All the Right Enemies

Pope Francis Knows: Oscar Romero is the People’s Saint

In another extraordinary break with recent conservative orthodoxy, Pope Francis clears the leftist Salvadoran archbishop for sainthood. Wow.

On Tuesday, Pope Francis decreed that the 1980 assassination of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, was a Martyrdom for the Faith. Such a designation clears the way for Romero’s beatification, the final step before being declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

There is much that this former Archbishop of San Salvador shares with Pope Francis. Both are seen as champions of the people, with an especially keen sense of the godlessness of any system that oppresses and subjugates the poor. Both are unlikely leaders in the Roman Catholic Church, given their support for conservative theology and “order” prior to their elevation as leaders in the Church. Both surprised their supporters in taking a much more critical stance toward the abuses of capitalism than would have been expected of a conservative leader.

The issue that caused former Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to block Romero’s entry into the sainthood process was whether or not Romero was martyred for his faith or for his politics. Indeed, Benedict, who at the time was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had launched a crackdown on liberation theology, with which Romero was identified. Liberation theology has at its core the notion that God has a preferential attitude toward the poor, and it demands that people of faith take seriously the societal, governmental, and capitalistic systems that keep poor people poor for the sake of increased profits.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were of the notion that Archbishop Romero’s understanding of the Gospel of Christ was far too Marxist in its approach. And to be fair, there is much in the philosophy of Marx (in the intellectual underpinnings of Marxism, not necessarily in the real-life implementation of those understandings) that can be found in the teachings and sayings of Jesus. Preaching “good news to the poor” was part of Jesus’ own self-understanding. Jesus’ critique of society was received as radical and societally upsetting to the powers-that-be in his own day, no less than in our own.

Lest we think we have no horse in this race, it should be pointed out that the government and intelligence services of the United States were deeply involved in the suppression of the El Salvadoran people through its support of the cruel regimes that ruled El Salvador in the time of Romero’s episcopate. El Salvadoran security forces were not-so-secretly armed by the United States, and those security forces wreaked havoc and violence on the increasingly resistant, sorely oppressed people of El Salvador.

When it came time to appoint a new Archbishop in San Salvador, Romero was selected because he was perceived to be the “safest” candidate who would support the status quo – the small, wealthy magnates who controlled the economy and benefited greatly from the subjugation of the people.

But then, the leaders of El Salvador, backed by the United States, looked on in horror as the mild-mannered, almost wimpy Roman Catholic prelate became the emboldened, passionate, and fearless “voice of the voiceless,” as he was called. His defense of the common, ordinary people of El Salvador, and his attendant condemnation of violence and oppression by their leaders, made him dangerous and revolutionary in the eyes of the ruling party and its allies. Something had to be done about his increasingly harsh and popular challenge to the existing systemic oppression of the people.

Left-wing guerilla resistance was organized in 1977. By 1979, government death squads began their killing rampage. Such was the backdrop as, on Sunday, March 23, 1980, Romero took to his pulpit and preached a sermon in which he called on El Salvadoran troops and national guardsmen to defy orders and stop killing their brother and sister citizens: “In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise daily more loudly to heaven, I plead with you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: put an end to this repression!”

The next day, as Romero celebrated mass in the small, humble chapel of a convent where he lived, he was felled by a single sharp-shooter assassin’s bullet through his heart as he stood at the altar. The assassin was never apprehended, and those who planned the assassination were never named or held accountable. The next few years would see over 75,000 El Salvadoran people killed in one of the longest, bloodiest conflicts in the history of this hemisphere.

Last summer I visited El Salvador, where the people continue to be oppressed, now by two violent gangs that in effect rule the country, while the government and police are impotent (and possibly uninterested) in stemming the violence. I visited Romero’s humble apartment at the convent where he lived, whose two tiny rooms barely have enough space for his bed, reading chair and lamp. I stood at the altar where he died, saying mass, and preaching that “a life offered for others is a sure token of resurrection and of victory.”

Oscar Romero, now 35 years dead, is alive and well and living in the hearts of the everyday people of El Salvador. Congregations are named for him, prayers are said in his name, and his image is ubiquitous, despite attempts to quell his legacy and power, even in death. His proclamation of non-violence and God’s love for the poor and the oppressed sustains people throughout El Salvador to this very day. The ruling powers-that-be continue to try to bury his words and memory, but his liberating message lives in the hearts of the people.

Perhaps the thing that most unites Pope Francis and Oscar Romero is their shared belief that faith can never be separated from secular politics and economics. Pope Francis’ condemnation of the abuses of capitalism is reviled as radical and Marxist by the world’s powers-that-be with the same vehemence that greeted Romero’s critique. Much of Francis’ current challenge to the structures of society that oppress the poor are worthy of the old Southern criticism of clergy who had the audacity to bring faith to politics and question the secular status quo, “Now he’s gone from preaching’ to meddlin’!” There is no sign that Pope Francis is going to stop meddlin’.

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Pope Francis’s declaration that Romero is a martyr because of his faith, not just his politics, speaks volumes about the way in which this new Pope understands the relationship between what we believe and how we act in the world. Using faith to critique politics and economics will not make Francis any friends among those who benefit from oppressing the poor, but it will make him the people’s Pope. And he will be in good company. One day, the Roman Catholic Church will proclaim Romero to be what he already is in El Salvador: the People’s Saint.