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Here's Why Oscar Romero Became A Martyr And Why His Work Still Isn't Done

02/04/2015 05:56 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2015

Pope Francis decreed on Tuesday that Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero died as a martyr, opening a path toward his beatification, which is the last step before sainthood. For many people across the Americas, the decision affirmed the moral fortitude of Romero, who was killed in 1980 for defending the poor and condemning the violence perpetrated by the Salvadoran government and funded by the United States at the height of the Cold War.

Here’s a look back at how Romero became such an important figure:

  • He started out apolitical
    AP
    Romero is known for confronting his country's government and military. But Virginia Garrard-Burnett, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies religious movements in Central America, says he rose through the Catholic Church's ranks precisely because he kept out of politics during his early career.

    "He had been chosen as archbishop partly because he didn't seem very political," Garrard-Burnett told The Huffington Post. "But over time he became very concerned about the violence overtaking the country."
  • He advocated for the poor
    Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
    People march in San Salvador on March 16, 2013, during the commemoration of the 33th anniversary of the death of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was killed when he was officiating the mass in 1980. AFP PHOTO/ Jose CABEZAS

    Romero's rise to prominence coincided with the growth of the liberation theology movement, which aimed to use the influence of the Catholic Church to improve the lives of the poor. The movement became associated with the left in a region where the church hierarchy was largely conservative.

    "At the time liberation theology was really the order of the day in Latin America," Garrard-Burnett said. "The clergy who were out in the parishes initially were involved in things like cooperatives and fertilizer projects and things like that, that they thought would help people. They organized Bible readings, which they thought would help people apply biblical teachings to their lives. That may not sound very revolutionary, but it was."

    Though Garrard-Burnett says Romero didn't openly embrace the movement, his defense of the poor and criticisms of the Salvadoran government dovetailed with liberation theology's aims.
  • He demanded the Salvadoran military stop the government repression
    AP
    Anti-government demonstrators run for cover Monday, October 22, 1979, in San Salvador as gunmen open fire from a hilltop and nearby buildings. (AP Photo/Montealegre)

    As El Salvador lurched toward civil war in the late 1970s, Romero called upon the military to defy orders to kill innocent people, saying that the law of God was higher than the authority of the Salvadoran government.

    During a radio broadcast on March 23, 1980, Romero said, "In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heavens, each day more tumultuous, I ask you, I beg you, I order you -- stop the repression!"

  • He was killed while celebrating Mass
    The following day, an assassin shot Romero to death as he gave Mass. The moment was dramatized by actor Raúl Juliá in the 1989 film "Romero."
  • He was at odds with the U.S. government
    Getty Images
    Roberto D'Aubuisson (1944-1992), a Salvadoran right-wing politician, death squad leader and a major in the Salvadoran Army, during the Savadoran Civil War, El Salvador, 1988. (Photo by Scott Wallace/Getty)

    Arturo Viscarra, advocacy coordinator for the School of the Americas Watch, a human rights group organized to oppose the U.S. training of Latin American military forces used to attack civilians, was six months old when his family brought him to the United States. They fled violence in El Salvador the same year Romero was killed.

    Viscarra told HuffPost he was happy to hear that the pope had declared Romero a martyr, but also said he hoped Romero's recognition by the Vatican would spur more discussion about how he died.

    El Salvador never convicted anyone for Romero's killing, but a U.N.-sponsored truth commission found in 1993 that Roberto D'Aubuisson, one of the alleged architects of the country's right-wing death squads, masterminded the attack.

    D'Aubuisson studied at the School of the Americas, a U.S. military institute reviled among Latin America's left for having trained leaders of the wave of right-wing dictatorships that took power in the region from the 1960s through the 1980s.

    For Viscarra, that training serves as a reminder of Romero's condemnation of U.S. funding of the repressive Salvadoran government, which U.S. leaders justified as a means of containing communism during the Cold War.

    "There needs to be further accountability for those that committed these human rights violations, including the killing of Romero -- and including the U.S., who bear responsibility for atrocities including this one," Viscarra said. "If you're going to talk about a martyr, there should be discussion of who's responsible for his murder."

  • He became a symbol of peace across the Americas...
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A mural bearing the image of martyred Catholic archbishop Oscar Romero is displayed in the center of Los Angeles' Salvadoran community. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

    Revered as a hero across the Americas, Romero's face can be seen on murals from El Salvador to California, where many Salvadorans settled during the war years.
  • ...but not so much at the Vatican...
    (Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
    While many Latin Americans and Latinos in the U.S. viewed Romero for years as a morally upright leader, his affiliation with liberation theology reportedly made Vatican City nervous, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

    Having grown up in communist Poland, Pope John Paul II's experience differed sharply from that of Latin America, Gerrard-Burnett said. Both he and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, were "very contrary to the idea that Christians and revolutionaries could be on the same side," she added.
  • ...Until Mario Bergoglio became the first Latin American pope
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Pope Francis speaks with El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes as they stand in front of a reliquary containing a fragment of the vestment that Archbishop Oscar Romero was wearing when he was assassinated, during a private audience at the Vatican Thursday, May 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Pool)

    Pope Francis hasn't embraced liberation theology, but he has professed similar values and lived through a similarly violent, U.S.-backed, right-wing dictatorship.
  • Meanwhile, the legacy of violence continues in El Salvador
    El Faro
    With a homicide rate of 41.2 per 100,000 people, El Salvador is the world's fourth most violent country, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

    When the news of the Vatican's decision was announced, Salvadoran digital news publication El Faro led its site with the story. Below it, they placed a story about a Salvadoran politician pushing to implement the death penalty in order to tame the country's out-of-control violence.

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