Saint Óscar Arnulfo Romero

Canonizing El Salvador’s beloved archbishop

by Ken Sehested

        This Sunday, 14 October, former Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romeo (15 August 1917 – 24 March 1980) will be officially canonized—declared a saint—by the Roman Catholic Church during its 2018 Synod of Bishops in Rome.

        In 1997 Romero was declared a “Servant of God,” a process which makes him a candidate for sainthood. But the process stalled when the hierarchy worried if such a move would be too “political.” Then in February of 2015 Pope Francis decreed that Romero had died “for the faith” (in odium fidei); and then in May announced his beatification, the final step before canonization as a saint of the church. A quarter of a million Salvadorans attended Romero’s beatification service.

        When in 1977 Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, many in the government, wealthy landowners, the military, and the Catholic hierarchy were pleased. Romero was known as a traditionalist, compliant on matters of piety, doctrine, and relations with the state.

        They would be proven wrong.

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“A church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the
things of the earth beware! It is not the true church of Jesus Christ.” —Óscar Romero

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        A civil war, erupting in 1979, would rip the veneer off the church’s cozy relations with El Salvador’s repressive military government. Over the next 12 years, the war claimed the lives of more than 75,000 and was generously funded by the United States, as much as $2 million per year, at one point with US military officers assuming key positions and directing the Salvadoran army’s assault on rebel forces, carried out under “scorched earth” policies targeting civilian populations.

        The most notorious of the Salvadoran military’s campaigns was at the village of El Mozote where as many as 1,000 unarmed civilians, including 146 children, were massacred on 11 December 1981. The US initially denied the massacre; later, in the 1990s, declassified diplomatic cables confirmed the slaughter.

        Increasingly outspoken against the brutal treatment of El Salvador’s poor by military (many of whom trained in counterterrorism tactics in the US) and paramilitary “death squads,” Archbishop Romero became a target of the military’s ire.

        During his nationally broadcast homily on Sunday 23 March 1980, Romero pleaded with the Salvadoran National Guard, “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.” The next day, he was murdered while saying Mass in the hospital where he also lived. His text was John 12:23-26, “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

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“It is very easy to be servants of the word without disturbing the world: a very spiritualized word,
a word without any commitment to history, a word that can sound in any part of the world
because it belongs to no part of the world. A word like that creates no problems, starts no conflicts.”
—Óscar Romero

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        No one was ever prosecuted for the murder. But in 1993 a United Nations investigation concluded that Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, head of El Salvador’s military intelligence unit, ordered the assassination.

        Violence against religious figures in El Salvador was widespread. More well known in the US was the murder in December 1980 of three Catholic nuns and one lay missioner from the US. In 1989 soldiers assassinated six Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, on the campus of Central American University in San Salvador.

        It’s important to remember that Romero’s outspoken passion didn’t arise from reading books on liberation theology. Rather, the conflict he provoked came about because his heart belonged to the abused, bruised people of El Salvador who were refused access to the table of bounty. And his heart was steeled with the same beatific vision of Mary, his nation’s co-patroness, who prophesied of the coming day when the hungry are to filled with good things and the rich sent empty away (Luke 1:46-55).

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“A preaching that makes sinners feel good, so that they become entrenched in their sinful state,
betrays the gospel’s call. . . . A preaching that awakens, a preaching that enlightens—as when
a light turned on awakens and of course annoys a sleeper—that is the preaching of Christ, calling
‘Wake up! Be converted!’ That is the church’s authentic preaching. Naturally, such preaching
must meet conflict, must spoil what is miscalled prestige, must disturb, must be persecuted.”
—Óscar Romero

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        There is, of course, a measure of ambiguity in achieving sainthood. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement who has been nominated for such recognition, once responded to a reporter’s question by saying, "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed that easily.” Elevating the lives of especially noteworthy individuals often does have the effect of insulating existing communities from the scrutiny and accountability such figures pose to the living drama of faith.

        Even so, the work of adding new installments of faithful living—with names and faces and circumstances—to the cloud of witnesses provides renewed guidance and inspiration for the work of rightly remembering the church’s continuing vocation.

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