A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Several of my non-Catholic friends have asked me about Pope Francis and Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador. It is not often I am asked about the process of beatification.
I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Romero had died. I was having a burger at a cafe at Maryville College here in St. Louis. I heard the news on the radio. And I thought, quite simply, “Now, there is no voice for peace.” That was the evening of 24 March 1980. By 1992, the Salvadoran civil war would claim at least 75,000 lives.
In a private audience on 3 February 2015, Pope Francis received Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation For The Causes Of Saints. The Pope authorized the Cardinal to permit Archbishop Romero’s decree of martyrdom — a step that virtually assures beatification.
That is about thirty-five years after the archbishop’s death. By Catholic standards, this is beyond fast. It speaks to Francis’ understanding of holiness.
So why is this important?
In his last homily on 23 March 1980, Oscar Romero directly addressed Salvadoran soldiers and police. “The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters,” preached the archbishop. “When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s words, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ” The next day, a death squad murdered Romero. He was celebrating Mass. He was praying what Catholics know as The Minor Elevation – picture the priest elevating the host and chalice, and reciting, “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, for ever and ever.” And a shot rang out.
Why is this important to Catholic and non-Catholics alike? Why is the death of this obscure priest, in a now historically distant civil war, of any importance to anyone?
Like Francis, Romero was no radical. To be absolutely blunt, no one gets that high in the Catholic hierarchy by being a wide-eyed radical. In Romero’s case, he really was not even particularly liberal. He was compassionate, a compassion that eventually came to be based in “being one with the Church incarnated in this people which stands in need of liberation.”
Religion is political. If you think religion is not political, then you do not understand the demands of religion. But Romero presents a special problem. The image of Romero is not that of the leftist calling upon the left. No, the image of Oscar Romero is of a conservative calling upon everyone to remember that —
There are not two categories of people. There are not some who were born to have everything, and to leave others with nothing, a majority that has nothing and can’t enjoy the happiness that God has created for all. God wants a Christian society, one in which we share the good things that God has given for all of us.
And if you think that sermon has no political relevance today, consider the current distribution of wealth in the United States.
A little history lesson: Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador because he was conservative. He was, for example, deeply appreciative of Opus Dei, one of the most ultra-conservative organizations within The Church. He was not particularly appreciative of Liberation Theology, perhaps the most liberal theology within The Church, because of its frequent links to Marxism. Then came 12 March 1977. A friend of Romero, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, was forming self-reliant “base communities” among the poor. For this, the priest and two co-workers were assassinated. Upon hearing of this, the archbishop immediately went to the church where the three lay. He celebrated Mass. More importantly, he spent hours listening to the poor, and praying with them. This transformed him. Two days later, the archbishop wrote of his friend, “The true reason for his death was his prophetic and pastoral efforts to raise the consciousness of the people. … It is work that disturbs many; and to end it, it was necessary to liquidate its proponent. In our case, Father Rutilio Grande.” But the archbishop did not simply follow the example of his friend. He followed the love of his friend. And for that Romero suffered the same fate.
And that is why this is important. Because he followed the love. Because he told the military to stop killing the poor. Because he told everyone, “Blessed are the poor.”
Francis, in declaring Romero a martyr, cleared the path for beatification. Without going into the theology, beatification is the step before canonization. However, it should not be considered some celestial silver medal. It is a profound honor unto itself. Romero will become “Blessed Oscar”. Put simply, it means parishes and schools will be named after him. But, most importantly, it means that The Church will be saying, clearly and simply, this is the way a Christian should act. And this is why Oscar Romero is important.
Because once there walked among us this bookish man, this political conservative, this priest. And his love for the poor, this is holy.
copyright 2015 John Samuel Tieman
Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (15 August 1917 – 24 March 1980) was a bishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador. He became the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador, succeeding Luis Chávez, and spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. In 1980, Romero was assassinated while offering Mass.