In the last posting, I began the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero who it is rumored that the Pope will canonize during his trip to the Americas in September. This would involve skipping the step of beatifying Romero, a step which is in the papal prerogative but which is highly unusual.
Romero’s conversion to a more radical outlook on the Church’s mission to the poor after the murder of his friend, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, was not simply a personal shift: it shifted the Church in El Salvador from being a buttress to the oligarchy and the old moneyed families to supporting the cause of the peasants. This shift happened in 1977 and indeed in 1979 the government of General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena was overthrown by a military junta determined to uphold the political power of the old families but, at the same time, initiate some degree of land reform. Romero saw through the charade of the new government, however, and realized that far more drastic reform would be needed if civil war and possible Marxist takeover of the government was to be avoided. Romero wrote President Jimmy Carter in February of 1980 to inform him that military aid to the junta would only “sharpen the injustice and political repression inflicted on the organized people whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights.” President Carter, afraid that El Salvador would go the way of neighboring Nicaragua and end up with a socialist government, continued American military aid to the junta. It was one of the few moral failures of Jimmy Carter.
The same month he wrote President Carter, Archbishop Romero was invited to the University of Louvain in Belgium, a noted international Catholic theology faculty, to receive an honorary doctorate and he went to Europe in February 1980 to receive the degree. While in Europe, he also had an audience with Pope John Paul II. The audience did not go well. The Pope, new in his papacy but already forming a plan to bring down Marxism, was not happy with Romero’s social activism which he feared might politically radicalize Latin America at the very time John Paul was trying to deliver a deathblow to Marxism in Europe. Romero, for his part, insisted that he could not support the government of the Junta because of its programs of state-sponsored assassination and terror. Less than a month after his unhappy meeting with the Pope, Romero was dead.
Roberto D’Aubuisson, a major in the Salvadoran Army who had been trained in the “School of the Americas”—a United States Department of Defense Institution located at Fort Benning, Georgia and which gained infamy for many of its alumni who used terror, violence, torture, and murder against their political adversaries throughout Latin America—organized right-wing death squads in his effort to overthrow the ruling Junta in El Salvador and institute an extreme right-wing dictatorship in the country. It was just at this time, the winter of 1980, that D’Aubuisson’s movement was gaining in power. Catholic clergy, nuns, and lay catechists, because of their identification with the poor, were a specific target of the death squads.
On March 23rd 1980, two weeks before Easter, Archbishop Romero gave a sermon which immediately gained international attention because he called on the soldiers of the Salvadoran army to disobey the orders of their military superiors when those orders violated basic human rights. This was a direct challenge to the military and give the piety of many ordinary soldiers threatened the government’s control. The following afternoon as Romero celebrated Mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital run by Carmelite Sisters and at which he lived, he was shot through the heart by a sniper through the chapel doorway as he lifted the chalice at the consecration of the Mass.
But the drama—and the terror—were not over.
On March 30, over 250,000 people gathered in the plaza outside the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador for Archbishop Romero’s funeral Mass. In some ways it was an awkward assembly. The Archbishop of Mexico City, Cardinal Corripio y Ahumada, was the legate of Pope John Paul II and celebrated the Mass. It was not an easy tightrope to walk. John Paul had not been happy with Romero’s radical stance and it is rumored had even signed the letter removing Romero from the Archbishopric of San Salvador the very morning Romero was murdered. Yet not only the quarter million Salvadoran peasants but the several hundred cardinals, bishops, and priests who came from Ireland, England, Spain, Belgium, Nicaragua, Peru, Canada, the United States, Venezuela, Brazil and other nations held the Archbishop as a hero. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, had been informed of Romero’s murder just prior to his enthronement in the ancient Cathedral of Thomas à Becket, and had halted the ceremony to decry the murder. Pope John Paul, on the other hand, was—and remained until his death—opposed to the sort of liberation to which Romero had been converted by the death of Rutilio Grande. As the funeral progressed and Cardinal Corripio heaped the perfunctory praises on the murdered Archbishop, a bomb suddenly went off in the crowd. Then a second bomb. Suddenly snipers appeared on the roofs surrounding the square and began shooting at the worshippers. The scene turned to bedlam and people ran for shelter from the bullets. Prelates were hurried inside the cathedral and the coffin containing Romero’s remains was hastily interred in the crypt. Somewhere between 30 and 50 died in the melee. While no official blame has ever been assigned for the atrocity, it is generally agreed that the snipers were army troops in civilian dress. Indeed, the whole events surrounding the assassination and the murders at the funeral were suppressed from investigation for decades with neither the Holy See, nor the United States, nor the Salvadoran government pressing for a full and open investigation. It was only decades later that witnesses definitively linked D’Aubuisson to the murder of the Archbishop. Roberto D’Aubuisson was not the sniper but he was the one who gave the orders.
In El Salvador Archbishop Romero has been considered a saint from the day of his martyrdom. Pope John Paul (somewhat reluctantly) approved the introduction of Romero’s “cause” (case for sainthood) but it went nowhere during the remainder of his pontificate. Yet various prelates from the Americas have slowly insisted on its continuance and it has cleared the doctrinal panels who have examined the Archbishop’s writings and sermons for orthodoxy.
While the normal process of canonization involves a long investigation that includes the certification of miracles performed through the intercession of the posited saint, there is and has always been an alternative route whereby the Pope recognizes, in the name of the Church, the “cult” or devotion offered to a particular person who has long been venerated in a local Church (diocese or region) as a “saint.” Marko Krizin, Melchior Grodziecki, and Hildegard of Bingen were so canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. Actually the list of such extra-canonically “raised to the altars” is quite impressive: Albert the Great, Good King Wenceslaus, Margaret of Scotland, Stephen of Hungary, Boniface, Cyril and Methodius, Peter Damian, Peter Faber and Angela of Foligno among others.
Nevertheless, despite the somewhat illustrious company in which this would put Archbishop Romero, it would considerably anger many right-wing American Catholics who identify Archbishop Romero with the liberation theology of which they have a peculiar paranoia. Perhaps more threatening to them, however, is that such a canonization would indisputably mark a realignment of the Church with the world’s poor that would make it far more difficult to reconcile the vision of American foreign policy with the Church’s geo-political stand. As popular as Pope Francis is among most American Catholics, there is a deep fear of him spreading on the American right. His intention to write an encyclical on our responsibility toward the planet and his open acknowledgement of climate change has been a red flag to conservatives from John Boehner and Paul Ryan to economist Steve Ryan of the Heritage Foundation. His brokering a change in American foreign policy towards Cuba has sent right wing-nuts from Senator Marco Rubio to Paul Kengor of The American Spectator over the edge. Maureen Mullarkey (how aptly named) of First Things, called Pope Francis “an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist” who “sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.” And as for American political gadfly Rick Santorum—he has always considered himself more Catholic than the Pope; now he says he has the proof. What could be really interesting is what the Pope says when he fulfills Speaker Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session of Congress. (My bet is that the invitation will be rescinded under the pretext of the first amendment.) The last thing the right-wing wants is to let a plain-spoken man with Francis’ views get that kind of audience. Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi will march up the communion aisle with confidence while John Boehner and Paul Ryan will fear refusal, or as Saint Luke put it: the mighty will be cast down and the lowly will be raised up. And if that isn’t a sign of the end times, I don’t know what is.
Post script: Commenting on Maureen Mullarkey’s blog, Katholik Krazy blog Rorate Caeli proclaimed: “Well... when you've lost First Things, you've lost mainstream American Catholicism.” First Things, mainstream American Catholicism???? What parallel universe are they living in???