By Patrick Howell, SJ
Oscar Romero, the assassinated archbishop of El Salvador, was beatified amidst great rejoicing in the capital city, May 23.
Archbishop Romero was shot and killed at the altar just as he was beginning the Offertory of the Mass on March 24, 1980. Death squads, supported by an alliance among rich landowners, the army and sectors of the political establishment, did the deed as the country became more and more embroiled in civil war. The archbishop’s crime was that the previous day on national radio he ordered solders to stop killing innocent civilians.
For at least three years he had been a prophetic critic of the government and of the elite oligarchy’s oppression of the poor. The far-right accused him of Marxism and his critics got a hearing on the highest levels in the Vatican.
Church traditionalists feared that his canonization would be an implicit endorsement of liberation theology. In fact, the archbishop was simply being radically faithful to the Gospel and to the preferential option for the poor.
Under Pope John Paul II, canonization of saints became, in some instances, significantly politicized. During his almost 27 years reign, John Paul canonized 1400 saints; more than all the other popes put together. The canonization of Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, founder of Opus Dei, was rife with controversy. South American bishops were coerced to support his cause since wealthy Opus Dei members threatened to withhold donations unless the bishops endorsed their founder’s sainthood. And the process itself was hastily rushed, neglecting to take testimony from those who were well-acquainted with Escrivá’s frequent outbursts of anger.
Both John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI blocked the advancement of the cause for Oscar Romero. He was considered too political and as an apologist for Marxist revolution.
Now Pope Francis has reversed all this. The chief advocate for Romero’s sainthood, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, called him “a martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council” because he decided to “live with the poor and defend them from oppression.” Paglia’s remarks were significant, according to The Tablet (May 23, 2015) because they addressed a specific obstacle that had shadowed the cause of Romero: the claim that Romero was not killed “in hatred of the faith,” but because he got himself mixed up in politics.
The Vatican could have skirted the issue by focusing on Romero’s virtues as a pious and holy churchman. But that’s not what happened. By the decree of martyrdom the Church has recognized that his death, like that of Jesus, was a consequence of his witness to the Kingdom of God. Romero and many other martyrs were killed not simply for confessing membership in the Church, but because their understanding of the Gospel put them in solidarity with the oppressed and in opposition to the structures of injustice.” (The Tablet)
More and more, we are seeing both subtle and overt ways in which Pope Francis is opening the doors of the Church to the poor and simultaneously embracing and advancing the spirit and direction of the Second Vatican Council. The People of God are on the move again.
Patrick Howell, S.J., is the Chair of Conversations magazine and professor of pastoral theology at Seattle University.