Vatican affirms the outspoken critic of El Salvador's government was killed out of hatred for the Faith
Bringing an end to one of the most vexing saint-related debates of the past half-century, Pope Francis formally has recognized the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero and set the stage for the slain archbishop’s beatification.
A date for the beatification has not been set, but it will take place in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, where Romero served as archbishop before his death.
Making the announcement at a Feb. 4 Vatican news conference, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, postulator of Archbishop Romero’s cause, called him “a pastor who gave his life for his people” and said his beatification would be “an extraordinary gift for the entire Church.”
Paglia also announced, unexpectedly, the formal opening of the beatification cause of another Salvadoran priest, Father Rutilio Grande, who was a key figure in Romero’s own story.
Elevation to archbishop
Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980, by a right-wing death squad reportedly commissioned by the Salvadoran military. His death brought to an end his role in a dramatic and complex story that included strong elements of faith, social unrest and politics. But the bloody Salvadoran civil war that followed would not end for another 12 years.
When Romero was named archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, his country was already in turmoil. Salvadoran society was dominated by a small group of wealthy families who controlled almost all of the useful farmland, while most other citizens lived in grinding poverty. Efforts by peasants to promote land reform had been met with violent opposition by the government’s military regime.
Catholic priests and catechists who taught the common people about human dignity and God’s love for the poor were perceived as radical and subversive. Some were being kidnapped and killed by death squads supported by the military regime.
When Romero was named archbishop of San Salvador, many saw the move as favorable to the ruling class. He was studious and even-handed, maintaining good relations with many business leaders. But he also had a strong track record of caring for the poor among his flock. Whatever his stance at his installation, it certainly developed dramatically a month later, with the assassination of Father Grande, a priest of the archdiocese and longtime friend of Archbishop Romero. Any reticence he might have had about speaking in defense of the poor and criticizing those who wielded control of Salvadoran society disappeared. The change has sometimes been called “Rutilio’s miracle.”
Father Grande was a pastor who helped form local communities of laypeople who met regularly to pray, read the Bible, celebrate Mass and discuss justice issues. He vocally challenged the repression of the poor by the nation’s elite. On March 12, 1977, he was assassinated by gunmen who fired upon a car he was driving, carrying several other people. Two of his passengers were also killed.
Father Grande’s death moved Archbishop Romero intensely. Over the following three years, he preached frequently about the injustices that marked Salvadoran society. In homilies that were broadcast live and listened to attentively by huge numbers of people, he called the rich to conversion, reported human rights abuses and atrocities that happened week after week, and spoke of the presence of Jesus in the suffering of the Salvadoran people. In a personal letter, he asked President Jimmy Carter to end American support of the Salvadoran military.
Many saw in his words the influence of liberation theology, a controversial brand of theology. But there was no single version of liberation theology; some of it was perfectly consistent with Church teaching while other approaches were more problematic.
Archbishop Romero received death threats and, as his personal journal entries indicate, feared for his own life. But he refused to take what some thought would have been a more prudent approach. His killing came the day after a homily, also broadcast live, in which he spoke directly to the members of the Salvadoran military, insisting in the name of God that they refuse to follow orders that were against God’s law.
Path toward beatification
Many viewed Archbishop Romero as a martyr and venerated his memory from the moment of his death. But others, including some Vatican officials, were more hesitant about offering such recognition.
The reasons for this are complex and not always clear. Msgr. Rafael Urrutia, chancellor of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, told Our Sunday Visitor that officials were hesitant to beatify Archbishop Romero while those he had criticized were still alive and unwilling to offer any encouragement to supporters of liberation theology, which was under close Vatican scrutiny throughout the 1980s. At the Feb. 4 news conference, Archbishop Paglia suggested that negative reports about Archbishop Romero the Vatican had received, some of which accused him of doctrinal errors, also hindered the beatification cause.
Still, Pope John Paul II, during a 1983 pastoral visit to El Salvador, insisted, against the will of the national government, on visiting Archbishop Romero’s grave at San Salvador’s cathedral, waiting outside for someone to unlock the door when he showed up. Pope Benedict XVI said publicly in 2007 that he thought Archbishop Romero was “worthy of beatification.” And in the Vatican news conference, Archbishop Paglia revealed that Pope Benedict had taken steps to move Archbishop Romero’s cause forward just prior to his resignation from the papacy in 2013.
Following the election of Pope Francis in March 2013, the progress of Archbishop Romero’s cause picked up steam. Hours after a meeting with the pope a month after his election, Archbishop Paglia commented in a homily, “Today ... the cause for the beatification of Archbishop Romero was unblocked.”
On Jan. 8, a theological commission of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted unanimously that Archbishop Romero’s killing had been carried out “in odium fidei,” that is, out of hatred for the Faith, a key element for official recognition by the Church as a martyr. Pope Francis approved the recognition Feb. 3, and the news conference came the following day.
“Romero was a sort of proto-martyr, a first martyr among the new martyrs of our time,” Paglia said at the briefing. “Romero obviously chose to live the Faith of the Church as it flowed from Vatican II, attending to peace and justice and the truth of the Gospel.”
Paglia also noted the consistency of Archbishop Romero’s witness with Pope Francis’ insistent call for “a Church that is poor and for the poor.” With his coming beatification, Archbishop Romero will stand as a more prominent example of what it can mean to respond to such a call.