LAST MARCH, as the city of San Salvador began its weeklong commemoration of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s death, the souvenir T-shirts were abundant, worn by locals and visiting pilgrims alike. They were hot sellers in the stalls surrounding the downtown cathedral. There, Romero’s body lies in a crypt where everyday campesinos (native farmers) come, light candles, touch his tomb and metaphorically whisper in his ear, beseeching favors.
“As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am murdered, I will arise again in the Salvadoran people,” reads one popular shirt. The shirt bears the archbishop’s words and his bespectacled image above a map of the New Jersey-sized nation where more than 75,000 people perished in the civil war of the 1980s.
Romero, killed by soldiers while celebrating Mass at a hospital chapel on March 24, 1980, was an atypical victim, if one judges by his elevated position. But he joined thousands of others far less famous, from human-rights lawyers to union organizers to campesinos, as well as three North American sisters and a laywoman missionary, whose deaths have never been legally addressed in El Salvador. No one has ever been convicted of the murder of the archbishop.
Romero remains alive in the hearts of Salvadorans. Three decades later, tens of thousands crowded the downtown streets in a march to the cathedral, shouting, “Viva Romero.” Long an unofficial national hero, he has been formally embraced by the country’s new government. At the country’s only airport, international visitors are welcomed with an official mural depicting the archbishop.
President Mauricio Funes, elected in 2009, joined last year’s commemoration march, the first Salvadoran president to do so, and has formally apologized for the government’s role in the murder. During his inaugural address, he asked that his administration be judged by the standards set by Romero.
While Romero's prophetic witness stirred divisions within the Church when he
was alive—some of his auxiliary bishops cautioned that he went too far
in defending the poor—his cause for sainthood is being pursued by the
Archdiocese of San Salvador.