Romero was born in 1917 in a small coffee-growing town in Honduras, the second of eight brothers. As a boy, he apprenticed as a carpenter before entering the seminary and studying theology in Rome. In 1943, he returned to El Salvador as a parish priest until becoming Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. The military’s killing, kidnapping and arrests of priests who supported workers’ rights turned him into a staunch critic of the regime.
The archbishop was one of the most prominent church leaders in Latin America when he was killed at the age of 62. He condemned injustice and spoke out against political repression amid an intensifying war between leftist rebels and government and right-wing forces in El Salvador.
In 1980, a day after urging El Salvador’s military to halt a string of abuses that would inflame a 12-year civil war in the impoverished country, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while leading Mass.
The previous month, Archbishop Romero had angered government supporters by asking President Jimmy Carter to halt military aid to the country. (When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he quickly increased such aid.) And in his Sunday sermons, Archbishop Romero insisted on nonviolence as he warned that El Salvador faced full-scale civil war without profound societal changes.
His funeral, which was attended by huge crowds, also came under attack by snipers. As many as 40 people were killed.
No one was ever prosecuted for his death, but a United Nations commission found that his assassination had been planned by officers close to Roberto d’Aubuisson, an extreme-right former army major who died of cancer in 1992.
Romero was considered for canonization decades ago, but his nomination stalled on concerns that he was overly political. The archbishop’s canonization was opposed by conservative leaders at the Vatican for years because of his association with leftist views,
His reputation rebounded in 2015, when Pope Francis, a fellow Latin American committed to defending the poor, declared him a martyr who had been killed for hatred of the faith.
A few months after Romero was beatified in 2015, Francis denounced how Romero had suffered as a martyr twice — once when he was gunned down, and again when his own brother bishops “defamed, slandered and had dirt thrown on his name.”
The Vatican said the miracle cementing his sainthood was the 2015 survival of Cecilia Flores, whose husband prayed to Romero when she was close to death in pregnancy. “Doctors told my husband … only a miracle will save your wife,” Flores said. After her husband began praying, she instantly recovered and gave birth to a healthy son, she added.
Romero critiqued the military government and armed leftist groups alike. That earned him animosity from both sides ahead of a civil war that lasted until 1992, leaving some 75,000 people dead and sending thousands of Salvadorans fleeing to the United States. In 1980, at a church altar, he found a bomb meant to take his life.
“Persecution is necessary in the Church. Do you know why? Because the truth is always persecuted,” he said at the time.
Two weeks later, undeterred by death threats, the man distinguished by his bushy eyebrows and thick glasses spoke directly to soldiers. “I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression,” he said.
The following day, a sniper killed the 62-year-old as he delivered Mass at a hospital chapel in the capital. The main suspect is a former soldier. Romero’s murder was one of the most shocking of the long conflict between a series of U.S.-backed governments and leftist rebels in which right-wing and military death squads killed thousands.
In a 2015 interview, Roberto Cuéllar, a lawyer who worked with Archbishop Romero, said that the violence was pitting “the poor against the poor.”
“He would be bitter to see that after reaching the peace accords that we are still in the same place,” Mr. Cuéllar said of Archbishop Romero.