The following is an editorial I wrote in March of 2005 on Oscar Romero.
Yesterday, “the saint of the Americas” was beatified in San Salvador
Oscar Romero: uncanonized saint of the Americas
“It is as much as certain that after this pope, Oscar Romero will be canonized as a saint.” Rembert Weakland, retired archbishop of Milwaukee
With this issue we celebrate the 25th anniversary (March 24, 2005) of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the uncanonized saint of the Americas. CNT has long championed the late martyred archbishop, not only as an epicscopal template for our times, but also as a lens through which we can view lamentable changes in the Roman Catholic church. Romero acts as a bridge between the church of promise, the unfulfilled hope of the Second Vatican Council and the failed restoration of Pope John Paul II.
A little history is in order.
In 1977, El Salvador was in turmoil. The fourteen families controlling the country viewed with alarm the growth of popular organizations and unions. The Church, inspired by the preferential option for the poor articulated in 1968 at Medellin,Colombia, increasingly began to defend those same rights. One of the most dynamic persons was Jesuit Rutilio Grande.
In the first half of 1977, repression, in the form of murder, kidnapping and the expulsion of priests, became commonplace. On Feb.23, Oscar Romero became the archbishop of El Salvador. Progressives were disappointed in the choice, much preferring the more dynamic Bishop Rivera y Damas. Romero was considered a “safe” choice, a man who could be relied upon, one who was deemed “spiritual” and “bookish” by observers. On the other hand his experience in a rural diocese had made him aware of the suffering of the campesinos. Nobody doubted his deep integrity and honesty.
On March 12. his friend Rutilio Grande was brutally murdered .This conservative friend of “the privileged and the powerful,” according to Fr. Vincent O’Keefe, a Jesuit who knew him in Rome, now became the voice of the oppressed. He often said; “It is my lot to gather up the trampled, the dead and all that the persecution of the church leaves behind.”
As the repression deepened, Oscar Romero made the transition from the gray abstraction of chancery life and institutional housekeeping to the Christlife of solidarity with the suffering poor. Holy Week no longer was merely nostalgic. “Liturgical acts are not unincarnated but set in the midst of real life.” For him, that life was increasingly drenched in blood. In May, a wholesale slaughter took place in the Aguilares area which further strengthened his commitment.
Persecution is the sign of the church. We have mutilated the gospel a great deal; we have tried to live a very comfortable gospel,”he said.
Isolated by careerist bishops
In the next two years, Romero’s homilies, which often ran for 90 minutes on the radio and in the Cathedral of San Salvador, consistently called for an end to human rights abuses and a desire for reconciliation. The split with other bishops became pronounced. Romero had no problem recognizing the Spirit in popular organizations, while the other bishops seemed locked into false dichotomies, which attempted to reserve God’s activity to the church. The hierarchy became divided especially when Romero was nominated in November 1978 for the Nobel prize by 118 British parliamentarians. This helped shine a light on the appalling conditions in El Salvador.
By 1979, the grumbling of wealthy landowners, other bishops and the papal nuncio had reached the Vatican. In May, four of the five Salvadoran bishops made the shocking accusation that Romero was attempting to impose a “Marxist” pastoral praxis on the church.They said Rutilio Grande was a “turncoat leftist”, murdered by other leftists and made other outrageous charges. In December 1978, the pope placed an “Apostolic Visitor” in the San Salvador diocese. Usually this is seen as a vote of no-confidence. In May, 1979, Romero was called to Rome, but kept waiting by John Paul II.
“I was very much concerned about such an attitude shown toward a bishop of a diocese,” he noted in his diary. He realized that “negative information about my mission has preceded me at the Vatican.” John Paul II seemed obsessed about “unity” in the diocese rather than the staggering abuses of the Salvadoran people. “I replied that I also desired this but unity could not be simulated. It had to be based on the Gospel and the truth.”
Romero, discovering that he was about to be virtually fired, wrote candidly to Cardinal Baggio: “The roots of the present problem are not to be found in the character and personality of the persons but in the highly unjust and conflictive situation of the country. Gospel guidelines and Latin American bishops’ statements of Medellin and Puebla must be in large measure conflictive.”
Romero continued with his defence of the poor, each Sunday listing the death-squad victims. On Feb. 17, 1980, he publicly asked President Jimmy Carter to stop U.S. aid to El Salvador, believing it to be going to military repression .
Unknown to him, the Vatican had planned to fire him. Cardinal Oddi, the head of the Congregation for the Clergy, four days before Romero’s death, decided to reassign the pastor somewhere else in Latin America. “The Salvadoran government viewed his activity “to be in favour of communism.” On March 24, 1980 Romero was gunned down saying mass.
Outpouring of grief
Immediately a tidal wave love engulfed the slain Archbishop from around the world . But John Paul II was silent. His failure to praise Romero, will rank as one of the low points of his pontificate. While condemning the violence, he was mum on Romero. Many anticipated that the pope would have immediately flown to San Salvador and finished the bishop’s mass. His tepid response was shocking. As papal biographer Tad Szulc says, “His treatment of Archbishop Romero and his continued treatment of Romero’s memory are an injustice like no other he has done anyone.”
On Palm Sunday, March 30, bishops and prelates attending Romero’s funeral received a lesson in just what the archbishop was dealing with. The Cathedral was firebombed and forty persons died. Several bishops, including Hamilton’s Paul Reding were radicalized.
In the wake of overwhelming support for Romero, John Paul II finally acknowledged that Romero had “united his life with the service of the poorest of the underprivileged.” Tad Szulc’s conclusion is valid: “The pope protested more about the Polish government’s plans to build a road to the Polish shrine of Czestochowa than he did about the shooting war against his Church in El Salvador.”
John Paul II would make it his business to appoint no more potential Romeros in the church. His next 25 years would be spent in obsession about “orthodoxy,” as if a bishop would be anything but, and forgetting that “justice was a constitutive part of the gospel.” He would make it his business to appoint docile bishops, servants rather than brothers, of the man at the top of a monarchical church, even though such a church was repudiated by Vatican II. The Canadian episcopacy, a major player in justice initiatives and human rights causes in the 1960s and 1970s, became virtual accomplices in what theologian Richard McBrien called, “A slow motion coup in the Catholic church.” Oscar Romero, twenty-five years after his death, Rome to the contrary, remains the prototype of the Christian bishop who authentically reads “the signs of the times” and strives to incarnate God’s reign in history.