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Archbishop Oscar Romero: a ‘martyr of the church’

By Andrew Britz, OSB


On Feb. 3, Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing as martyrdom the March 24, 1980, assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in a San Salvador chapel as he celebrated mass. In this decree the Vatican has made what appears to be a shift toward acceptance of more progressive views of the changes of the Second Vatican Council and its emphasis on a church that stands with the poor.
The Prairie Messenger has long been a supporter of the cause for Romero’s sainthood, and during Rev. Andrew Britz’s time as editor, he wrote editorials regarding Romero and martyrdom. The following two editorials from the Prairie Messenger and featured in Britz’s book Truth to Power were written on the 10th and the 20th anniversaries of Romero’s death.

Canonizing Archbishop Romero (1917-1980) March 26, 1990

It is not just the poor in El Salvador, who make up the vast majority of people in that country, who believe Archbishop Oscar Romero is a saint. Throughout Latin America he is venerated as the martyr who stood by those unjustly exploited by the rich and powerful of this world.
To a large extent it is irrelevant to them whether or not the official church canonizes him. He is already the patron saint of the millions and millions trapped in the slums which are largely the exploitative work of First World financial dealings.

Through most of our church history the declaration of sainthood was a rather informal local process. The people picked their heroes. Canonization was an acknowledgment by the church leaders that their example would be a useful one for all Christians to emulate.

There were problems with this discernment process taking place on the local level — especially with religious orders. When they smelled that a dollar could be made with the canonization of one of their own, little could stand in their way.

But there are problems, too, when the process is effectively removed from the local church and moved thousands of miles away to Rome. Schools of thought and the availability of money become the key issues in canonizations — not local needs, not even the virtues of the one being considered.

And so, founders of religious orders (which are willing to pay out large sums of money) are now the most likely candidates for canonization. Celibates have a 1,000 per cent — and then some — better chance of canonization than a married person.

Romero is the giant figure in the Latin American Christian community. Nothing the official church does is going to change that. Not to canonize him says virtually nothing about the archbishop but volumes about the church. It speaks about a church not at home with Romero’s love and concern for God’s poor, about a church which in the crunch still believes it is best (safest) to nestle with the rich and never offend them — as the canonization of Oscar Romero surely would.

Who is a martyr? March 22, 2000

The former major superior of the missionary order the Oblates of Mary Immaculate makes an interesting note about the pope’s (John Paul II) March 12 apology. Archbishop Marcello Zago, the secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, now sees a way open for the church to admit that its missionary policy of the past was seriously flawed.

Missionaries were told to make a radical distinction between religion and culture: the culture of a people could be used to carry the Gospel message, Zago noted; the religion of the people to be evangelized could not.
Zago says the church must recognize that, though such a distinction can be made in theory, it does not stand up to historical experience. Religion is at the heart of any developed culture and thus any true inculturation process will have to deal with the religious aspirations of the recipients of our missionary endeavours.

A similar but equally faulty distinction has been made between politics and religion. We have in the 20th century seen countless people stand up for their religious faith in the face of atheist communism. This struggle has received much admiration from the church community. And rightly so. The whole church has been greatly blessed and strengthened by the blood of these martyrs.

But maybe we have enjoyed too much of a good thing in viewing this conflict between atheism and deism as the principal way for understanding the call, the struggle to evangelize the world in the last half-century. It was simply too easy to link such thinking to the great secular struggle facing the world, a struggle we came to call the Cold War.

Thus it was considered categorically wrong to have any relationship with a communist regime. No communist could, by definition, be a good person.

Whereas no benefit of the doubt was possible for communists, there certainly was room to consider the virtues of right-wing leaders, especially if these politicians sold themselves as safeguards against communism.

Pope John Paul II, who suffered greatly at the hands of the communists who took over his country after the Second World War, had plenty of reasons to completely distrust the government leaders in Poland. While the communist government in Poland was never as virulently anti-religion as were the administrations in Ukraine and in the former Czechoslovakia, it was surely intolerant enough to radically colour the pope’s thinking.

We should not be surprised; nor should we stand too smugly in judgment over John Paul’s administration for being totally wary of all things communist but not nearly so concerned about right-wing administrations.

Yet it is painful to read Archbishop Oscar Romero’s account of his visit to John Paul. He tells the pope how the Salvadoran government forces killed one of his priests, claiming he was a guerrilla. Romero says the pope was ready to believe the government, and instructed him to develop a better relationship with that government. Of course, the pope would never have given this advice to any bishop living in a communist country, but saw no difficulty in doing precisely this in Latin America.

So Romero stood alone, and the Salvadoran government knew it. He was there for the picking.

But was he a martyr? Can one be a martyr at the hands of Catholics?

It is interesting to note that this past week the Vatican gave notice to the communist government in China that it would be proclaiming 120 of that country’s citizens as martyrs. Among that number are many who died in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Chinese did not kill these missionaries for their religious convictions. Rather it was because of their close identification with the colonial forces which were forcing an Open Door Policy on their country.
It seems one can die a martyr for political reasons if the political stance is correct (though it is hard to imagine how one can see anything positive in the Open Door Policy forced upon China).

How is one to judge whether Romero is simply a political martyr or truly a martyr of the faith? Maybe there is a better way to ask the question: Who can with practical certitude judge the authenticity of Romero’s faith?

Traditionally, the Curia alone makes the final decision. This, we believe, would not be wise in this case. One only has to look at the latest appointment to Romero’s old see, the Archdiocese of San Salvador, to see why.

The Curia did not even appoint a Salvadoran to the post. It chose a Spanish nationalist, a member of Opus Dei, a man close to the very army responsible for murdering Romero. The little people in the country have plenty of reasons to believe that Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle is trying to restore the church Romero eventually rejected.

Is Romero a martyr of the faith — even though it was Catholics who plotted his assassination? We must seek the answer from the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. They will tell us if they experienced in Romero either the Lord and his reign of graciousness or simply a strong-willed political despot.

Of course, to listen to the answer of the peasants of El Salvador will have tremendous ramifications for the whole church of God. Martyrs have a way of doing that to the church.