SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Two years ago Wednesday, a sniper cut down San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, destroying with a single shot the leadership of the nation's influential Roman Catholic church and its most impassioned liberal voice.
Since the assassination March 24, 1980, at the altar of a hospital chapel, El Salvador's growing bloodshed has opened a bitter rift in the Salvadoran church between its conservative bishops and liberal clergy.
At the heart of the controversy is whether the church should take up the revered archbishop's fiery denuciations of government repression or steer a middle course condemning violence by both Salvadoran troops and leftist guerrillas.
The choice was dramatized by Romero's own call to government troops in a sermon moments before his death: 'In the name of God... I implore you, I beg you, I order you, stop the repression.'
Moments later, as the archbishop was saying mass, a sniper took aim and shot Romero dead.
No arrests have been made in the assassination but former U.S. Ambassador Robert White said there was evidence it was ordered by Roberto D'Aubuisson, now an extreme rightist candidate in Sunday's Salvadoran elections.
Romero's successor, acting San Salvador Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, has chosen a difficult middle course of condemning the violence on both sides of the civil war tearing apart the Central American nation.
'Archbishop Romero lived in his time and I live in mine,' Rivera, 59, an expert in ecclesiastical law and the man Romero once singled out as his best friend, said in an recent interview.
Rivera has strongly condemned leftist guerrilla violence, cleared his offices of some liberal priests and made it clear that Socorro Juridico, an allegedly leftist Catholc human rights group, does not speak for him.
He and the nation's three other bishops -- all to the right of center -- have endorsed Sunday's elections for a constituent assembly.
The ruling junta proposes the elections as the first step toward ending a civil war that has claimed some 30,000 lives over three years but the left terms the elections a farce designed to legitimize a repressive government.
Although Rivera is known to have told U.S. Embassy officials that he believed government security forces were responsible for most of the non-combat deaths in El Salvador, his homilies are strenuously evenhanded.
In last Sunday's homily, he decried the violence, mentioning two alleged government massacres and two alleged massacres by guerrillas.
Critics noted he did not mention the government massacres involved at least 410 lives, while the guerrillas' massacres involved some 45 lives.
The homilies have prompted bitter criticism from the liberals among El Salvador's 400 priests and nuns, many of them committed to the 'theology of liberation' that calls on the church to make 'a preferential option for the poor.'
'One part of the church is following the path laid down by archbishop Romero,' said an editorial of the Jesuit-run Central American University to be published on the second anniversary of Romero's death.
'Another part seems preocupied with survival more than with people, more decided to fight against the left than to defend the cause of the people, closer to the armed forces and the (U.S.) State Department than to the suffering of the oppressed,' the editorial said.