Rome, February 12A real saint.

Almost 35 years after being gunned down and killed while celebrating Mass at small chapel in San Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Arnuflo Romero is on his way to formal sainthood.

The other day, Pope Francis declared Romero a martyr, which puts put him on a track for beatification, the last step on the way to being canonized. He should have been made “santo subito,” as the Italians say: Saint right Away. That it should have taken so long for a man who was killed for defending the poor and victims of government violence underscores the strange politics of saint-making as well as highlighting Frances’ efforts to break with his predecassors. (continue below)

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Funeral of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, March 30, 1980, San Salvador

Romero was killed on March 24, 1980, as El Salvador’s civil war between the military dictatorship and Marxist guerrillas grew ever bloodier. More than 75,000 people died in the conflict, which lasted from 1979 to 1992.

The day before his death, Romero gave a sermon at San Salvador’s massive cathedral and directly implored soldiers to stop killing innocents. “Brothers, you are all killing your fellow countrymen,” he said. “No soldier has to obey an immoral order. It is time to regain your conscience. In the name of God and in the name of the suffering people I implore you, I beg you, I order you, stop the repression.”  Right-wing firebrand Major Roberto D’Aubisson organized Romero’s killing. No one was ever prosecuted for the crime.

In March, 1977, less than three weeks after Romero became archbishop, a gumen ambushed a Jesuit priest named Rutilio Grande on a country road. He was one of several clergy assassinated by the marauding killers known as Death Squads. Death Squad assassins were among the tools of the military and its supporters among the so-called 14 Families that dominated El Salvador’s economy. Massacres and disappearances of peasants, including those that labored in religious and social Catholic “Base Communities,” were a trademark of the counter-insurgency campaign.

In response to Grande’s death, Romero demanded of the government an investigation. When they did nothing, he canceled Mass nationwide and refused to appear with government officials at public functions. He had attracted disapproval from the dictatorship.

Meanwhile in Rome, there was a new Pope: John Paul II. He was from Eastern Europe and harbored deep suspicion of everything Marxist. Latin American Catholic theologians and activists were brandishing an ideology called Liberation Theology, which focused on the suffering of the poor; Liberation clergy backed the Marxist Sandinista rebels, which took power in Nicaragua in 1979. Others opposed the Liberation Theology movement as a whole, including top prelates in the Vatican.

Romero repeatedly shunned the idea that speaking out for the poor put him in a partisan, leftist camp. Nonetheless after his death, conservatives in the Church opposed beatification on the grounds his murder was political. They reflected the opposition of both John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI, toward Liberation Theology, which they considered a Marxist cat’s paw. Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, served as John Paul’s enforcer of doctrine, clamped down on Liberation Theologists and bishops and priests who supported them. In 1985, he penned a critique in which he effectively put the ideology firmly in the Marxist camp.

So for all these years, Romero’s sanctification was “blocked,” in the words of Bishop Vincenzo Paglia, who explained Francis’ decision to elevate Romero’s death to martyrdom. Conservatives feared that the far left would exploit Romero for their own purposes. Indeed, Marxists had printed his portrait on banners and T-shirts alongside Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, the slain Communist president of Chile. “It’s clear that the (issue) of Romero required time, because for he who wasn’t in favor or who had robust prejudices against it had to be helped to understand that he was wrong,” Paglia told reporters at a Rome press conference.

Paglia went out of his way to smooth the change in heart. He said that Benedict XVI opened the way to this process three years ago—a detail that seemed to me designed to soften Benedict’s obvious opposition to Liberation Theology and the fact that during his eight-year reign as pope, he didn’t have Romero beatified.

Paglia swept aside the view that the assassination was political and therefore not deemed a matter of faith. “Romero, welcoming martyrdom upon himself, emptied the violence of its venom. They wanted to shut him up; he responded with love. Others have disappeared. Romero continues to speak to all of us,” Paglia said.

Romero’s act is the latest in a series of decisions that aim to break with the long John Paul II-Benedict XVI papacies.  Frances has deemphasized the campaigns against gays, abortion and contraception in favor of a social message. He speaks out often against the inequalities of current economic dogma.

Speaking to Catholic News Agency, Paglia used words to describe Romero that could easily be applied to Frances: “He was a bishop who dedicated his episcopal ministry– rather, his own life– to helping, relieving and defending those who are poorest and who are weakest, and, like a slap in the face to a contemporary society folded in on itself, each individual interested in their own well-being.

When John Paul II died in 2005, supporters filled St. Peter’s Square to demand immediate sainthood—“Santo Subito,” they chanted, and held the demand aloft on banners. Benedict speeded up John Paul II’s schedule for sainthood by removing the five-year delay after death before the process of canonization can begin.

Frances, in his turn, eased the canonization of Pope John XXIII, considered a modernist pope in the Frances’ own mold. John XXIII initiated Vatican II, the church council that made significant liberalizing reforms to church practice. Frances dispensed with the need to prove that miracles were attributed to John XXIII as a condition for sainthood.  John XXIII was canonized alongside John Paul II on April 27, 2014.

I hope that Romero is also made a saint subito. It’s well past time.

  • Here’s Catholic News Service’s article on the declaration of Romero as a martyr: link
  • Here is an interesting look into the contemporary politics of saint-making: link
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