams

At the age of 20, he went to Rome where he studied for the priesthood and was ordained on 4th April, 1942.

Returning to El Salvador in 1944, he celebrated his first mass with his family (his father and brother had died while he was in Rome) in Cuidad Barrios and for the next 20 years serves as the director of the San Miguel Diocese, during which time he became well known for his sermons and his tireless work in helping the poor and vulnerable.

Made a monsignor in 1967, he moved to the nation’s capital of San Salvador where, in 1970, he was ordained auxiliary bishop, and then, in 1974, Bishop of Santiago de Maria.

In 1977, he became Archbishop of San Salvador. It was a tumultuous time in the central American nation – social and economic inequality had led to mass demonstrations and rebellion against the government which responded with repressive measures leading to death squads and 'disappearances'.

While the archbishop had advocated working with the government to solve El Salvador’s problems, the murder of his friend Fr Rutilio Grande – apparently for his defence of peasant’s rights to organise farm cooperatives -  and two people he was travelling with on 12th March, 1977, led him to cancel all Masses the following Sunday except for one in front his the cathedral which attracted 100,000 people. Romero then refused to attend any government events until the murder was solved.

Calling for the government to take action to respect human rights and ensure people had their needs met, in 1979 Archbishop Romero visited the Vatican and presented the Pope with a series of reports containing details of murder, torture and kidnappings occurring in his home country. 

Back home, he became the subject of death threats but despite this, he continued to denounce the government and army for their repressive practices.  On 23rd March, a day before his death, he appealed for an end to the violence in a homily broadcast throughout the country, saying "Brothers, you are from the same people; you kill your fellow peasant…No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God…"

On 24th March, 1980, Archbishop Romero was saying Mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital when he was fatally shot by an assassin. Thousands attended his funeral at which the army fired into the crowd, killing 30 and injuring thousands.

El Salvador descended into a full-blown civil war which, running for 12 years, left more than 75,000 people dead, some 8,000 ‘disappeared’ and more than a million homeless – almost a fifth of the entire country’s population - before it ended in 1992.

A UN report in the early Nineties concluded that Major Roberto D’Aubission had ordered his death. A former air force captain, Alvaro Rafael Saravia, was named as one of the conspirators in a Californian court in 2004. He is now the subject of the reopened case.

Romero was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church – a step which occurs prior to being declared a saint – in 2015.

He remains known to many as a "father of the poor". Speaking at his beatification mass, Cardinal Angelo Amato said the “the figure of Romero is still alive and giving comfort to the marginalised of the earth". “His option for the poor was not ideological, but evangelical. His charity extended to the persecutors.”

Other sources:
The Archbishop Romero Trust
Caritas Australia
CAFOD UK