Oscar Romero (1917-1980), slain archbishop of San Salvador, was as revered by some as deemed controversial by others. Romero studied theology in Rome, served as a bishop’s secretary, edited his diocesan newspaper, pastored the cathedral parish, served as rector of the minor seminary, and was elected to the bishops’ conference of El Salvador as well as the Central American Bishops’ secretariat, all before 1977. For none of these things was he assassinated while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel.
Ironically, Romero was recommended for his office by the same civic leaders who most surely ordered his death. They viewed him as a safe choice in a time of upheaval, with his scholarly manners and reluctance toward public action. A month after Romero was made archbishop, however, his friend Jesuit Rutilio Grande was murdered for his support of guerillas fighting the U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Romero—cautious, conservative, and steadfastly un-political—was shocked into reconsidering his silence about the injustices borne by the poor of his country.
Whether you considered Romero a martyr or a victim of his outspoken politics was a matter of opinion—until recently, when Pope Francis beatified him in 2015. As early as 2007, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina referred to the slain Archbishop as a martyr and declared: “If I were pope, I would have already canonized him.”
If a person dies for the faith, isn’t that an automatic pass into sainthood? Yes: but only if it’s clear that the death is related to matters of faith. In Romero’s case, accusations flew that he was “Che Guevara in a cassock”: a communist, a Marxist, or a liberation theologian. The latter theology is a mode of thought that some have characterized as a mixing class theory with religious principles. The question remained on the table for a long time: was Archbishop Romero martyred for defending the gospel against its enemies, or for stepping into a military struggle he had no business with in the first place?
Romero traveled to Rome four times in the three years he served as Archbishop to explain that it was the gospel that convicted him to side with the poor against their oppressors and murderers. His homilies were broadcast on the radio across his small country. Weekly he read the names of the dead who fell to the military. He encouraged soldiers not to follow orders that were unjust. His canonization may soon verify that speaking truth to power remains a vocation of the church.
Scripture: Ezekiel 2:1-10; 3:17-21; John 10:17-18; 14:6; 15:13, 18-27; 16:13; Romans 5:6-8; 1 John 3:16
Books: Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings, by Marie Dennis, et. al. (Orbis Books, 2000)
Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out, by Kevin Clarke (Liturgical Press, 2014)