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The martyr of El Salvador

IN SAN SALVADOR 25 years ago this week, on a Monday at 6:45 p.m., a lone man in the rear of a small chapel with a high-power rifle fired one shot at the 62-year-old priest raising his arms over the altar. Archbishop Oscar Romero fell dead to the marble floor, his vestments soaked in blood.

The primate of the Salvadoran Catholic Church from 1977 to 1980, Romero was killed because he supported the right of poor Salvadorans to equal citizenship in their own society, and he tried to end the use of repression and violence to thwart it.

The last quarter-century has not been kind to the broader liberation theology movement that Romero found inspiring. But his star burns bright. To liberals, Christians, and supporters of human rights and peace around the world, he is a figure of iconic, even mythological, proportions.

Romero is recalled as someone who pursued and achieved a measure of change not through an elitist agenda, social theory, hatred of the rich, or fury at injustice. Rather he displayed the fundamental truth that valuing and loving others builds the foundation of justice. He was that rare person in a powerful position who sought to bring down the high and raise the low.

Romero triumphed in failure. His murder was a crippling, even humiliating, loss to his supporters in 1980. To be shot dead while saying Mass was an unnerving exclamation point. To add to their dismay, the killing escalated El Salvador's 12-year civil war.

Yet what the mourners did not see was that it was really too late to end his work. Romero had already sown the seeds of hope in countless others. When El Salvador's warring parties made peace in 1992, so many proponents of the accord cited Romero's legacy that even cynics had to wonder about the archbishop's remark, early in 1980, that if he was killed, he would rise again in the Salvadoran people.

Romero's life was drenched in irony. Although he was personable and well-spoken, he was no firebrand at first, politically or theologically. He was viewed as a bland company man in the Salvadoran hierarchy and, upon being named archbishop, was expected to continue his conservative, helicopter-blessing ways.

But as fellow priests, friends, and others were killed and as Romero consoled mourners and listened to witnesses, the company he kept changed him. It led him to do outrageous things. He named names in his weekly sermons broadcast over national radio. He asked Jimmy Carter to cut off American military aid. He went around military leaders and appealed directly to the soldiers carrying out the violence: I beg you, I beseech you, I order you, put down your arms. ''In the name of God, stop the repression."

But he could not end the violence, which not only took his life but also marred his funeral. In the throng that choked Metropolitan Cathedral that day, 30 died in a bombing and stampede.

All this has been known. Last fall, a federal judge in California confirmed what has also been suspected. In a ruling in a lawsuit brought under a 1789 law, the US court found that a retired Salvadoran military official, Alvaro Rafael Saravia, plotted the murder and was liable for civil damages. Saravia, who lives in Modesto, was an aide to Roberto D'Aubuisson, the founder of El Salvador's ruling right-wing party.

Romero's legacy can afflict those people whom one would expect to be comforted by it, such as leaders of the Catholic Church in El Salvador and Rome. This is, perhaps, the mark of a prophet.

At a ceremony marking Romero's assassination three years ago, the current archbishop of San Salvador said that while the event was ''horrific and sacrilegious," Romero was lucky ''to die in the best way a priest can die, at the altar."

Archbishop Fernando Saenz's remark appears less strange in light of the purge of liberal priests and liberal Catholic practices that he has championed since he was chosen in 1995 to be one of Romero's successors. Indeed, the Catholic Church has enjoyed some success in controlling Romero's legacy and appeal to young Catholics.

But history suggests that any effort to curb his influence or end his work will be limited. Romero's remark a few weeks before he died that his spirit would rise in the Salvadoran people struck many people as audacious at the time. It may turn out to be the opposite, however: that Romero, by specifying people in his country, actually understated how widespread his spirit would be.

Richard Higgins is a writer and editor. He is a co-editor of ''Taking Faith Seriously."

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