“Así matamos a monseñor Romero”
Monseñor: The Last Journey of Óscar Romero
I was in Managua, Nicaragua, thirty years ago, recovering from dengue fever, when my editor at The Guardian called from London to say that I should get on the next plane to San Salvador: the archbishop of El Salvador had been gunned down while saying Mass. I remember laughing at the impossibility of this too literary story—murder in the cathedral; of course it wasn’t true!—and then feeling sick. Óscar Arnulfo Romero, a self-effacing, not particularly articulate, stubborn man, who insisted every day on decrying the violence and terror that ruled his country, was, after all, the hierarch of the Catholic Church in El Salvador. Did he not have all the weight of the Vatican behind him, and the natural respect of even the most right-wing zealot for such a holy office? And then there was the act itself: murder at the most sacred moment of the Catholic Mass. Who, in such a Catholic country, would dare to violate the transubstantiation of Christ’s body?
But of course the story was true. Around 6:30 PM on Monday, March 24, 1980, a red Volkswagen Passat drove up to the small, graceful chapel of the Divina Providencia Hospital, a center run by Carmelite nuns where Romero lived. It was, as it almost always is in San Salvador, a hot day, and the wing-shaped chapel’s doors were open. As Romero stood at the altar just after the homily a tall, thin bearded man in the back seat of the Volkswagen raised an assault rifle and fired a single .22 bullet into the archbishop’s heart. Then, in no particular hurry, the car drove away. A grainy black-and-white photograph from that day shows the victim on the floor. As Romero’s heart pumps out the last of its blood, the white-coiffed nuns gather around him like the points of a star, or like the figures at the feet of Christ in Renaissance murals, which were intended simultaneously as representations and as prayers.
Historical turning points are so often the result of stupidity. The Sandinista Revolution, which had triumphed in Nicaragua barely eight months before, had set the dream of revolution flaring across Central America. But Romero’s murder and the mayhem and bloodshed set off by a sharpshooter at his funeral the following Saturday were perhaps the immediate sparks for the bloody twelve-year civil war that started in El Salvador just months later and killed some 70,000 Salvadorans, with the United States providing financial and military backing to the government side. It is hard to overstate how fervently the campesinos of El Salvador believed in Romero and what became known as the Liberation Church. When he was gone, entire villages placed themselves at the disposal of the guerrilla factions, which came together as a united front, the FMLN, a few months later.