His execution came one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights.
Just the month before, he had written to then President Carter, pleading with him to stop sending military aid to El Salvador, warning that increased US military aid would "undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights".
Carter, concerned that El Salvador would become "another Nicaragua" and thus less business-friendly, ignored Romero's pleas and continued military aid to the Salvadoran government.
Romero was not always a radical Liberation Theologian. Indeed, for the first twenty-five years of his ordained life, he supported the arrangement whereby the Church kept the masses credulous and docile while the aristocracy exploited them and the military enforced it all.
In 1977 he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, the news of which was met with surprise, dismay, and even incredulity. While this appointment was welcomed by the government, many priests were disappointed, especially those clergy who feared that his conservative reputation would negatively affect liberation theology's commitment to the poor.
Archbishop Romero was unmoved by the concern and unconcerned by the controversy. That's how it had always been in El Salvador - the church helping to keep the peace. That, he thought, was how it would always be.
But the peace of God is not the kind of peace either the government or the church in El Salvador had in mind. Apparently, God had something else in mind for the people of that country. And God had something else in mind for for his servant, Oscar.
Romero’s first task as archbishop was grim: he had to bury dozens whom soldiers had machine-gunned when 50,000 protesters demonstrated against rigged elections. Six priests were also arrested and deported to Guatemala.
Summoning priests to his residence (he had moved out of the Episcopal palace and was bunking in a hospital for indigents) he told them he required no further evidence or argumentation: he knew what the gospel required of church leaders in the face of the people’s misery. All priests were to afford sanctuary to those threatened by the government.
Undeterred, Romero prayed publicly at length beside his friend’s remains, and then buried all three corpses without first securing government permission – a criminal offence.
Next he did the unthinkable: he excommunicated the murderers.
In a dramatic gesture he canceled all services the following Sunday except for a single mass in front of the cathedral, conducted outdoors before 100,000 people.
Grande's death obviously had a profound impact on Romero who later stated, "When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path'".
Thus began Romero's conversion from an ascetical theologian to liberation theology, while at the same time, being an outspoken voice against Marxism and Communism. He worked tirelessly throughout his episcopacy, working to create self-reliance groups among the campesinos.
He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. As a result, Romero began to be noticed internationally. In 1978, 118 members of Britain’s House of Commons nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize (awarded that year to Mother Teresa of Calcutta).
Here are two quotes from two of his sermons:
When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises (8/6/78).
The church would betray its own love for God and its fidelity to the gospel if it stopped being . . . a defender of the nights of the poor . . . a humanizer of every legitimate struggle to achieve a more just society . . . that prepares the way for the true reign of God in history (8/6/79).
Six days later, two hundred and fifty thousand people thronged the Cathedral Square for his funeral, during which, a bomb exploded. Panic-stricken people stampeded. Forty died.
Viewing this attendance as a protest, Jesuit priest John Dear said, "Romero’s funeral was the largest demonstration in Salvadoran history, some say in the history of Latin America."
In the next two years 35,000 Salvadorans perished. Fifteen per cent of the population was driven into exile. Two thousand simply “disappeared.”
In 1983 Pope John Paul II prayed at Romero’s grave, and then appointed Monsignor Arturo Rivera as archbishop the only Salvadoran bishop to attend Romero’s funeral. The message was plain.
The pope had given his imprimatur to all that Romero had exemplified, bringing with it intense international attention that eventually brought an end to the civil war in that country.
In this morning's gospel (John 12:23-32) we hear Jesus say, "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."
Days before his murder Archbishop Romero told a reporter, "You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish."
He is not yet Saint Oscar Romero, but he is known throughout Latin America as 'San Romero'. There is a wonderful story about a child who was asked "What is a saint?"
The child answered, "Saints are people, like the ones in the stained glass window in the church, who help you see the Light in beautiful colors."
Thank you, San Romero, for the light you shed on El Salvador and on all the beautiful colors of the truth of the gospel. May your eternal light continue to guide us to truth and justice.