In recognition of the forthcoming beatification this Saturday of the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, the CTS has reissued Fr Ashley Beck’s booklet about him, first published in 2008. Revised and updated, the booklet highlights the main features of Romero’s life. He came from a poor family in El Salvador, a country marked by great disparity of wealth and the brutal oppression of those who attempted to challenge the system. A man known for his fervent prayer life and love for the Church, Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. At first thought of as a conservative priest, someone having cordial relations with the ruling class, Romero became increasingly involved in the plight of his country’s poor.
As Fr Beck writes, he came to see “that charitable giving is not enough to help the poor”; it had to be accompanied “by campaigning for justice”. When several of his priest friends were murdered by death squads, he wept at their funerals. His critics would argue that Romero crossed the delicate line between preaching the Gospel and becoming directly politicised. Today he is regarded in the line of great churchmen, calling the rich to account for their glaring sins against the Gospel.
In his pastoral letters, Romero preached against class warfare, violence and Marxist ideology. But he also supported legitimate trade unions in the country, causing alarm among his fellow bishops who chose not to question the establishment. For his increasingly selfless witness to his faith, Romero was gunned down during Mass at a hospital on 24 March 1980. He had almost predicted this end; during his last retreat he had confessed to fearing for his life: “It is not easy to accept a violent death which is very possible in these circumstances.”
I asked Fr Beck why there has been so much delay in the process of the beatification. He replies: “Romero had enemies in the Vatican when he was alive; they didn’t go away after he was killed.” He adds: “My own hunch is that Pope Benedict would probably have beatified him. Now Pope Francis, knowing what had been going on, was able to speed up the process.”
Why were Romero’s fellow bishops so hostile to him? Fr Beck thinks that “they seem to have taken the view that there should be a closer and more respectful relationship with the government and that priests who were killed – while condemning the killings – had to some extent brought it on themselves.” He comments: “Also, since Romero had been seen as a conservative prior to his appointment in 1977, they probably felt betrayed… His diaries show how difficult the relationship had become and how painful it was to him, since he had known these men for many years.”
Did Fr Beck think Romero had crossed the line into direct political engagement? “Not in my view,” he says. “For him campaigning for social justice and denouncing violence was part of the Church’s witness. His pastoral letters and homilies show how firmly his witness was grounded in a very strong ecclesiology. He was passionate about defending the Church’s integrity and independence.”
What has attracted Beck to the person of Romero? He tells me he was conscious that in 2008 nothing much had been published about him in this country, adding: “I was also attracted because in my role teaching men to be permanent deacons I cover Catholic social teaching and the theologies of liberation, which are linked to Romero’s life and teachings.”
I suggest that Pope Francis, the first Latin American Pope, might feel a personal affinity to Romero: they both shunned living in the grand houses that went with their office and constantly spoke up for the poor. Fr Beck agrees, adding: “It’s also true that in the earlier part of their ministries they both seem to have had reservations about some aspects of liberation theology.”
Fr Beck writes that Romero’s death is defined as true martyrdom, because the shooting was carried out in “odium fidei” (hatred of the faith). He was killed at the altar, while celebrating Mass, instead of, for instance, at home or in the street: a deliberate gesture intended to strike at the heart of the Church. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Romero’s episcopal motto was “Sentir con la iglesia” or “To feel with the Church”. It’s good that this humble, holy, steadfast and courageous man is finally receiving his due.
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