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Romero — a saint by acclamation

2010 March 19
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by Paul Vallely

Heroic virtue is the term once used to describe the qualities that someone needed to be made a saint. It’s difficult not to see that in the person of Oscar Romero who was martyred 30 years ago on Wednesday and whose life, work and death are being celebrated across the globe. But there’s a bit of an irony to the fact that the week of services to mark the anniversary will begin in York Minster and Westminster Abbey. Roman Catholic prelates will be present, and there will be a service on Tuesday in Westminster Cathedral. But the Church of England is in the vanguard, much as it was two years ago when it placed a statue of Romero above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey.

Romero was long ago made a saint by acclamation in his native El Salvador where he is routinely known as San Romero. But the hierarchy in Rome has notably dragged its feet in the beatification process. There Romero is not even venerabile.

We all know why. Romero is an emblematic figure to those in Latin America who hold to the core truth that the gospel should transform the world as well as the soul. Its liberation should be social and political, not just spiritual. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog he was the most vehement opponent of the theology of liberation.

Romero is a particularly potent figure because he was not a left-wing Marxist firebrand but a deeply conservative prelate, extremely cautious of change and “political involvement”. But he underwent a Pauline transformation just days after his appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador as he gazed upon the murdered body of his Jesuit friend, Rutilio Grande. “As he stood gazing at the mortal remains,” another Jesuit, Jon Sobrino, has been quoted as saying, “I think that, the scales fell from his eyes.”

These were the days when there were slogans in the street saying: “Be a Patriot, Kill a Priest”. At a time of coups, military governments, persecution, death squads and massacres the chief force of resistance to injustice was the grassroots Church. Romero could have become frozen by fear or by ecclesiastical prudence. Instead he suddenly saw that he must be move to help the frightened and dispossessed. Phrases like “land reform is a theological necessity” entered his homiletic vocabulary.

He was under no illusions what this meant. Indeed very early on he had said: “It would be sad if, in a country where people are being killed so horrifyingly, there weren’t also priests amongst the victims.”

The archbishop,  who had begun life as a carpenter, had a public ministry of just three years. Just a few days before he was murdered, he said: “My life has been threatened many times. I have to confess that as a Christian, I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadorean people.”

The day before he died, in his last sermon in his cathedral, he had addressed the army, police and National Guard. He concluded: “When you are faced with a man’s order to kill, God’s law must prevail… No soldier has to obey an order that goes against God’s law. It is time now for you to redeem your conscience… I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

Next day he lifted the chalice during an evening Mass in the hospital chapel where he lived and uttered the offertory prayer: “Whoever offers their life out of love for Christ, and in service to others, will live like the seed that dies. May this body and blood, sacrificed for all, nourish us so that we may offer our body and blood as Christ did…” As he spoke he was shot through the heart. Heroic virtue. You wonder what is taking Rome so long.

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