Pope Francis has recognized Oscar Arnulfo Romero as a martyr. The Archbishop of San Salvador was killed “in hatred of the Faith”. “Let my blood be a seed of freedom”.
Doña Maria Jose is in the San Salvador Cathedral crypt where Monsignor Oscar Romero is buried. On one side of the crypt there is a big picture of the Archbishop with a sign that says “Saint Romero of the Americas, our Pastor and martyr”. The woman smiles, she has just heard the news about Romero’s beatification process, and says: “Monsignor Romero is a particular Saint. He was canonized by the people first, and then by the Church of Rome. We people of the Americas were the first to sanctify Monsignor Romero.”
In London, many people stop to look at the statue of a smiling Romero which is in the façade above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, alongside another nine statues of 20th-century martyrs. The United Nations holds a special day, each year on March 24, the anniversary of Romero’s assassination to promote a human rights issue. This day is called the “International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. Finally, in Rome, 35 years after the Archbishop’ s death – he was killed on 24 March 1980 – one commission of theologians and the Cardinals Commission for the Causes of Saints, unanimously recognized Oscar Romero’s martyrdom, killed “in hatred of the Faith”. On 3 February, Pope Francis approved the decree announcing Oscar Romero as martyr, paving the way to his beatification.
Msgr. Gregorio Rosa Chavez, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, former collaborator and friend of Romero, has commented : “We have been waiting for this news for years. This is a gift for Latin America and for the Universal Church. Monsignor Romero is not just a son of El Salvador, he is also a universal witness of peace and hope. The acknowledgment of Romero’s martyrdom is the recognition of a man to the service of God, of the Church and of the Poor at the cost of his life.”
Pope Francis: the turning point
Romero’s beatification cause took off in Rome in 1996 after the diocesan phase had been concluded in El Salvador. After that the whole process started slowing down. This was despite the letters that were sent by the Salvadoran Episcopate, which shook off old divisions, and informed Rome of its unanimous support for a speedy recognition of Romero’s martyrdom. In those years, there was an influential faction of prelates who strongly opposed the canonization of Oscar Romero, seen by them as a subversive trouble maker.
The turning point for the cause of beatification, was the election of Cardinal Bergoglio to the papacy. He was the one who decided to speed up the beatification process. “Everything changed with Pope Francis,” said the Jesuit priest and theologian Jon Sobrino recalling how the two previous popes, Wojtyla and Ratzinger, had also taken into consideration the Archbishop’s canonization “but without much conviction and action”.
Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, postulator of Romero’s cause since 1996, stressed that Romero is one of the greatest witnesses of the Church of the Second Vatican Council. “The Pope’s recognition of Romero’s martyrdom, “killed in hatred of the Faith”, does away with cautiousness and resistance fuelled by secret political prejudices. Archbishop Romero strove for peace, reconciliation and social justice. He felt a compelling need of announcing the Word of God. He loved a poor Church, for the poor. He shared the poor’s suffering. He served Christ by serving his people. I think he is an iconic figure for the Church of today and an illuminating example for the Church of the future.”
A meaningful death
Romero knew he would be killed. He received letters, phone calls threatening him every day. He even received alarming messages on television, or by civil and religious authorities. He had escaped some assassination attempts. “Msgr. Romero was aware that his life was at stake” – says historian Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, professor of modern history at the University of Rome. “The Archbishop therefore was prepared to die and wanted to give meaning to his death, remaining faithful to his apostolic mandate. He used to say, “I am a shepherd, and a good shepherd does not abandon his sheep to the wolves.” Romero had no doubts: he would not leave El Salvador, he would stay beside his people until the end”. He often meditated about the martyrdom of his priests and catechists, who had been assassinated. He wanted to give a deep meaning to his death, by living a life for God. Three weeks before his death he said to a friend: ‘Living a life committed to God is worth more than martyrdom itself.’
The day before his assassination, during a homily in the cathedral, the Archbishop addressed the military directly: “Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill”. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order… 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.” Romero on the day before his death also said: “If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people, let my blood be a seed of freedom, and let my death be for the liberation of my people.” (C.C.)