Archbishop Romero: A future saint
One of the happiest events we can hope for at the time Pope Francis visits the United States next year won’t be on our soil. It would be the celebration in our tiny neighbor El Salvador as the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero is formally declared a saint.
Not that we don’t look forward to the pope’s public events and the speaking he does in this country. All of that will be exciting. It should further energize every American, Catholic or not, who has been inspired by the simple, direct manner of Francis as he models and talks about the most important things: love and justice first of all.
But a celebration of Archbishop Romero’s life and death gets to the heart of our faith. And his story is close to us. We can understand it.
All we know at the moment is that Pope Francis accepted an invitation to a World Meeting of Families being planned for Philadelphia next September. The Vatican has said he will probably visit other places in this country, also. Nothing is being said officially about a stop in El Salvador during the same long excursion from Rome. But strong hints have lit up hope.
On his flight home after visiting South Korea in mid-August, the pope spoke about Archbishop Romero and the Church’s saint-making process. He made four points. First, Archbishop Romero’s path in that process had been blocked but is going forward now. Second, when it appears that someone has died for the faith, we want to know whether that was for professing the Creed or “for performing the works that Jesus commands us to do for our neighbor,” as Francis expressed it. That distinction of beliefs and works within faith is important, he noted, and theologians need to find language that best shows how they tie together in this person’s life.
Third, Francis said “…it’s very important to move in haste” on Archbishop Romero’s cause. And fourth, he pointed out that Archbishop Romero was not alone in the way he went to martyrdom. There were others who died representing the Church’s option for the poor in El Salvador at that time – the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. They were priests, religious women and lay workers.
Was this a hint that Archbishop Romero will be only the biggest and brightest light in “a cloud of witnesses” to be canonized a year from now? We don’t know, but papal talk normally has a purpose.
Why is it good news that this particular person, Archbishop Oscar Romero, may be celebrated as a saint? Because he made the face and action of divine love clear in a dark time. Because he meets our need for reminders and models of steadfast love.
As Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to his murder while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero used his office to speak for the mass of poor people in his country. They were kept down by a tiny group of rich families whose influence dominated the government. Any activity that might upset the status quo was brutally suppressed by the Salvadoran military and informal paramilitary groups.
Catholic priests, religious women and lay catechists were teaching the poor the Church’s lessons on human dignity and justice. They were denounced as communist agitators and frequently killed. Archbishop Romero’s archdiocesan radio station broadcast his sermons telling the authorities their actions violated the Gospel. He told soldiers to disobey orders to kill their own people. Shortly after that broadcast, a rifle bullet splashed his blood at the altar in Divine Providence Hospital’s chapel.
People who knew the story immediately knew this man to be a saint. The similarity to Jesus was so obvious. Lutherans, Anglicans, even non-Christian groups, quickly celebrated him as a hero of faith. It sometimes takes longer for things to emerge at the center of the Church.