Oscar Romero, Archbishop killed by right-wing dictatorship, declared “saint” by Pope Francis

Romero spoke up against the US-backed dictatorship and for the rights of the poor.

October 16, 2018 by Subin Dennis
Oscar Romero
Romero spoke up against the US-backed dictatorship and for the rights of the poor. (Photo: The Irish Times)

Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Catholic Archbishop and a champion of the poor who was assassinated by the death squad of El Salvador’s right-wing military dictatorship in 1980, has been declared “saint” by Pope Francis.

Romero, a powerful voice of the voiceless, was canonised (the act of declaring a dead person saint is called canonisation) along with six others at a ceremony in Vatican on Sunday, 14 October 2018. Prior to being declared saint, he had been beatified (declared “Blessed” – the step that precedes canonisation) on 23 May 2015.

Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador in El Salvador, Central America, and was shot dead on 24 March 1980 by members of a right-wing death squad in the service of the brutal military dictatorship which was in power at the time.

During the canonisation ceremony, Pope Francis wore “the blood-stained rope belt that Romero wore when he was gunned down.”

Romero used to be fairly conservative in the beginning, but was radicalised by his experience as the bishop of Santiago de Maria, where he saw the suffering of the country’s landless poor. The assassination by the army in 1977 of Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and friend of Romero who was engaged in organising farm workers, turned out to be decisive in his turn towards the Left.

He became a vocal critic of the military dictatorship and the ruling elite. Romero’s Sunday sermons, in which he took sides with the working people against the dictatorship and which were broadcast across El Salvador over radio, became immensely popular.

Romero criticised the US for giving military aid to the Salvadoran dictatorship, and in 1980, he wrote to the US President Jimmy Carter, demanding that such aid be stopped. US military aid would “undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the political repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights”, he said.

On 23 March 1980, the Archbishop’s Sunday sermon ended thus: “In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise up to the heavens every day more tumultuously, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression!” The very next day, Romero was shot dead while celebrating Mass.

The army even fired at the 100,000 mourning people who had gathered for the funeral ceremony for Romero. At least 35 people were killed in the firing in front of the San Salvador Cathedral. (A video of this shooting can be seen here.)

Romero’s beatification was blocked for many years, due to conservative “fears” of his association with liberation theology, a synthesis of Christian theology and Marxist socio-economic analysis. Pope Francis removed these roadblocks in 2013, paving the way for the long-awaited public recognition by the Vatican.

Archbishop Romero was well aware of the danger of attacks by the enemies of the people. He once said, “As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

The Salvadoran people indeed rose up, with the popular anger against the dictatorship intensifying following the assassination of Romero and the rape and murder of four Catholic nuns by the military in December 1980.

Popular resistance found its most powerful expression in a decade-long civil war which the Salvadoran people fought under the leadership of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The civil war ended in 1992, and FMLN began to contest elections. In 2009, the FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes was elected President of El Salvador. FMLN won the elections again in 2014, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former FMLN guerrilla leader, became the President.

Oscar Romero’s popularity in El Salvador has only grown in the years since his martyrdom. The 1989 film Romero, directed by John Duigan, depicted the last years of his life. The country’s busiest airport, near the capital San Salvador, has been renamed after him.

In recognition of Romero’s battle against the violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable people in El Salvador, the UN in 2010 declared his martyrdom day, 24 March, as the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.

Thousands of Salvadorans celebrated the canonisation of Romero, who became the first Catholic saint from El Salvador and Central America.

“Monsignor Romero is the most universal Salvadoran and a symbol of unity for our country… The canonisation of Monsignor Romero strengthens us and fills us with hope to continue working for justice, equality and truth,” El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén said in his message. “He is the saint of the poor, of those who suffer unjust persecution and who demand to be heard.”

The elevation of Oscar Romero to the canon of saints is of immense political significance.

Previous popes such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI were actively hostile to liberation theology and its advocates. Many liberation theologians were censured and banned from teaching in seminaries during Pope John Paul II’s tenure from 1978 to 2005. Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the key body responsible for promoting and defending Catholic doctrine, from 1981 to 2005. Ratzinger played a leading role in the witch-hunt of liberation theologians during this period.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, has vehemently criticised the economic inequalities inherent in capitalism, and sought to cultivate a warmer relationship with liberation theologians. His meeting with Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, the author of A Theology of Liberation (1973) – a pivotal text of liberation theology – was noted with keen interest by observers.

Liberation theology seeks to interpret Christian faith from the viewpoint of the life struggles of the poor, and considers unjust and iniquitous socio-economic structures to be evils that have to be fought against. The influence of movements inspired by liberation theology has been crucial in the rise of the Left in Latin America in the recent decades.

In the homily he delivered at the canonisation ceremony of Romero, Pope Paul VI and five others, Pope Francis continued in the same vein as his earlier messages condemning the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. “The love of money is the root of all evils,” he said quoting St. Paul. “Our having too much, our wanting too much suffocates our hearts and makes us incapable of loving,” he said.