New Pope’s Election May Boost Sainthood Drive for Slain Salvadoran Archbishop
A top Salvadoran church official says the elevation of Cardinal José Maria Bergoglio to Pope Francis could advance the plodding campaign for sainthood for Msgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero, an outspoken peace advocate and possibly the country’s most revered figure, assassinated for his views on March 24, 1980.
Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, led the Salvadoran Catholic church on a path of “liberation theology,” a controversial approach that interprets Christianity through the eyes of the poor and oppressed and gives them preferential consideration. He had influence throughout Latin America.
In the eyes of many, his assassination 33 years ago quashed the last chance the country may have had to turn back the civil war that eventually claimed some 75,000 lives. It also opened a wider window on the brutal nature of the extreme far-right in the polarized country. His tomb in the basement of the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador continues to draw streams of pilgrims to this today.
His followers initiated the campaign for sainthood 17 years ago, and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith agreed to initiate the process in 2006.
Romero worked tirelessly urging an end to end the country’s growing civil war, at one point urging government soldiers not to fight, telling them the guerrilla forces they opposed were of their own class and urged former President Jimmy Carter to end American military aid to the country, saying, “It is being used to oppress my people.”
He spoke for the country’s majority underclass at a time when speaking out was to risk death at the hands of the widely tolerated death squads that kept a brutal damper on dissent.
He was murdered while celebrating Mass at a hospital chapel, a death widely blamed on right-wing extremist leader Roberto d’Aubuisson, who was never tried for masterminding the killing.
His successor, Msgr. Arturo Rivera y Damas, was similarly inclined, but when he died in 1994 the post went to a traditionalist, Msgr. Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, a straight-and-narrow former military chaplain with ties to the conservative Opus Dei movement, ending two decades of active liberal leadership in the Salvadoran church.
Pope John Paul II was not overly fond of liberal activist bishops and waited three years after Romero’s death to appoint Rivera y Damas.
But San Salvador’s long-time auxiliary archbishop, Msgr. Gregorio Rosa Chavez, who worked closely with Romero and Rivera y Damas, told journalists after his March 17 homily that he knew the new pope, and said the pontiff had a special admiration for Msgr Romero, “a devotion to him and a total conviction that he is a saint and a martyr.” He added that “all indications are that the stars are lined up (for Romero to be beatified),” but added that proper processes must be observed “and the pope knows it.”
He said if they were polled the move would have the overwhelming backing of Latin American bishops.
“I am very optimistic because things are happening in a progressive way and all in the same direction,” he said.
It is not clear whether beatification would move the church back along the lines followed by Msgr. Romero, and today’s El Salvador is a very different one from the war years of the 1980s when the church was infuriating the often volatile and violent right wing and the military by denouncing massacres and other human rights violations and taking a role in promoting peace talks and defusing crises.
The previous pope, Benedict XVI, accused liberation theologians of assigning Marxist meanings to some theological terms.
Conservatives called Rivera y Damas a “red bishop,” and I recall graffiti signs popping up in the capital around 1980 urging Salvadorans to “be a patriot, kill a priest.”
At least 17 priests or nuns were killed by soldiers or right-wing death squads, mostly in the earlier part o the 12-year conflict.
Romero and priests in El Salvador who took a similar line said they saw no conflict in their social views and their pastoral works.
How, Romero asked in an interview shortly before he died, could he be a man of God and not look after his parishioners, most of whom lived in poverty bordering on serfdom? If it meant taking on the oligarchy and serfdom to do that, he said, so be it.
The dominant conservative press at the time attacked him as violent and demagogic and one paper suggested it was time for the military to “oil their weapons.” Except for the two archbishops, the wider Salvadoran church was considered generally conservative and traditionalist, and many priests and bishops went out of their way to take issue with Romero’s views.
Even now some clerics, including some in Latin America, are cool to the drive for sainthood, contending Romero was killed not for his faith but for his political views.
It was a distinction the archbishop steadfastly, and at the cost of his life, refused to make.
Romero’s name on the war wall
Joe Frazier covered the El Salvador war from 1979-1986 and was named Central America Correspondent for The Associated Press in 1982. He is now retired. He is the author of a book on covering the El Salvador war, El Salvador Could Be Like That: A Memoir of War, Politics, and Journalism, which includes an interview he had with Romero shortly before Romero was assassinated.
Archbishop Oscar Romero
Welcome to U.S. Catholic‘s rememberance of Archbishop Oscar Romero
As the Archbishop of San Salvador during El Salvador’s brutal civil war, Romero became the “bishop of the poor” for his work defending the Salvadoran people. After calling for international intervention to protect those being killed by government forces, Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980.
Read more about Romero and his legacy both for El Salvador and the church in the following resources:
Who was Oscar Romero? Read about how Romero became convinced to take up the cause of poor Salvadorans in this short biography. (Originally from the “Called to repentence” resource below.)
¡Romero vive! In his March 2009 Margin Notes column, Kevin Clarke reflects on the meaning of the Salvadoran election 29 years after the death of Romero.
Romero Revisited: El Salvador 30 years later See El Salvador in 1985 and 2009 through the lens of Tom Hocker’s camera.
News: Salvadoran bishops to write Vatican to support Romero’s sainthood (February 8, 2010)
Do you hear the cry of the poor? “The greatest works of liberation theology are not written, they’re lived in people such as Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador,” says Michael Lee, a theology professor at Fordham University. Learn more about liberation theology in this interview with Lee, as well as in 5 Questions.
The Church: Called to repentance; called to prophecy
Originally released by Claretian Publications for the 20th anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom in 2000, “The Church: Called to repentence; called to prophecy” can be used to celebrate the March 24 anniversary any year through liturgy or other events. Learn more How do I use this material?
Reflection questions: Quotes from Romero and questions to inspire reflection and discussion about his legacy today.
Romero’s wisdom: Prayers based on quotations from Romero
The Romero Liturgy: An opening reflection for a liturgy to honor Romero
Penitential Rite: Pray of repentance for the Romero liturgy
Readings: Readings, psalm, and a rite of commitment for the Romero liturgy
Homily help: How can you preach on these readings in the context of the anniversary of Romero’s death.
After his colossal “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C., Glenn Beck took aim at one of his favorite targets, Barack Obama, but in a novel way. Beck regrets saying a few months ago that President Obama was a “racist.” What he should have said, he now realizes, was that he didn’t agree with Obama’s “theology.” And what is Obama’s theology, according to Beck? Liberation theology.
Here’s Beck’s definition of the arcane area of study known as liberation theology:
I think that it is much more of a theological question that he is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor and victim….That is a direct opposite of what the gospel is talking about…It’s Marxism disguised as religion
As Ronald Reagan used to say, “There you go again.” A few months ago, Beck decided to demolish the idea of “social justice,” by telling Christians that if their priests, pastors or ministers use that buzz word on Sundays they should leave their churches. As he may or may not have known, the tenets of “social justice” encourage one not only to help the poor, but also address the conditions that keep them poor. He called that “communist.”
That approach didn’t work out that well for Beck since so many Christian denominations these days, particularly the Catholic Church, espouse social justice explicitly. So he backed off. But liberation theology? Really?
A little history: Liberation theology began in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, and was later developed more systematically by Catholic theologians who reflected on experiences of the poor there. The term was coined by the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest, in his landmark book A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971. Briefly put, liberation theology (there are many definitions, by the way) is a Gospel-based critique of the world through the eyes of the poor. Contrary to what Beck implies, the liberation theologian doesn’t see himself or herself as victim; rather proponents call us to see how the poor are marginalized by society, to work among them, to advocate on their behalf, and to help them advocate for themselves. It has nothing to do with seeing yourself as victim. It is, like all authentic Christian practices, “other-directed.”
It also sees the figure of Jesus Christ as the “liberator,” who frees people from bondage and slavery of all kinds. So, as he does in the Gospels, Christ not only frees people from sin and illness, Christ also desires to free our fellow human beings from the social structures that keep them impoverished. This is this kind of “liberation” that is held out. Liberation theologians meditate on Gospel stories that show Christ upending the social structures of the day, in order to bring more–uh oh–social justice into the world. Christians are also asked to make, as the saying goes, a “preferential option for the poor.”
It’s not hard to see what Beck has against “liberation theology.” It’s the same reason people are often against “social justice.” Both ideas ask us to consider the plight of the poor. And that’s disturbing. Some liberation theologians even consider the poor to be privileged carriers of God’s grace. In his book The True Church and the Poor, Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit theologian wrote, “The poor are accepted as constituting the primary recipients of the Good News and, therefore, as having an inherent capacity of understanding it better than anyone else.” That’s pretty threatening for any comfortable Christian. For not only do we have to help the poor, not only do we have to advocate on their behalf, we also have to see them as perhaps understanding God better than we do.
But that’s not a new idea: It goes back to Jesus. The poor, the sick and the outcast “got” him better than the wealthy did. Perhaps because there was less standing between the poor and God. Less stuff. Maybe that’s why Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, “If you wish to be perfect, sell all you have, and you will have treasure in heaven, and follow me.” Like I said, pretty disturbing, then and now. It’s hardly “the opposite of the Gospel,” as Beck said. The opposite of the Gospel would be to acquire wealth and fail to work on behalf of the poor.
In its heyday, liberation theology was not without controversy: some thought its emphasis on political advocacy skirted too close to Marxism–including Pope John Paul II. On the other hand, John Paul didn’t shy away from personally involving himself in direct political activism in Poland. It was the Latin American version of social action that seemed to bother him more. But even John Paul affirmed the notion of “preferential option for the poor.” “When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration,” he wrote, in his great encyclical Centesimus Annus, which celebrating 100 years of–uh oh–Catholic social teaching.
Liberation theology is easy to be against. For one thing, most people don’t have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about. It’s also easier to ignore the concerns of the poor, particularly overseas, than it is to actually get to know them as individuals who make a claim on us. There are also plenty of overheated websites that facilely link it to Marxism. My response to that last critique is to read the Gospels and count how many times Jesus tells us that we should help the poor and even be poor. In the Gospel of Matthew, he tells us that the ones who will enter the Kingdom of heaven are those who help “the least of my brothers and sisters,” i.e., the poor. After that, read the Acts of the Apostles, especially the part about the apostles “sharing everything in common.” Then let me know if helping the poor is communist or simply Christian.
I have no idea if President Obama espouses liberation theology. But I do. And for me it’s personal. Between 1992 and 1994, I worked with East African refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, and participated in Catholic parishes who tried to help poor parishioners (i.e., all of them) reflect on their daily struggles through lens of the Gospel. And the Gospel passages that spoke of liberation for the poor were a lifeline to me and to those with whom I worked. Oh, and it’s not only Jesus. His mother had something to say about all that, too. “He has filled the hungry with good things,” says Mary in the Gospel of Luke, “and sent the rich away empty.”
Liberation theology has also animated some of the great Christian witnesses of our time. Several of my brother Jesuits (and their companions), some of whom wrote and taught liberation theology, were assassinated at the University of Central America in 1989 by Salvadoran death squads, precisely for their work with the poor, as Jesus had encouraged them to do. Archbishop Oscar Romero, the redoubtable archbishop of San Salvador who was martyred in 1980 after standing for the marginalized, also heard the call of Christ the Liberator. So did the four courageous Catholic churchwomen who were martyred that same year for their work in El Salvador.
These are my heroes. These are the ones who truly “restore honor.”
It’s hard to ignore the fact that Jesus chose to be born poor; he worked as what many scholars now say was not simply a carpenter, but what could be called a day laborer; he spent his days and nights with the poor; he and his disciples lived with few if any possessions; he advocated tirelessly for the poor in a time when poverty was considered to be a curse; he consistently placed the poor in his parables over and above the rich; and he died an utterly poor man, with only a single seamless garment to his name. Jesus lived and died as a poor man. Why is this so hard for modern-day Christians to see? Liberation theology is not Marxism disguised as religion. It is Christianity presented in all its disturbing fullness.
Glenn Beck’s opposition to “social justice” and “liberation theology” is all the more difficult to understand because of his cloaking of himself in the mantle of devout believer. “Look to God and make your choice,” he said during his rally on Sunday.
If he looked at Jesus more carefully he would see someone who already made a choice: for the poor.