When Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while presiding at the Eucharist, he became, courtesy the vox populi, a saint of the people. It wasn’t complicated. He was a saint by acclamation, the rules and regulations of Rome’s sainting process were secondary.
El Salvador had its martyr-bishop.
Still, it matters that the official authorities proceed with the cause for sainthood of the man already boldly and proudly declared as St. Oscar of the Americas. The penultimate stage of that sainting process, to be beatified, will be Saturday, May 23, in the Plaza Divino Salvador de Mundo, San Salvador.
So why the gap: slain for the faith in 1980 and beatified in 2015?
In a time when the sainting process has been regularly expedited—Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata and St. John Paul II—and when controversial candidates have been persistently and vigorously advanced—St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (founder of Opus Dei) and St. Edith Stein (the philosopher Carmelite murdered by the Nazis for being a Jew)—it has been a sore point for the advocates of Romero’s cause that decades have elapsed between his martyrdom and his beatification.
They have reason to be vexed if not scandalized.
Romero’s reputation has been held hostage twice by politics: state and church variety. His death was assured when he forthrightly and publicly denounced the military and political powers of his strife-scarred country: the human rights abuses were well chronicled, the murders continued unabated, El Slavador despaired. Romero’s simple eloquence, uncommon bravery, and deep compassion sealed his fate.
Bishop-martyrs are not a frequent occurrence but when they happen being “raised to the altars” or being canonized is a sure thing. Think St. Thomas Becket or St. Stanislaus of Krakow.
But not for Oscar.
Papal discomfiture with Romero’s political sympathies, alarm that he leaned too strongly in the direction of the Liberation theologians, suspicion of his motives for political intervention, combined to stall or shelve the cause.
Under John Paul II and with the Future Benedict XVI serving as the premier theological guardian of the Roman Church, two documents critical of Liberation Theology were issued by the Vatican, the first unabashedly negative in its judgement and the second more nuanced and prudential.
But the intention was clear: a liberationist critique of political structures that deployed Marxist categories of discourse and analysis were subject to severe ecclesiastical scrutiny if not censure.
Romero was tainted with the liberationist brush: he kept company with, and was profoundly influenced by, Jesuit scholars and activists unashamed of their liberationist credentials; he was converted to a more active leadership on human rights by the savage murder of his friend and advisor, Rutilio Grande, SJ, with Grande’s death diverting him from the “diplomatic” route of neutrality and generic denunciations.
While the conservative Salvadoran hierarchy and a deeply cautious Vatican foreign policy recommended non-confrontation, a galvanized Romero named the agencies of death and oppression in his country.
And these very agencies—political and military—silenced him.
Yet, Rome’s dilatory response to the universal clamouring for his canonization, santo subito, remains puzzling and frustrating. After all, when the provocative Polish/Solidarity priest Jerzy Popiełuszko was assassinated in 1984, he was beatified as a martyr in 2010 without a fraction of the behind the scenes political squabbling that attended the Romero case.
Pope Francis, the Latin American pontiff, who knows only too intimately the costs of discipleship in a blood-soaked continent, is less timid when it comes to the political spectrum and he publicly values the insights of liberation theology.
And so Romero moves upward along the ladder of sanctity. Francis is setting the record straight. But Francis knows that he has been at the top of the ladder the day he shed his blood for the people of El Salvador.
It is that simple, all politics aside.