The slayers of Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero must have realized that his death would be the one single event that could propel the Central American country into full civil war.
For Archbishop Romero was the conscience of his troubled land. A force for moderation, he was widely respected throughout the country. Thoroughly committed to the human rights of all Salvadoreans, he became "the symbol of hope for the masses," as he was described early this year in a ceremony honoring him.
In the wake of his assassination while performing a mass in San Salvador's Metropolitan Cathedral March 24, a new wave of violence erupted with the Left and the Right accusing each other of killing the churchman.
At this writing, it is not clear which of the many terrorist groups in El Salvador was responsible. But both leftist and rightist terrorists previously had threatened to kill the Archbishop. And the result itself is all too clear: The Central American nation has been propelled one step nearer total breakdown.
Archbishop Romero and many other Roman Catholic churchmen felt the church could not stand aloof from the turmoil in which El Salvador is enveloped. Fully recognizing the horror of the terrorism stalking the country and particularly its poor people, he told this writer last October that "the worst violence is the social injustice in which an elite minority oppresses an entire people."
Statements of this sort put him at odds with some of his much more conservative fellow bishops in El Salvador and also placed him in the forefront of the Roman Catholic Church's present debate over whether the church should play an activist role in temporal affairs.
In many ways, Archbishop Romero's struggle within his church was atypical of the struggle facing the more liberal elements within the Roman Catholic Church everywhere. The debate centers on whether the church should play an activist role in contemporary life or limit itself chiefly to more pastoral matters.
In El Salvador, the Catholic hierarchy is much divided on the issue. In the Conference of Bishops, made up of the six bishops of El Salvador, Archbishop Romero has often been in the minority. On a variety of secular and religious issues, such as whether the church should champion labor groups seeking higher wages, the vote has frequently been 4 to 2 with Archbishop Romero on the losing side.
It is not overlooked, for example, that the Archbishop was not a delegate to the 1979 conference of Latin American churchmen, held in Puebla, Mexico, and that the Salvadorean church voted on the conservative side of almost all the issues brought before the Puebla meeting.
Yet Archbishop Romero stood out among churchmen in El Salvador because of his dogged determination to have the church play an active role in the economic and social struggle enveloping the country.
And it was this activist role that propelled him into public and ecclesiastical controversy. He often tangled with the head of El Salvador's bishopric conference, Pedro Arnoldo Aparicio y Aparicio, the Bishop of San Vicente.
Late last year, Bishop Aparicio's supporters took out full-page advertisements in El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Grafica, two of San Salvador's major newspapers, to reprint his Sunday sermons. They complained that his remarks were often eclipsed by those of Archbishop Romero, which not only were heard on radio, but also were reprinted in Orientacion, the bishopric newspaper in San Salvador.
Bishop Aparicio, in those sermons, argued that the leftist groups occupying many of the principal churches in San Salvador were living off money that they had collected as ransom in kidnappings -- and were essentially criminals. He accused Archbishop Romero of tacitly supporting these terrorists.
But Archbishop Romero took issue with these critics, arguing that the church "must support those who suffer from the terror of the oligarchy" and must be tolerant of their views.
Not all the radical leftist groups in El Salvador thought kindly of Archbishop Romero, for some of these elements want to do away with the church as an institution. But for the majority of the leftist elements, he became a symbol of the activist priest, a liberal espousing change and reform.