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Oscar Romero, Martyr; Lovers of Authoritarians, Nervous

The Vatican under Pope Francis is clearly a different place than is was under Benedict or John Paul.

Just one month after taking office in 2013, Francis met with Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the Vatican official in charge of the case for the canonization of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez of El Salvador. Romero’s case had been stalled for years, but now it opened up again. As Francis said at the time,

The process was at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, blocked “for prudential reasons”, so they said.  Now it is unblocked.  It has been passed to the Congregation for Saints.  And it is following the usual procedure for such processes.  It depends on how the postulators move it forward.   This is very important, to do it quickly.  What I would like is a clarification about martyrdom in odium fidei, whether it can occur either for having confessed the Creed or for having done the works which Jesus commands with regard to one’s neighbour.  And this is a task for the theologians.  They are studying it.  Because after him [Romero] there is Rutilio Grande, and there are others too; there are others who were killed, but none as prominent as Romero.  You have to make this distinction theologically.  For me Romero is a man of God, but the process has to be followed, and the Lord too has to give his sign…  If he wants to do it, he will do it.  But right now the postulators have to move forward because there are no obstacles.

“Prudential reasons” means that the delay was less about Romero and more about the politics of declaring him to be a martyr and eventually a saint. Here’s Christopher Dickey on the reasons behind the holdup:

[While the people of Latin America viewed Romero as a martyr and a saint,] Only the popes held out against him. For three decades the theological machinery of John Paul II and Benedict XVI prevented the martyred Romero from advancing toward the formal title of saint, a long process that was fast-tracked for John Paul II himself, and also for much less sympathetic figures like the founder of the wealthy and secretive order Opus Dei.

Yes, symbolic gestures were made. John Paul II twice visited Romero’s tomb in the cathedral in San Salvador. But the conservative popes from Poland and Germany didn’t like the way people fighting for the rights of the poor — some of whom were communists, many of whom were leftists wrapped up in what was called “the theology of liberation” — adopted Romero as a symbol. John Paul and Benedict both detested that current in the church, seeing it as a front for politics, not faith. As Benedict told reporters in 2007, “the problem was that a political party wanted to take [Romero] for itself as a flag, as an emblematic figure.” Benedict conceded this was “unjust,” but “for reasons of prudence,” it was said, Romero’s beatification was put on hold.

It’s clear that one month into his papacy, Francis told Paglia, “you and your theologians worry about Romero, and let me worry about prudence.” Back on the job and free to go about their work, yesterday the theologians weighed in: Romero is a martyr, and the way is clear to making him a saint.

For those who don’t know the basic story, here’s how Inés San Martín, the Vatican correspondent for the Boston Globe’s “Crux”, tells it:

Romero is the most prominent victim of the 75,000 people believed to have been killed in El Salvador’s bloody civil war, which went on from 1980 to 1992.

By 1980, Romero had written to US President Jimmy Carter pleading with him to cease sending military aid, saying the $1.5 million the United States sent every day for more than 12 years was “being used to repress my people.”

Romero was murdered on March 24, a day after telling an army made up largely of peasants that they were killing their own people.

“No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God,” he said.

He was shot through the heart in the middle of his homily, after saying, “one must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those who fend off danger will lose their lives.”

The murder of Romero, as thousands of others, remains unsolved. No one was ever convicted for the killing.

Convicted? No. Officially unsolved? Yes. Actually unsolved? Um, no. It’s pretty clear who did it. It’s also pretty clear that they had some ugly ties to the US as well. See Abrams, Elliott; School of the Americas; etc.

If Francis is looking to lift up a bishop who is a shepherd that smells like the sheep, he couldn’t find a much better example than Romero.

This is not just an inhouse Catholic thing, or something of interest solely in religious circles. Let us turn to the noted theologian Wonkette:

And even though Yr Wonkette doesn’t much care for Godbothering, we’re pretty excited by this news. Romero was murdered for standing up for the poor of El Salvador, and that’s martyrdom regardless of whether someone wants to attribute the miraculous cure of bunions to him 30 years later. Yr Editrix remembers that the Marxist nuns at her elementary school made sure the kids all knew who Romero was, and that kids also learned that rightwing Salvadoran Army major Roberto D’Aubisson was a murderous bastard, favorite of Ronald Reagan, and a graduate of the Pentagon’s School of the Americas, the only school whose football fight song had redacted lyrics. The 1980s were an interesting time, is what we are getting at.


In summary: Religion is weird, the ’80s are over, and we’d trade a bucket of Vatican theologians for more activist priests and nuns. Yes, there’s still so much to dislike about the Catholic Church. But then there are people like Oscar Romero, who actually seemed to be paying attention to what Jesus said about the poor and justice, and who have an unnerving habit of being killed by despots. Funny, though — we don’t see anyone today proposing sainthood for Roberto D’Aubisson for his service in fighting communism.

No, no we don’t.

As delightful as yesterday’s news was, the main event is yet to come. The biggest block to declaring Romero a saint is gone, and things could move quickly. Robert Mickens of Global Pulse says that Romero

is almost certainly to be beatified [ed. the last step before sainthood] in 2015. In fact, according to people closely involved in promoting Romero’s cause, there’s a real possibility that Pope Francis may even skip this preliminary step and immediately declare the late archbishop a saint. And where would the ceremony take place? The pope raised hopes for it being in the very city where Romero was murdered when revealed in his recent interview with La Nación that he’ll be going to three Latin American countries next year. He would not say which, except to clarify that his native Argentina was not one of them. This is big news. Up to now the Vatican has not mentioned any papal trips to Latin America for next year [ed. in 2015]. But Church officials in Mexico have hinted that the pope would be coming to their country next September before or after he goes to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Whether or not Francis goes to El Salvador, people pushing Romero’s cause for beatification are all but sure their candidate will be “raised to the glory of the altars” in 2015. The first possibility is that “Monseñor” — as his devotees still refer to him — will be beatified in San Salvador either by Francis or a papal delegate (the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints). The second possibility is that the pope would perform the beatification ceremony in Rome. Finally, there is the prospect that he’ll bypass the beatification stage altogether and declare Oscar Romero a martyr and a saint. He could do this either at the Vatican or in San Salvador. It would only be normal for history’s first Latin American pope to do the honors, perhaps as early as next March 24th, the 35th anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom.

That’s a little over ten weeks away. If Francis wants a big splash for declaring Romero a saint, either announcing it on March 24th in Rome or in El Salvador later this year would do it.

First there were the pope’s mediation efforts between the US and Cuba, and now this news on Romero. If nothing else, this has got to be making the right wingers inside and outside the church very nervous — and that, my friends, is a very good thing.


h/t to Andrea Schaffer for the photo of Martin Luther King Jr and Oscar Romero, side by side in Westminster Abbey’s gallery of 20th century martyrs. By declaring Romero a martyr, it looks like the Roman Catholics now have caught up to the Anglicans, as well as my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which has considered Romero a martyr for quite a while now.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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