One of the things that made Archbishop Oscar Romero so extraordinary, I realized long after I met him and long after he was murdered, was that at first he seemed to be so ordinary. When I went to interview him in early 1980, I was led to believe I’d be meeting a man who would change the world, or, at least, the little world of El Salvador. But he seemed on first encounter to be very gray, more a forgettable clerk than a firebrand cleric. Not a revolutionary, certainly. Not a martyr. Not a saint.
In his quiet, affable, good-humored way, he never seemed to want to be any of those things, in any case, and yet in the minds of millions of people, especially in Latin America, he became all of them.
Only the popes held out against him. For three decades the theological machinery of John Paul II and Benedict XVI prevented the martyred Romero from advancing toward the formal title of saint, a long process that was fast-tracked for John Paul II himself, and also for much less sympathetic figures like the founder of the wealthy and secretive order Opus Dei.
Yes, symbolic gestures were made. John Paul II twice visited Romero’s tomb in the cathedral in San Salvador. But the conservative popes from Poland and Germany didn't like the way people fighting for the rights of the poor — some of whom were communists, many of whom were leftists wrapped up in what was called “the theology of liberation” — adopted Romero as a symbol. John Paul and Benedict both detested that current in the church, seeing it as a front for politics, not faith. As Benedict told reporters in 2007, “the problem was that a political party wanted to take [Romero] for itself as a flag, as an emblematic figure.” Benedict conceded this was “unjust,” but “for reasons of prudence,” it was said, Romero’s beatification was put on hold.
Last week, finally, Pope Francis, from Argentina, told reporters bluntly that the Salvadoran’s path toward official sainthood had been blocked by his predecessors and “now it is unblocked.”
Perhaps even more importantly, Francis suggested that once Romero moves forward on the way to formal sainthood, others who were even more closely identified with liberation theology than he was — and who paid with their lives — could follow on the same path.
These men and women who died for their faith must be at once inspiring and troubling for Francis.
One of those was a Jesuit, like the pope, named Rutilio Grande. In 1977 Grande gave a famous homily in Apopa, El Salvador, warning that “very soon the Bible and the Gospel will not be able to come across our borders. We will get the covers, nothing more, because all the pages are ‘subversive.’” And if Jesus of Nazareth were to come to El Salvador, Grande told his flock, Christ would be arrested and “crucified all over again.” Shortly afterward, Grande and two others with him were murdered.
The killing went on and on. In December 1980, four American churchwomen were raped and murdered by members of the Salvadoran Guardia Nacional. In 1989, the widely respected rector of San Salvador’s Universidad Centroamericana, along with five other Jesuits, a housekeeper and her daughter, were slaughtered by officers from the Salvadoran government that was, by then, getting heavy support from Washington.
These men and women who died for their faith must be at once inspiring and troubling for Francis, who identifies so closely with the poor himself that conservative Catholics have tied themselves in knots trying to portray him as a friend, or at least not the enemy, of capitalism. Certainly his personal warmth and humility is, in many respects, reminiscent of Romero’s.
Francis was himself a witness to the dirty wars in Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s that cost so many priests and nuns their lives. At the height of the violence he was the provincial superior of all the Jesuits in Argentina, which should have been an influential position. He has done penance since, feeling that he and his fellow churchmen did not speak out strongly enough against the atrocities taking place in the name of anti-communism.
So, Pope Francis makes a nod to the theological hurdles that martyrs must pass through to become saints on the roster of the Catholic Church: “For me Romero is a man of God, but the process has to be followed, and the Lord too has to give his sign.” But there is no question where this pope’s sympathies lie, and any believer who knows Romero’s story would have to think that the Lord has given many signs.
Still, the Vatican will call in its experts. We will hear, no doubt, that Romero’s blood, stored separately from his embalmed body, was still liquid years later. Indeed, a vial was given to John Paul. People will testify they were cured of dread diseases when they prayed to Romero. And there will be debates about whether or not Romero died in odium fidei, at the hands of those who hated his faith, which would make him a martyr more quickly eligible for sainthood. As Pope Francis said last week, “this is a task for the theologians.” But it’s likely the pontiff will give them guidance.
When I was covering the wars in Central America, all of us knew that the archbishop would be killed. After the murder of Rutilio Grande, who was his friend, Romero began to speak out ever more critically of the government and of the rich in a country where the gap between the wealthy and the poor — really, the oligarchs and the peasantry — was on a feudal scale. The gray cleric, who had been given the position of archbishop partly because he seemed so uncontroversial, began to articulate the hopes and dreams and finally the desperation of the dispossessed. Guerrillas with Cuban backing were making a bid for power. But Romero became the most visible and most important enemy of the oligarchs and of those in the military and on its margins who defended their interests.
One day a cameraman friend of mine went out to a rural community where Romero was performing a mass wedding ceremony for campesinos who had lived together for years as husband and wife, but had never had their marriage blessed by the church. On the way back, the cameraman ran into a group of men who looked like the thugs usually associated with the right-wing death squads. He struck up a conversation with them and realized that, indeed, they had been sent to kill the archbishop, but when his car approached and they saw him, and he stopped and talked to them, they could not do it.
Then on March 23, Romero delivered a truly impassioned homily. “I want to make a special appeal to soldiers, national guardsmen, and policemen: each of you is one of us,” he said. “The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s words, ‘thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey a law contrary to the law of God. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you; in the name of God I command you to stop the repression.”
The next evening, Romero was saying mass in the chapel at the hospice where he lived in a tiny room near the infirm and the dying. A gunman on the road outside shot him through the heart.
At Romero’s funeral a week later, tens of thousands of mourners turned out knowing there was a chance they might be killed, and at least 35 of them died when shooting erupted — whether by the military or the guerrillas or both remains disputed. Most of the dead were crushed in the panic. I was there, and I can tell you the miracle was that any of us survived.
Someday in the not too distant future, Romero will be beatified. And then, if Pope Francis is still with us, we may well see the leftist saints come marching in.