Sons of the Church

Greg Daly explores the links between Pope Francis and Archbishop Romero

“If I had been Pope, the very first thing I would have done is order the beatification of Archbishop Romero,” the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio told a Salvadoran priest two years after the 2005 papal conclave. Three years later that priest, Msgr Jesus Delgado, asked the cardinal if he remembered what he had said about Romero at 2007’s meeting of Latin American bishops at Aparecida in Brazil.

 “I remember it, the problem is that I will never get to be Pope,” said Cardinal Bergoglio, adding, “I am too old for that.”

Hardly had Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013, that people began to speculate about the likelihood of Romero being beatified. El Salvador’s First Lady, Vanda Pignato, claimed that when – wearing a Romero pin – she met Pope Francis after his installation Mass, he told her that “he hoped the canonisation of Archbishop Romero would be as soon as possible”.

Scarcely a month later, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of Oscar Romero’s beatification cause, announced that the  cause had been “unblocked” by the new Pope. Although it was subsequently revealed that in December 2012 Pope Benedict XVI told Msgr Paglia the cause needed to move ahead, it seems clear that the beatification of Archbishop Romero has been a priority for Pope Francis in a way that it wasn’t for his predecessor.

Socially engaged

Leading Vatican observer John Allen has said Romero embodies “the socially engaged Church Pope Francis wants to lead”, citing Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez of San Salvador’s description of him as  “the icon of [the kind of] pastor Francis wants, the icon of the Church Francis wants… a poor Church for the poor”. 

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh agrees that the beatification will be of immense symbolic importance for the Holy Father. Describing it as an act of justice for the Latin American Church that could “signal the moment the Latin American Church is unleashed”, he says it will vindicate the Latin American Episcopal Council’s (CELAM) treatment of Archbishop Romero as a point of reference, an indisputable martyr who should have been canonised long ago.

CELAM’s view of Romero’s sanctity was one that was largely shared by Francis’ papal predecessors, says Dr Ivereigh, who says it was curial opposition in Rome that obstructed the beatification cause, with a small group of powerful cardinals believing that recognition of Romero as a martyr would encourage the left in Latin America.

Things have changed over the years, however, with the influence of said cardinals having waned and the political landscape of Latin America having become profoundly different, such that it now seems a less contentious environment in which to face the reality of Romero’s martyrdom.

As with Pope Francis, it would in any case be a misreading of Romero to see him as a champion of the left, says Dr Ivereigh. Describing him as a “traditional son of the Church” who sought to break unhealthy links between the Salvadoran Church and its upper classes and was willing to make the Church independent of more worldly power, he believes Romero took a strong stance for justice in a way that was resistant to not just to the military-backed government but to the revolutionary left such that he couldn’t be said to be an instrument of either side.

It may be significant that on the same day Romero’s martyrdom was formally announced, Rome also recognised that the Italian Fr Alessandro Dordi and the Polish Conventual Franciscans Fr Michal Tomaszek and Fr Zbigniew Strazalkowski had all been martyred in 1991 by Shining Path guerrillas in Peru. “There’s almost a kind of symmetry in this” says Dr Ivereigh, who points out that “Romero died protecting people who were at risk from right-wing forces, while the martyrs in Peru were trying to shield people from left-wing guerrillas.”

Over the years Pope Francis’ affection and admiration for Oscar Romero had often been clear. While Archbishop of Buenos Aires he several times attended events organised by Argentina’s Sant Egidio community, paying tribute to Romero when honouring 20th Century martyrs.  

Commemorating Romero and others in 2005, he warned against what he called “spiritual vulgarity”, saying that the “greatest evil” that can affect the Church is “when we enter into accommodations with the schemes of this world”, and in 2009 at a national Eucharistic Congress in Cordoba he paid tribute to Romero along with Argentina’s own Bishop Enrique Angelelli, another of the great Latin American martyrs of the modern era.

It is not clear whether the paths of Oscar Romero and Jorge Bergoglio ever crossed, but if they did not they certainly drew close to each other.


As Argentina’s Jesuit Provincial in the 1970s, Fr Bergoglio visited El Salvador for a meeting of Jesuit provincials; he was very familiar with the situation, and may well have met Romero at the time. Even if he did not meet Romero, however, he will have at least heard about him from two prelates he saw as mentors, both whom knew Romero.

Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, the first Latin American cardinal to hold a position in the Roman Curia and a longtime hero of Pope Francis, had been general secretary of CELAM during the famous Medellin conference of 1968, which promoted the idea of the “preferential option for the poor”. 

For Romero, who attended a retreat the cardinal preached in 1972, Cardinal Pironio was an authoritative interpreter of the Church’s social teaching and someone whose ideas he drew on in his own writings, and the two men became friends, with the Argentine cardinal supporting Romero during difficult trips to Rome.

Msgr Antonio Quarracino, Pope Francis’ predecessor in Buenos Aires and the man under whom he served as auxiliary bishop, was in 1979 sent by Rome to El Salvador to conduct an investigation into Archbishop Romero; one of its effects was that Msgr Quarracino and Msgr Romero became good friends. As Bergoglio was in turn very close to Msgr Quarracino, it seems likely that he was at least very well informed about Archbishop Romero.

Pope Francis will have found much to admire in the Salvadoran bishop, but above all, Dr Ivereigh thinks, the Pontiff will want to hold up Romero as an example of a Christian – and like the Holy Father a naturally introverted one – with the courage to face down persecution, whether openly violent or subtle and insidious, and to preach the Gospel and its values freely and forcefully.

 “In beatifying Oscar Romero, Francis will be emphasising his parrhesia or ‘apostolic courage’, which is a gift of the Spirit,” Dr Ivereigh says. “Romero was naturally a shy and bookish man who, through parrhesia, became a prophet and a martyr.”

Ours is a time of martyrs, and in beatifying Oscar Romero, Pope Francis is surely calling us to trust in God and speak out without fear, come what may.