Yesterday, March 24, was the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1980 execution of Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero by CIA-backed and funded assassins. The details of Romero, recently declared a martyr by Pope Francis, are well known: shot in the heart while saying mass, his blood spilled over the altar and, some say, into the communion wine, soaking the bits of white sacramental bread on the floor. His murder took place the day after he urged Salvadoran soldiers to disobey their superiors:
Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination…. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.
The repression, of course, didn’t stop. Ronald Reagan, soon to enter the White House, and then George HW Bush, would spend nearly $2 million a day to keep it going for more than a decade, claiming many tens of thousands of lives.
Romero’s sacrifice is well known, his name soon to be inscribed in the Book of Saints. Less remembered is that between thirty and thirty-five poor Salvadorans, largely anonymous, at least as far as public recognition is concerned, were killed at his funeral, which took place on March 30. Here’s a video of the chaos outside San Salvador’s cathedral. And here’s a description from Father James Connor, who was helping to celebrate Romero’s funeral mass inside.
The funeral ceremonies started calmly on a beautiful, but hot day. A procession of some thirty bishops (from England, Ireland, Spain, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and the United States) and more than 200 priests wound its way through eight or ten blocks of the city from the church where we had vested to the cathedral. Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks, many of them listening to a radio broadcast of the event on their transistor radios. We had been assured that the day would be peaceful and free of “events.” The Popular Front, including the far left, had covenanted to observe nonviolence in honor of the archbishop, and it seemed unthinkable that the hard-line right would desecrate this moment unless first provoked.
At first, all went as promised. The bishops and clergy processed into the cathedral through a side door, went out the front door to salute the altar set up in front of the cathedral, and then moved to our assigned places. The clergy remained inside the front door of the cathedral while the bishops stood outside on the altar platform and faced the square. The entire plaza was filled in of more than 100,000 persons, and thousands more spilled over into the side streets leading to it.
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All went peacefully through a succession of prayers, readings, hymns until the moment in his homily when Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada of Mexico, the personal delegate of Pope John Paul II, began to praise Archbishop Romero as a man of peace and a foe of violence. Suddenly, a bomb exploded at the far edge of the plaza, seemingly in front of the National Palace, a government building. Next, gunshots, sharp and clear, echoed off the walls surrounding the plaza. At first, the cardinal’s plea for all to remain calm seemed to have a steadying impact. But as another explosion reverberated, panic took hold and the crowd broke ranks and ran. Some headed for the side streets, but thousands more rushed up the stairs and fought their way into the cathedral.
As one of the concelebrating priests, I had been inside the cathedral from the start. Now I watched the terrified mob push through the doors until every inch of space was filled. Looking about me, I suddenly realized that, aside from the nuns, priests and bishops, the mourners were the poor and the powerless of EI Salvador. Absent were government representatives of the nation or of other countries. The ceremony had begun at 11 am and it was now after noon. For the next hour and a half or two, we found ourselves tightly packed into the cathedral, some huddled under the pews, others clutching one another in fright, still others praying silently or aloud.
The bomb explosions grew closer and more frequent until the cathedral began to shudder. Would the whole edifice collapse? Or would a machine-gunner appear in a doorway to strafe the crowd? A little peasant girl named Reina, dressed up in her brown-and-white checked Sunday dress, clung to me in desperation and pleaded, “Padre.”
We lived through that horror of bombs, bullets and panic, now dead bodies were being carried into the cathedral from outside, for nearly two hours. At certain moments one could not help wondering if we would all be killed…. Eventually, the bombing and shooting subsided. The papal nuncio to El Salvador received assurance by phone from some government source that it was safe for the people to leave the cathedral. Gradually, we filed out into the street with hands raised high above our heads, according to instructions, so as to assure any potential snipers that we were unarmed.
Later in the afternoon, back at the Jesuit residence where I was staying, we listened by radio to the government’s official account of the incident. The entire affair, the statement explained, was the work of leftist terrorists. Our own experience had given us, of course, a different picture…. All of us knew full well that we had not been held captive in the cathedral by leftist terrorists, as the official version had it, nor had any leftists attempted to make off with the archbishop’s body.
Here’s another description of events that day.