Archbishop Romero is a model for the Pope’s poor Church for the poor says John Allen
Next Saturday, arguably the most important beatification of the early 21st century will be celebrated in San Salvador, El Salvador, when the late Archbishop Oscar Romero reaches the final stage before sainthood in the Catholic Church.
It’s an event 35 years in the making, and it’s hard to imagine anyone with a more remarkable tale to tell.
At the outset of a bloody civil war in El Salvador in the late 1970s, Romero was the country’s most important voice for the poor and victims of human rights abuses. His stance obviously threatened the power structure, because in a scene straight out of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Romero was shot to death while saying Mass on March 24, 1980.
No one has ever been prosecuted for the assassination, though it’s widely believed the killers were linked to a right-wing death squad. Gunmen also attacked a massive crowd at Romero’s funeral six days later, leaving dozens dead.
Following a US-backed coup in October 1979, a military regime took power, and Romero emerged as its nemesis. A month before his death, he wrote US President Jimmy Carter to ask him to suspend military and economic aid to the government, insisting the new rulers “know only how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy”.
Just a day before he was shot, Romero begged, even ordered, soldiers and members of security forces not to fire on citizens.
From the moment he died, Romero has been popularly revered as a martyr and saint. The formal pursuit of canonisation, however, was held up for decades. In part, the block was due to conservative Latin American prelates who felt that awarding a halo to Romero would be seen as an endorsement of left-wing Marxist politics.
Pope Benedict XVI reopened Romero’s case, and Pope Francis seems determined to finish it. Back in 2007, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina reportedly told a Salvadoran priest that “to me [Romero] is a saint and a martyr… If I were Pope, I would have already canonised him.”
There are four reasons why the Romero beatification is a turning point for the Catholic Church.
First, it marks a healing of tensions over “liberation theology,” a movement in Latin American Catholicism promoting social justice. Its core idea is the “option for the poor,” meaning the Church should have a special concern, as Christ did, for the downtrodden and those at the margins.
Titanic battles were waged over liberation theology in the 1980s and 1990s, which, today, are largely over. A moderate consensus has taken hold, which goes like this: If “liberation theology” means fighting poverty and struggling for justice, the answer is yes; if it means armed Marxist rebellion and class struggle, it’s no.
Beatifying Romero, a hero to the liberation theology movement, amounts to an endorsement of that peace.
Second, Romero becomes a patron saint for persecuted Christians everywhere, at a time when anti-Christian violence has become a leading human rights challenge.
In the early 21st century, the high-end estimate for the number of Christian martyrs annually is 100,000, while the low-end is a few thousand. That works out to between one victim every five minutes and one every hour. Especially given the rise of ISIS, Christians today are arguably the world’s most vulnerable religious body.
In that context, the Romero beatification not only provides a patron but also represents a call to action.
Third, the beatification ratifies a new standard for what counts as ‘martyrdom’ in Catholicism.
It’s no longer necessary to die explicitly in odium fidei, at the hands of those who hate the Faith, which was the traditional test.
One can also be recognised as a martyr for dying in odium caritatis, as a victim of those motivated by a hatred of charity.
Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders of liberation theology, recently said, “this is Latin American martyrdom: To give one’s life for justice, for the love to the people…I think the testimony of seeking justice, respect for human dignity, is an affirmation of the doctrine”.
Fourth, Romero symbolises the socially-engaged Church Pope Francis wants to lead.
Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez of San Salvador, who worked closely with Romero, recently told Vatican Radio that the slain archbishop is “the icon of [the kind of] pastor Francis wants, the icon of the Church Francis wants…a poor Church for the poor.”
For the Pontiff, beatifying Romero thus isn’t just about honouring his memory. Like the choice of the name “Francis”, referring to Catholicism’s great lover of “Lady Poverty”, it also expresses a programme of governance.
Organisers have expressed hopes that the beatification ceremony, expected to be one of the largest public events in El Salvador’s history, will spark a rediscovery of Romero’s legacy, which risks neglect with the passage of time.
Poorest of the poor
When Francis visited a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013, organisers put up a large image of Romero on a soccer field where the pontiff met the poorest of the poor. Curious as to how much Latin Americans outside El Salvador today know about their famous martyr, I stopped several people at random.
The most common response when asked what they knew about Romero was, “what soccer team does he play for?”
Now that he’s set to become the patron saint of a popular Latin American Pope, perhaps Romero will regain the fame his compelling story merits.