Martyred archbishop remembered - Catholic Courier

Martyred archbishop remembered

Ten years ago this week I did a column on what was then the 16th anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. This week’s column is a much-modified reprise of that earlier essay.

Unlike St. Joseph, husband of Mary and patron of the universal church, whose feast the church just celebrated Monday, March 20 (having been transferred this year from Sunday the 19th), Oscar Romero did not live a hidden life, nor did he die in obscurity. He was publicly gunned down on March 24, 1980 — assassinated by a member of a right-wing death squad while he was celebrating Mass in the chapel of San Salvador’s Hospital of Divine Providence.

But Oscar Romero and St. Joseph had much else in common. Both were men of justice. Indeed, of the few references to Joseph in the New Testament, his being called “a just man” (Matthew 1:19; Mark 6:20; Luke 23:50) has been perhaps the most durable element of his legend for centuries.

Joseph defended Mary’s honor at risk to his own; Romero denounced the oppression of the poor by military and political forces, and lost his life by doing so.

It is also a fact of history that neither was ever formally canonized. In Joseph’s case, formal papal canonizations did not begin until the end of the 10th century and continued only sporadically until formalized in the 16th.
During the church’s entire first millennium, saints were simply proclaimed by the people. And the very first category of popularly proclaimed saints were the martyrs. Today’s widespread belief in the sainthood of Oscar Arnulfo Romero, without benefit of formal canonization, is in keeping with one of the oldest traditions of the church.

The visit of Pope John Paul II to El Salvador and to the tomb of the late archbishop in early 1996 served not only as a reminder of the significant pastoral role that Archbishop Romero played in the church of Latin America, but also of the tensions that have often existed between the church and the political, economic and military institutions of society.

There is an outspoken minority of Catholics who insist that the two spheres should never overlap. The church’s mission, they say, is purely spiritual: administering the sacraments, preaching and teaching the faith, ministering to the sick and the dying. In this view, the church has no role to play in society except to remind its members that there is a life beyond this one and that they must prepare their souls for it.

For such Catholics, Archbishop Romero was no hero and certainly no martyr. He had meddled in affairs that were none of his or the church’s business. He had “politicized the Gospel” and thereby exposed himself to violent reprisal. Like rape victims (according to this distorted line of thinking), the archbishop had somehow brought his murder upon himself.

Even some of his fellow bishops had denounced him, and he was, of course, hated by the military. But he was also distrusted by the Vatican, thanks in part to the negative assessment of him by a powerful Latin American cardinal working there.

Archbishop Romero’s weekly sermons, broadcast throughout the country, called attention to the growing list of violations of human rights by the government. “A church that does not unite itself to the poor in order to denounce from the place of the poor the injustice committed against them is not truly the church of Jesus Christ,” he declared.

On March 23, 1980, the day before his assassination, Archbishop Romero appealed directly to members of the military, urging them to disobey their illegal and immoral orders: “In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries reach up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression.”

Two weeks before his martyrdom, Archbishop Romero informed an interviewer of death threats he received. “If they kill me,” he said, “I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.” An individual bishop may die, he pointed out, “but the church of God — the people — will never die.”

At an ecumenical prayer service honoring the martyrs of the 20th century, held in the Roman Colosseum on May 7, 2000, Archbishop Romero was the only person named in the prayer for the martyrs of the Americas. The prayer honored “zealous pastors like the unforgettable Oscar Romero, killed at the altar while celebrating the eucharistic sacrifice.”

Archbishop Romero has not yet been canonized a saint, but he already fulfills the purpose for which heroically virtuous people are raised to sainthood: He is a model of Christian holiness and its linkage with the pursuit of justice.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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