Archbishop Romero’s Canonisation: A nod to all activists


On Saturday 19 May the Vatican announced that San Salvadorean archbishop, Óscar Romero would be canonised. Romero is already considered to be a saint in his homeland. His canonisation was stalled under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Not long after his election Pope Francis opened the door for Romero to be beatified and, therefore, canonised. Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu says that Romero’s canonisation is a great bow towards many activists and people from every corner of the world today who risk their lives standing-up for the poor, marginalised and abused.

On the 24 March 1980 a 62-year-old archbishop of San Salvador, Archbishop Óscar Romero, was assassinated while he celebrated mass in a small chapel at the Divine Providence Hospital.  He was standing at the altar during the time of the preparation of the altar just before the offertory when a vehicle stopped outside the door of the chapel, right at the bottom of the church aisle.  The assassin stepped out of the vehicle and aimed his gun at the archbishop and fired at him and sped off.

When Jesuit Fr Rutilio Grande, a priest that Romero knew and was fond of was killed, the deplorable state of El Salvador – especially the government – became an issue which Romero could no longer ignore. He criticised the right-wing military-led government for its reining in on suspected guerrillas and leftist opponents. He blamed the government for killing, arresting and kidnapping priests, ‘campesinos’ and activists for organising peasants and supporting workers’ rights. His homilies were about human rights and the urgency of the plight of the poor.  The day before his assassination Romero preached a radio homily in which he addressed the soldiers:

“In the name of this suffering people, whose cries to heaven become more deafening each day, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”

Many people across the world revered him and consider him to be a saint.  He is also venerated in the Anglican Communion and in Lutheranism.  His formal cause for beatification and canonisation in the Catholic Church began in 1993.  On the surface it seemed like a very clear case which would have no hurdles.  This was, however, not how things happened.

Romero’s cause for sainthood stalled under the papacy of John Paul II and Benedict the XVI.  The primary reasons for this was because there were concerns about whether or not Romero was a martyr for the faith or if his case was a political killing. The Church has always held that a martyr is a person who is killed out of an odium fidei, a hatred of the faith.  The murderer kills because of his or her own hatred of the faith. Or viewed differently, a person is killed for their Christian beliefs.   The head of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints at that time, Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, noted, in a news conference on the Church’s new sainthood procedures, that there was a question about the motive for the archbishop’s assassin. He added: “There can be political, social motives. If the motive is not clear it must be studied in depth.”[1]

The second reason that led the cause to be paralysed was that there was an unease – especially on the part of Pope John Paul II – about the writings and homilies of Romero.  His homilies and writings seemed to be heavily influenced by liberation theology.  Liberation theology was the life supply of Christian theologians in Latin America. The entire theology is about social justice and grows out of the social teaching of the Church, specifically on the preferential option for the poor.  Liberation theology has always been contentious in the Church because of how it is often viewed as being influenced by Marxism.  It is precisely this “Marxist analysis” which led to the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), to issue a document titled Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” in 1984. In that document Ratzinger comments that:

“In certain parts of Latin America, the seizure of the vast majority of the wealth by an oligarchy of owners bereft of social consciousness, the practical absence or the shortcomings of a rule of law, military dictators making a mockery of elementary human rights, the corruption of certain powerful officials, the savage practices of some foreign capital interests constitute factors which nourish a passion for revolt among those who thus consider themselves the powerless victims of a new colonialism in the technological, financial, monetary, or economic order. The recognition of injustice is accompanied by a pathos which borrows its language from Marxism, wrongly presented as though it were scientific language.”[2]

The truth of the matter is that there was a fear of liberation theology because its language and praxis was perceived to be too close to Marxism. The Church, especially in Europe had (and still has), a fear of communism because of its own encounter with the communism in the Eastern Block. For this reason anything that seemed to sound or resemble Marxism and communism would be viewed with great trepidation.  As a result, Romero’s cause was destined to run into problems.  In beatifying and canonising Romero the Church feared that it might be granting indirect recognition (validation) to liberation theology or even the methods which were viewed to be left-wing amongst activists and clergy in Latin America

Although there was talk of unblocking the cause of Romero during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it took a pope from Latin America to unblock Romero’s cause.  Archbishop Paglia, who has been the postulator of Archbishop Romero’s cause for years, made the announcement that Romero’s caused had been unblocked in a homily on the 20 April 2013 – just hours after meeting Pope Francis.  It is interesting to note that Francis’s pontificate began 13 March of that same year.  It is clear that this was a priority for Pope Francis. Pope Francis brought to the cause of Archbishop Romero a very important facet – personal experience.  Having lived through the turbulence that saw many murdered in Latin America, and knowing the urgency that was needed in being witnesses and activists on the ground, he knew that this was not just a theological exercise. For Francis, and indeed Latin Americans, Romero did not die due to political differences. He died for witnessing to the values of Jesus Christ, for preaching clearly and making incarnate the precepts of the kingdom of God.  He stood on the side of the poor. It was his faith that informed his activism; therefore it was for his faith that he was assassinated.

After going through the necessary processes the panel of theological advisors (in January 2015) of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints unanimously agreed that Romero should be declared a martyr. The voting members of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints also agreed that Romero should be declared a martyr.  In February 2015 Pope Francis received Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in a private audience. He authorised the Cardinal to promulgate Archbishop Romero’s decree of martyrdom.  When martyrdom is declared there is no miracle required for beatification. Romero was consequently beatified on the 23 May 2015 in San Salvador.

The miracle that was required for his canonisation came from a pregnant woman: Cecilia Maribel Flores. She was in the seventh month of her pregnancy and according to the clinical data she was expected to die together with the baby. She inexplicably recovered owing to what she calls a favour granted after she had prayed for the intercession of Archbishop Romero.  A diocesan process in San Salvador that was opened on 31 January 2017 and it concluded on 28 February 2017.  The documentation was submitted to Rome. Medical experts and theologians unanimously approved the miracle.  On the 6 February 2018 the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints approved the case.   Pope Francis approved this miracle on 6 March 2018 and authorised that Romero be canonised.

For the world this canonisation means that the Church sees, knows and cares.  The canonisation of Archbishop Romero is not just about the selflessness of one man in Latin America. It is an acknowledgement of the shared pain of a nation.  It is recognition of the many thousands of people who were tortured and assassinated before and after the assassination of Romero.

This canonisation affirms what many already know but long to hear – that no virtuous acts done, no life lived, is ever in vain.  Above all this canonisation is a great bow towards many activists and people from every corner of the world who gave their lives, who lost their lives, fighting for the attainment of a just society – the attainment of the kingdom of God. This canonisation is that much needed spring under the feet of those who are currently dwarfed by pain, warfare and a complete disregard of their human rights.  It is just what they need to walk a little taller. SA.

[1] Catholic News Agency

[2] Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” #12

Image: Óscar Romero (Felton Davis/Flickr)

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.
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Archbishop Romero’s Canonisation: A nod to all activists


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