Salvadorans honor legacy of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero, now destined for sainthood

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In 2015, Pope Francis is presented with an image of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero during a private audience granted to participants to the pilgrimage from El Salvador at the Vatican. Pope Francis has cleared the way for slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero to be made a saint, declaring that a churchman who stood up for the poorest of the poor in the face of right-wing oppression should be a model for Catholics today. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

In 2015, Pope Francis is presented with an image of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero during a private audience granted to participants to the pilgrimage from El Salvador at the Vatican. Pope Francis has cleared the way for slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero to be made a saint, declaring that a churchman who stood up for the poorest of the poor in the face of right-wing oppression should be a model for Catholics today. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

For 38 years, Catholics from El Salvador have marked the date Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated.

This year’s March 24 anniversary will be a little different because Pope Francis has cleared the way for Romero to become a saint.

Napoleon Hernandez, who lives in South Jersey now, remembers growing up in El Salvador listening to  Romero’s sermons as they were broadcast all over the country.

“He was the Catholic bishop talking about things no one else spoke about,” Hernandez said. “He said things you couldn’t find in the daily newspapers.”

Romero came from an influential family, but his work with the disenfranchised radicalized him and transformed him into a human rights activist. It also antagonized the government’s military forces.  A day after he delivered a sermon ordering Salvadoran soldiers, in the name of God, to to put their guns down and stop their acts of repression, he was gunned down.

Romero also called for economic justice.

“It is not fair that a few have everything and the marginalized majority is dying of hunger,” he said, as captured in a documentary by Philadelphia filmmaker Kathryn Smith Pyle.

Romero was the best known of the Latin American priests who embraced liberation theology, a wing of Catholicism that promotes siding with the poor instead of government or the powerful, she said.

“These are people who were working with poor people, saying it wasn’t their fault that they were poor. It wasn’t the way things had to be,” Smith Pyle said. “And so, while all this work was going on in the church, people in the community were involved because of their faith in the Catholic Church. At the same time, it helped them get a consciousness among poor people that things could be different.

“That was really the most important thing about liberation theology, and that is why Oscar Romero became such an important person internationally,” she said. “Because he was symbol of that movement, and he was assassinated for his work in that movement.”

Pyle co-wrote the documentary “Children of Memory” about the disappeared children in El Salvador’s civil war.  The families she interviewed had a lot to say about Romero.   

One of the people featured in her film is a man whose family was killed in a massacre in his town. He talks about Romero as the only voice who speaking up for their rights.

“Monsignor Romero in our country is the guardian angel of the people,” he said in the film.

The man spent years trying to find his surviving daughter, Claribel. But like other parents looking for their disappeared children, he was never able to get any information on her whereabouts.

The people started a push for Romero’s canonization right after his assassination, Smith Pyle said.

It was important, she said, “that he be recognized for the leadership and the hope they had had because of him. But after his assassination, people felt there was no recourse except armed insurrection.”

It’s estimated 8,000 disappeared and 80,000 died in the war from 1980 to 1992.

The fighting drove Napoleon Hernandez and his family to the United States.

“We were in war,” he said. Believing it would never end and that no future existed in El Salvador, the Hernandez family decided to leave.

Hernandez, who now lives in Haddonfield, manages a cleaning business. Like other Salvadoran Catholics, he is elated at having a countryman elevated to sainthood.

“When Pope Francis said, ‘You have a saint,’ I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “My heart and my community are happy, we are very very happy.”

Salvadoran immigrants have a strong presence in Philadelphia’s various Latino neighborhoods and communities such as Upper Darby — where restaurants offer the famous stuffed corn pupusas.

In Camden, the Romero Center Ministries brings students to the impoverished city to for retreats and service projects.  Following the soon-to-be saint’s example, the center emphasizes opportunities for the students and city residents to make meaningful connections.

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