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St Romero: the people of God knew him a saint long before the Church officially declared him one

The canonisation of murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was greatly contested within the Church. His model Christian life was a threat to his brother clerics who found his ways too radical and too challenging of their own lifestyles. They saw him as a very dangerous counterpoint. A man who was unafraid to challenge the unforgiving Salvadoran military forces. Many sought to have him silenced and removed. Ultimately he was killed for his Gospel convictions. Peter-John Pearson, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Cape Town, has long been inspired by this exemplary Christian who “has already been canonised in the hearts and the memories of the people of El Salvador and in many other places as well.”

Under a brilliantly warm Autumn sun, Pope Francis canonised the legendary El Salvadoran practitioner of justice. Archbishop Oscar Romero is an inspiration for people engaged in struggles for a better life around the world. The Pope, in a powerful symbol of his closeness and affection to his fellow Latin Americans, chose to wear the slain archbishop’s bloodstained cincture, the rope which the priest ties around his waist to secure his robes during the Mass.

Some commentators remembered the words of Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga when he visited Romero’s tomb, that the Church in El Salvador should resist attempts to canonise Romero because he has already been canonised in the hearts and the memories of the people of El Salvador and in many other places as well.

There is a deep truth in this observation. A simple survey of shirts and sweaters at the ceremonies bore witness to this. Romero Centres in Montreal Canada, Sydney Australia, Rockville USA; a street named after him in London and his statue in a niche above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey. All testify to the fact that Romero’s memory is alive around the world and that he didn’t need formal enrolment in the list of saints, to authenticate the value of his prophetic ministry. His memory and influence is palpable across the globe.

Others recalled that during Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit to El Salvador there were constant chants of Romero’s name indicating powerfully that he had not been forgotten and that his inspiration was still powerful. Indeed, he did not need to be canonised for his practices to bear fruit. That was happening anyway.

Yet in formally canonising him the Pope made one very powerful statement that “working for justice is indeed a constituent dimension of preaching the Gospel.” Therefore any attempt to sideline such action is an undermining of the Church’s fundamental mission. These words were in fact penned by one of the others canonised at the same ceremony, Pope Paul VI.

Romero’s commitment to justice, his uncompromising option for the poor, his courage in seeking to align his pastoral practices with Gospel imperatives and his strategic interventions on behalf of the most marginalised, say categorically that this is a powerful and highly acceptable way to holiness. An essential mark and witness for and in the Church.

Cardinal Chávez who was Romero’s auxiliary bishop and his staunch ally reminded a group at a public seminar the night before the canonisation that Romero was despised by other bishops in the El Salvadoran church. All decisions at the Episcopal Conference were divided, with him and Romero voting one way and the others voting in sharp contrast. Towards the end of his life the bishops were actively seeking to have him removed from office.

Yet with singular courage Romero, though saddened by this reality but undaunted, continued to forcefully speak truth to power, to name oppressive structures and to challenge the security apparatus to desist from killing their compatriots.

In one of his last sermons he reminded soldiers that no soldier is obliged to act contrary to the laws of God. No soldier is obliged to kill. He commanded them to “stop the repression!”

With his canonisation, those who continue such struggles can, more or less officially, be said to be following a saintly path, building on a solid theological foundation and strategically crafting a sanctioned dialogical praxis for peace.

In a world where formal politics seems to be lurching to the right and a discourse of exclusion seems to hold sway, Romero’s canonisation rekindles a passion for justice and a commitment to build the agency of those on the peripheries.

In many parts of the world we see the exclusion of people from the benefits of the economy, the heartlessness and xenophobic attitudes of the comfortable to the plight of refugees and strangers together with the seduction of populism. These indicate that the work of building the agency of the excluded and strengthening the resistance of the oppressed is a political task that remains largely incomplete. Indeed the call to challenge repressive regimes and oppressive polities is still a prophetic part of the Church’s ministry. Romero reminds the Church of this uncomfortable calling!

In the broader context of the public domain, Romero, the martyr for justice, is instructive. He understood that the transformation of unjust structures was not a quick skirmish but a long-term battle. Those who wished to be architects of change had to be in it for the long haul and had to be clear that there was a cost to such commitment.

He understood that they also had to be open to change within themselves so that they could be authentic witnesses to what they preached. Later Nelson Mandela would paraphrase words of Gandhi and speak “of being the change you want to see.” Romero practised this despite hurtful opposition not only from the elites but from within the Church.

In an address to pilgrims from El Salvador some months ago, Pope Francis recalled the calumny and character assassination that Romero faced but his commitment to the people urged him to hold his course.

Our times marked by expediency, populism and demagoguery in public life needs the example of Romero not only for his long-term commitment but also for his careful, informed and multidisciplinary analysis. Without a thorough structural analysis, he understood that we would never be able to make the structural changes which are necessary for liberating those caught up in situations of injustice.

We also run the risk of using pious platitudes to cover ongoing oppression. It brings to mind the expression of St Augustine that “charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

It is well documented that he regularly met with a variety of people, took advice from a cross-section of society so as to be better informed and thus able to strategise appropriately and responsibly.

Part of the sickness of clericalism which Pope Francis regularly decries and to which he alluded in his sermon at the canonisation, is indeed the inability of leaders to listen to others, to dialogue with different disciplines and to discern together life-giving options for society. It is the opposite of elitist decision making.

We are all responsible, like Romero for creating public spaces where clarification of ideas, sharing of insights and cultural wisdom can open new insights for our political and spiritual imaginations.

Pope Francis acknowledged the formative role of popular religion in strengthening the witness of the Church. Romero proves that in a postmodern culture there is in fact a place for a humble religion to take its place in the formation of conscience and in crafting a more just structuring of our world.

Many times over the past few days at the multiple events in Rome we heard the prophetic words of Romero repeated: “If I am killed a bishop will die, but the church of God which is the people will never die. If I am killed I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

It is true to say that what Romero could not have foreseen but what history has shown, is that his brutal death is the inspiration for the rising of many in the cause of justice, not just amongst the Salvadorean people but across the world. The canonisation in Rome confirms this rising as a powerful work of God.

Fr Peter-John Pearson speaks of the importance of Saint Romero for the Church, canonised at a Mass in St Peter’s Square on 14 Oct. 2018

* 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.