The sniper killed Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero as he raised the chalice during Mass on March 24, 1980. Pope Francis declared Romero a martyr for the faith; the archbishop, known to many Latin Americans as San Romero de las Américas, was beatified in May.
Romero never set out to be a hero or saint. But when he became archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, social upheaval was escalating into civil war. His transformation was swift.
“When I became archbishop, priests were being killed, accused, tortured,” he was quoted by Moises Sandoval in the September 1980 Maryknoll magazine. “I felt I had to defend the Church. Then again, I felt that the people the Church has to serve were asking me to defend them. … I felt I had to be the voice of all those people without a voice.”
In his last Sunday homily, Romero spoke directly to soldiers and police: “I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression.”
Assassins silenced him the next day. Or so they thought.
Thirty-five years later, Blessed Romero continues to inspire Salvadorans. Cleveland native Leslie Schuld ’84 counts herself among them. She has made El Salvador her home for 22 years, living out a Marianist ideal of partnering with the poor. In San Salvador, she directs the Center for Exchange and Solidarity (CIS), building international support for grass-roots movements for social and economic justice and participatory democracy.
In January 1992, peace accords ended a 12-year war in El Salvador. As Salvadorans mourned their 75,000 dead, they began rebuilding their country and resuscitating their democracy, preparing for elections in 1994.
The CIS joined that effort in 1993, and Schuld moved to El Salvador to participate. CIS programs grew to include a Spanish-English language school; vocational and economic development for disadvantaged communities, including crafts cooperatives; promoting clean water; providing scholarships; and
coordinating international delegations as well as electoral observer missions.
In 2008, Schuld met the Romero Community — 180 families seeking relocation. Some were displaced by the war, others by earthquakes, landslides and a hurricane. They resolved to find a permanent home. They chose their martyred archbishop as their spiritual patron. They were committed to nonviolence.
Officially landless, they squatted on unused government property. After evictions and arrests, they realized that to provide their children with secure homes, they needed help in acquiring the land legally.
Even with the CIS’s advocacy, they endured years of bureaucratic delay, as well as threats and violence from others wanting the land. Many families became too frightened and exhausted to continue.
Today the Romero Community comprises 75 families, whose perseverance is now bearing fruit. In May 2015, Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén transferred title for 15 acres to the community. Nine days later they celebrated again; this time the occasion was the beatification of their beloved Romero.
Construction is under way. The CIS is raising funds for 70 humble but dignified homes to replace rusted bedsprings and sheets of tin draped with plastic. In August, I visited the community and toured their model home. Since then, a well has been dug, and community members are constructing the next 20 homes. The rest will follow as resources are secured.
Archbishop Romero said: “I do not believe in death but in the resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.” He’s fulfilling that promise, in part, in the Romero Community.
For more on the Center for Exchange and Solidarity, see www.cis-elsalvador.org. Romero’s commitment to social justice also lives on at the University of Dayton, which since 2000 has given the Archbishop Óscar Romero Human Rights Award for the promotion of “the dignity of all persons and the alleviation of the suffering of the human community.”