Archbishop Romero Is Assassinated Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero accentuated the increasingly violent civil war emerging in El Salvador between the right-wing government and the Marxist opposition.

Summary of Event

Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was killed by a single shot through the heart on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in a Carmelite chapel near the cathedral in San Salvador. Witnesses believed that Archbishop Romero saw the sharpshooter at the back of the church and was fully aware of what was going to happen. Despite the international outcry at Romero’s murder, no official governmental investigation was conducted into his murder; no one was charged in his death. In 1993, a U.N. Truth Commission stated that Roberto D’Aubuisson, Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party leader, had ordered Rafael Alvaro Saravia, a right-wing paramilitary death squad member, to kill Romero, who had called on the Salvadoran army to lay down its weapons. [kw]Archbishop Romero Is Assassinated (Mar. 24, 1980) [kw]Romero Is Assassinated, Archbishop (Mar. 24, 1980) [kw]Assassinated, Archbishop Romero Is (Mar. 24, 1980) Assassinations and attempts;Oscar Arnulfo Romero[Romero] [g]Central America;Mar. 24, 1980: Archbishop Romero Is Assassinated[04110] [g]El Salvador;Mar. 24, 1980: Archbishop Romero Is Assassinated[04110] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Mar. 24, 1980: Archbishop Romero Is Assassinated[04110] [c]Crime and scandal;Mar. 24, 1980: Archbishop Romero Is Assassinated[04110] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 24, 1980: Archbishop Romero Is Assassinated[04110] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 24, 1980: Archbishop Romero Is Assassinated[04110] Romero, Oscar Arnulfo D’Aubuisson, Roberto Grande, Rutilio

Oscar Romero was the unlikeliest of men to stand up to a tyrannical government. He entered seminary in his early teens. His academic talents were recognized, and he was sent to graduate school at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome in 1939. He received his degree in 1941 and was ordained a priest in 1942 at age twenty-five. He was summoned back to El Salvador in 1943 and began his career in the church, receiving appointments to increasingly important positions. In 1966, he became editor of the archdiocesan newspaper. He continued its conservative editorial policies, consistently siding with traditional interpretations of Catholic doctrine.

Romero was appointed archbishop of San Salvador on February 23, 1977. Traditional circles in the Catholic Church approved, whereas progressive circles, including many priests involved in liberation theology and the plight of the poor, were disappointed. However, Romero was a blend of traditional and progressive thinking. He was traditional in his unswerving loyalty to Catholic Church doctrine but much more liberal in his pastoral responsibilities to the poor.

Just weeks after Romero’s appointment as archbishop, Rutilio Grande, a priest and close friend of Romero, was murdered because of his activist work with poor farmers. Murders;Rutilio Grande[Grande] Grande’s murder caused Romero to rethink his priestly vocation in a profound way. Without joining leftist or Marxist liberation theologians who interpreted the Gospel primarily in economic terms, Romero began to preach that social justice was at the heart of the Gospel. Concern for the plight of the poor and respect for human rights were central to Jesus’ message. Both conservative and radical Catholics were surprised and angered by Romero’s approach. Conservative Catholics were angry because Romero seemed to have joined the left-wing liberation theologians who had little use for the institutional church. Left-wing Catholics were angry because the archbishop remained so moderate, still insisting on traditional adherence to Catholic teachings. His fellow bishops complained about him to Rome. The archbishop found himself politically isolated, supported only by the poor and the powerless, who listened in growing numbers to his weekly sermons broadcast throughout the country via the archdiocesan radio station.

As El Salvador fell deeper into civil war, the level of violence against the civilian population escalated. Civil wars;El Salvador Every week Romero denounced the killings, torture, and human rights abuses committed by military units on both sides, but particularly those atrocities committed by government-financed paramilitary death squads. More than 75,000 Salvadorans would lose their lives in the civil war. Early in 1980, Archbishop Romero wrote to U.S. president Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy asking that the United States immediately stop sending military aid to the Salvadoran government because such aid was used only to oppress its own people. President Carter, internationally known as a supporter of human rights, did not respond.

Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1977.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

At the same time that El Salvador was descending into civil war, its neighbor Nicaragua was also involved in a civil war. The leftist Sandinistas, Sandinistas led by Daniel Ortega Saavedra, Ortega Saavedra, Daniel seized power in July, 1979. The Sandinistas supported the leftists in the Salvadoran civil war. President Carter, concerned that El Salvador could become socialist like Nicaragua, continued to fund the Salvadoran government.

Romero continued to denounce all human rights abuses in El Salvador. Having exhausted all other avenues to stop the violence, on March 23, 1980, he broadcast a direct appeal to the soldiers of the Salvadoran army to refuse to obey orders to kill civilians and to lay down weapons. Romero was assassinated the following evening while saying Mass. His funeral on March 30, 1980, was attended by more than fifty thousand mourners. Government security forces on the rooftops of buildings near the cathedral opened fire on the crowd of mourners, killing forty-two people and wounding hundreds more.


Archbishop Romero’s murder did nothing to galvanize moderates on both sides to stop the killings. The civil war in El Salvador continued until 1992 with the United States continuing to play a large financial role. Nevertheless, Romero’s legacy of concern for the poor and powerless lives on. His emphasis on a “preferential option for the poor”—a teaching that states that in all church decisions, the rights and needs of the poor and the powerless must be given priority—has had particular influence on bishops in Latin America. Moreover, Romero’s preaching that the people of God are the church of God has been integrated into the pastoral decisions of many bishops. Saravia, Rafael Alvaro Assassinations and attempts;Oscar Arnulfo Romero[Romero]

In 1990, the archbishop of San Salvador authorized the beginning of the process that might eventually lead to beatification and canonization of Romero. In 1997, Pope John Paul II declared Oscar Romero a “Servant of God.” Assassinations and attempts;Oscar Arnulfo Romero[Romero]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockman, James R. Romero: A Life. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1989. A scholarly and definitive biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Golden, Renny. Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2000. A good source for background information on Romero’s life as well as the historical situation in El Salvador. Includes selections from his writings and portions of some of his sermons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pelton, Robert S., ed. Monsignor Romero: A Bishop for the Third Millennium. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. Collection of speeches in honor of Romero by leading social activists and theologians. Provides background material on his vocation as a priest, his concern for the poor, and his commitment to human rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Romero, Oscar. The Violence of Love. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004. Romero’s own writings on violence, persecution, and Jesus’ preaching to the poor.

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Categories: History