The Case Against Canonization of Oscar Romero
Steve Clemens. March 2005
Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, was assassinated on March 24, 1980 while celebrating the Eucharist at the Divina Providencia Chapel, part of a hospital complex run by the Carmelites for cancer patients in the capitol city. Romero, who had been named Archbishop only three years previously, resided in a very modest three-room house a block from the chapel. Due to increased threats on his life, he moved into a small room of the chapel so as to not be so close to a nearby roadway. Romero had previously resided in that small room before the nuns insisted that they build the small house for him. A quiet, scholarly priest and bishop before being thrust into his prominent position within the church hierarchy, Romero was considered a “safe” choice for Archbishop. It was not likely that he’d rock the boat or disturb the status quo.
Romero took seriously his new role as “shepherd” for his people. He practiced an open door policy and regularly, if not daily, invited in those who came to meet with him. He daily visited some of the cancer patients in the hospital across the street before his breakfast. In this role as pastor, he grew in his love and concern for the people of the small nation, especially the rural poor who were increasingly under economic and military pressure. When Romero’s close friend, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest, was assassinated while en route to say mass at a small town in the countryside, Romero came to realize that he could not remain silent in face of the repression and grinding poverty of his people.
In the following months, as more campesinos, priests, nuns, teachers, and union organizers were targeted by the death squads and the military, Romero grew increasingly vocal, denouncing the violence and repression, even publicly criticizing the President several times. His Pastoral Letters were clear in their opposition to the oppression. Wherever he went throughout the country, crowds of the poor would greet him with applause. Romero used the radio station to send out messages, including his Sunday homilies. His courage inspired many others to take a stand for justice and that, in turn, inspired Romero. Throughout it all, Romero remained steadfast in his commitment to nonviolence.
His commitment to justice was clear: he stopped all construction on the cathedral in San Salvador, refusing to spend the church’s money on it until “peace and justice were established.” He welcomed displaced, hungry, and homeless, the victims of violence to the grounds of the seminary in the capitol city. Romero said what “all Christians must do is to be converted to the preferential option for the poor.” Although the church must side with the poor, his call to conversion was directed to both the rich and the poor. As he continued to speak in stronger terms against the injustice he witnessed, he also went with families who searched the garbage dumps for the bodies of their loved ones. His defense of the poor didn’t stop at national boundaries; he wrote a letter to President Carter asking him not to send any military aid to the government of El Salvador.
The day before his assassination, Romero made a direct appeal to members of the military and the police to refuse to kill “your own campesino brothers and sisters”. He ordered them in the name of God: “Stop the repression!” While celebrating mass on March 24, 1980, Romero read from John’s gospel about a grain of wheat – when it falls to the earth and dies, it bears much fruit. He talked about giving oneself out of love for Christ in the service to others. As he blessed the elements of the Eucharist, Romero prayed that Jesus’ sacrifice would nourish us so that we too could “give our body and blood to suffering and pain … to bring about justice and peace for our people.” As he prayed, he was shot in the heart and fell behind the altar, at the foot of a large crucifix. At his funeral, government troops fired into the massive crowd, killing and injuring hundreds so his body was buried with haste in the dirt of the unfinished Cathedral basement.
Two weeks before his martyrdom, Romero spoke to a reporter from Guatemala. He told of the death threats and said if he was killed, he pardoned those who would do it. He wanted his blood to serve as a seed for freedom and a sign of hope for a new reality. “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.” It is evident today that this has come true: Monsenor Romero remains an inspiration to the campesinos not only of El Salvador but throughout Latin America. He already is seen as a saint – his canonization has come directly from the people, no church hierarchy has been able to stifle or thwart the love of the people for this servant of God. Yes, the institutional church and its hierarchy have tried to put a damper on the radical call for love and justice of this Archbishop. If he is canonized by the church, the inevitable questions will arise: Who killed him? And why was he killed? To answer those questions will necessarily expose the complicity of the church in the continuing oppression of the poor. Much of the present day hierarchy of the church in El Salvador is comprised of Opus Dei members, a conservative, secretive order which has often sided with the rich and powerful. One bishop has ordered that Romero’s name not be uttered within the Department (State) of San Vicente.
For a church which remains complicit with the evil which killed Romero to name him a saint would be as ironic as the Reagan Administration’s signing into law a day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The church needs to once again reaffirm its “preferential option for the poor” and embody that commitment within its own leadership in Latin America and around the world before it can proceed with the canonization of Oscar Romero with any credibility. Until then, he will remain a Saint of the People. Thanks be to God for this, God’s Servant to the Poor and Prophet of Justice, Saint Oscar Romero.