Archbishop Oscar Romero was beatified on 23 May in the capital city of El Salvador, where he was assassinated while celebrating Mass in March 1980. The present Archbishop read a letter from Pope Francis to a huge crowd which had come to celebrate the Church’s official recognition of the heroic sanctity of a martyr for justice and peace. Francis specified what was being recognised and celebrated locally: “In this day of joy for El Salvador and also for other Latin American countries, we thank God for giving the martyr Archbishop the ability to see and feel the suffering of his people.”
These words and the beatification itself have significance well beyond Latin America. They celebrate a local hero in a local Church, but also mark and validate a new way of being Church, and new directions in the struggle for justice and peace around the world. The local life and times of Oscar Romero encapsulated a model of a Church being renewed as it became a Church of and for the poor.
That model was contested within the Church (not least in El Salvador) in Romero’s last years. Following his assassination and right up to the beatification, Romero’s legacy was disputed at the highest levels in the wide Church. Key conservative prelates (by no means all Latin Americans) were so disturbed by the developments that Romero symbolised that they effectively blocked moves towards his canonisation for more than two decades.
The conservatives argued that Romero should not be canonised, but condemned, because he supported guerrillas and Communists in the lead-up to El Salvador’s long civil war. He was said to have undermined clerical authority when he encouraged development of ‘the popular Church’ with its base communities and lay ‘delegates of the Word’. He was alleged to have abandoned the Church’s proper mission to mediate the salvation of souls, as he intervened in affairs of state in the name of justice.
Over the years, each of each of those claims has been examined and dismissed, not least by Pope Benedict who had been no friend of the Catholic radicals of Latin America. Pope Francis, though, in accelerating the process of canonisation and in his letter ratifying the beatification, has gone further.
He gives thanks to God for giving us, in Oscar Romero, a sign of how the missions of salvation and the quest for justice and peace are intertwined in the modern world. He endorses Archbishop Romero’s pastoral example in San Salvador as a model for the universal Church.
It is left to us to ponder the universals nested in Romero’s life and death. As is often the case with lives of the saints, extraordinary heroism and exotic context tend to distance the man and render him inimitable by us ordinary mortals living in less dramatic circumstances.
Romero lived his whole life in a society wracked by endemic violence from the 1930s. By the 1970s, from an Australian perspective, El Salvador was grotesquely exotic. A tiny landed elite (figuratively described as ‘the fourteen families’), had become fabulously wealthy from coffee plantations worked with virtual slave labour.
The elite maintained absolute power over five million impoverished peasants, kept voiceless and terrorised by the national Army and roving private militias. The state was organised as a ‘protection racket’, as one American academic put it, where the military served the economic interests of the elite in exchange for control of the state.
Any signs of protest from the poor were met with state sponsored violence. A peculiarly terrible twist to the protection racket was that thousands of young peasant men and boys were forced or bribed to serve as killers and rapists in the government-supported militias, all in the name of protecting society from fellow peasant subversives.
When sections of the Church, from the 1960s on, belatedly started to criticise systemic violence and lend pastoral support to peasant communities, they too attracted deadly retribution. Romero was slower than some to abandon a sort of conservative ecclesiastical neutrality, but during his time as bishop in a rural diocese (1974-6), before becoming Archbishop in the capital city, he appears to have undergone a conversion in which he came to see that his work as pastor for salvation implied and required him to be a pastor for justice and peace; and that, in turn required him to take actions that would have him classified as a subversive.
Understanding the conversion helps us appreciate some of the universals that can be drawn from Romero’s story, despite the dramatic personal heroism and exotic violence that may appear to distance his work, life, and death from us.
From his own telling, Romero opened himself to conversion as a newly consecrated bishop when he crisscrossed his diocese on horseback to discover how his people lived and died, and what they wanted of him as pastor. He was horrified by the discovery of realities that had surrounded him, unregistered, unfelt, his whole life.
Perhaps there was the first universal: that, as Romero discovered, injustice and entailed suffering will remain invisible to us if we remain fenced inside the boundaries of our days’ circle.
Romero discovered not just suffering but heroic, communal, Gospel-informed responses to injustice from those who experienced it. He discovered the new Church of justice and peace ahead of him, already in the making in base communities, some led by peasant laity.
In that, a second universal may be found. In the struggle for justice and peace, we will often be called to discern, support and help build on the creative responses of those who suffer.