The single bullet tore into his chest and shattered his spine. He was sixty-three at the time, but had been at his particular job for only three years. In that short period, he had been awarded two honorary doctorates, received numerous death threats, and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a journalist, and the host of the most-listened-to radio broadcast in his country. But his radio station had been bombed numerous times, and sometimes his program had to be transmitted by short wave from abroad. In his three years as archbishop, his bosses had dispatched three separate delegations to scrutinize his work. There were rumors he might be replaced.

He loved to argue, but he listened. As a boy, he was a carpenter’s apprentice and made coffins. He spent the war years in Europe (1939-43), far from his native land, and was cold, hungry, and poor. Later in life, he loved to eat: pork roast with chismol, fried plantains with sour cream, pineapple pastelitos, and, of course, beans-he always had to have his beans. Sometimes, he even followed it all with Maalox.

He was so young when he finished his studies that he had to wait almost a year before they would ordain him. He played the piano and loved the marimba. The day he was shot, celebrating Mass at a cancer hospice, the Gospel reading was John 12:23-26: “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit...” When he fell back from the bullet’s impact, his purple vestments were splattered with blood that gushed up from his lungs. And even though it was Lent, there were parties that night in the capital: champagne, fireworks, and dancing. “Did you hear, they finally killed that son of a bitch?!”

Who was Oscar Arnulfo Romero? And why do people still visit his grave?

This Holy Thursday, March 24, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom (could there be a better feast day?). There will be significant observances in his beloved El Salvador. In the United States, many of those who conducted the long Central American counterinsurgency war in the Reagan-Bush administration are now back in power-wielding it elsewhere. To mark the anniversary, Orbis Books is reissuing James Brockman’s fine Romero: A Life. I’ve been rereading it, as well as Romero’s diary, and Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic (Epica), stories told by those who knew him. The latter is a kind of Little Flowers of St. Francis: charming and earthy, alternating between the irreverent and the divine.

I once visited Romero’s grave. It was nine years after his death-another very bloody year in El Salvador-and three years before the armistice that finally ended the long civil war. Visiting the grave made me understand the impact he had on others. It was situated at the time in the upper church of the cavernous cathedral. (It has since been moved to the crypt downstairs.) As I recall, it was the only remarkable thing about that sullen gray pile, except perhaps for the role the building played in Salvadoran history. On top of a huge sloping slab, behind which was a bold mural of Romero, were strewn countless flowers, memorial cards, and plaques-offering thanks and prayers for intercession. According to Theodora Puertas in Mosaic, “Thousands-no millions-of flowers” came into the place Romero’s body lay in state the day after he was shot. “I don’t think there were any flowers left in El Salvador that day,” she recalled. “They were all there.”

Romero’s funeral was on Palm Sunday, six days after his death. It was no triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the Mass was never completed. Tragedy struck when an explosive was set off and shots were fired on the massive throng in the cathedral plaza. More than forty people died, most from being trampled, with hundreds more injured. Romero’s body had to be hurriedly interred, without full rites, in the darkened cathedral. His casket was passed over people’s heads on their upraised hands-a tiny raft on a sea of grief.

His last words at his final Mass were recorded: “This holy Mass, this Eucharist, is an act of faith,” he said. “We know that at this moment the wheaten host is changed into the body of the Lord, who offered himself for the world’s redemption, and in this chalice the wine is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation. May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our Christ, not for self, but to teach justice and peace to our people.” And then he prayed, “So let us join together intimately in faith and hope at this moment of prayer...” That’s when the shot rang out.

Who was Oscar Romero? A man of his word. A witness. A man who liked to eat-and to share whatever he had.

Published in the 2005-03-25 issue: View Contents

Patrick Jordan served as a managing editor for The Catholic Worker and for Commonweal.

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