Long before his canonization, he was already being referred to as “San Romero” by people in Latin America. On Sunday, he was finally canonized, and might easily become one of the most popular, but also controversial, saints of our times, especially in Latin America and the Philippines.
I’m referring to Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed while saying Mass in a hospital chapel on March 24, 1980. Although no one was ever arrested for his murder, a United Nations-sponsored truth commission concluded, in 1993, that the assassination was carried out by a death squad under the orders of Roberto D’Aubuisson, a military man and, later, politician.
The archbishop was outspoken in defending the rights of the poor. For this, he was considered a communist by the military, by the country’s economic elite, and even by members of the Catholic hierarchy.
The road to his canonization was an uphill one, with many within the Catholic Church arguing he was killed not because of his faith, which would make him a martyr, but because of his politics.
There is much for us in the Philippines to learn from this new saint, his life and his times.
Like the Philippines, El Salvador suffered from a feudal system that dated back to the Spanish colonial period, with the Catholic Church itself a landowner and an institution that sided with the rich.
The archbishop was himself a staunch conservative through most of his life, even as El Salvador — as with the rest of Latin America and, across the Pacific, with the Philippines — went through political turbulence. By the 1970s, there were communist-led guerrilla movements throughout the region (and the Philippines).
The rulers responded ruthlessly with arrests, torture, assassinations. Amid all this unrest, Oscar Romero was appointed bishop of an impoverished rural diocese called Santiago de Maria, where he saw firsthand the miserable conditions of the peasants, as well as rampant violations of human rights. He began to speak out against the killings, thus incurring the wrath of the rich and powerful. One time, when he visited a local military commander to protest a massacre, the officer threatened him: “Cassocks are not bulletproof.”
Romero continued to be outspoken. Contrary to popular myths, he never subscribed to liberation theology, which had many followers in Latin America and the Philippines. The theology was labeled as leftist, if not Marxist, but he allowed liberation theology-oriented priests and nuns to continue to organize. One time, he listened to the lecture of a local priest who had been accused of being communist by landowners. Asked later about the priest, he replied: “If he’s a communist, I’m a Martian.”
So, late in life — he was in his 50s — Romero was going through a change of heart, even as the country’s violence escalated, culminating with a right-wing junta taking over the country in 1979, supported by the United States.
On the eve of his assassination, Archbishop Romero preached a homily calling on the military “to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. In the name of God, therefore, and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression.”
An estimated 250,000 people turned out for his funeral,
during which snipers — there are still debates as to who they were — fired and killed between 30 and 50 people.
Some 75,000 people were killed in the civil war that stretched from 1980 to 1992, when the United Nations was able to broker a peace agreement. The deaths included four American Catholic sisters who visited El Salvador in December 1980 as part of an
international humanitarian mission.
We’ve had our own long, dark nights of impunity in the Philippines — during martial law, and once again today. I wonder at times if perhaps El Salvador has seen more justice. The four Catholic sisters’ killers were convicted in 1984 and sentenced to 30 years in prison, and although no one was ever arrested for Archbishop Oscar Romero’s murder, El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, issued an official apology for the archbishop’s murder in 2010.
At the canonization on Sunday, Pope Francis wore the blood-stained rope belt that the archbishop was using when he was
assassinated in 1980. In 2015, during the beatification rites for “San Romero,” Pope Francis had declared that the archbishop was killed for his faith. This is, thus, an important milestone in the Catholic Church’s history, with the recognition that dying in defense of justice is to die for one’s faith.
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