Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What May Be Francis' Most Dramatic Break With Tradition

Rumors are flying around that when Pope Francis comes to the United States in October he will continue on to El Salvador where he will canonize Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered by  an assassin from the American backed Salvadoran military in 1980.  The interesting aspects of this canonization is that Romero has not yet been beatified—the normal preliminary step to sainthood—and there as yet no approved miracles to testify to his sainthood. 
Romero was born on August 15, 1917 to carpenter Santos Romero and his wife, Guadalupe de Jésus Galdámez in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador.  He was one of 8 children. The family does not seem to have particularly devout as the child was not baptized for 20 months after his birth, yet Oscar himself was drawn to the churches in town even as a very young child.   There were only three years of formal schooling available to him but he was tutored by a local teacher and at age 13 went off to a high-school seminary.  His father, a practical man, had wanted him to be a carpenter and the boy showed promise in that trade, but wanted to be a priest.  His intelligence was noticed in the seminary and he was eventually sent to Rome for theological studies and he was ordained in Rome on April 4, 1942.  World War II was raging at the time and on his way back to El Salvador, Father Romero and his companion, Father Valladares were imprisoned in Cuba as they were coming from Italy, then an Axis power.   He was soon repatriated and took up pastoral work in his native region in eastern El Salvador. 
Romero was by nature a conservative and a pious man.  He did what for the time and place were some innovative things such as establish Alcoholics Anonymous groups, but by and large he was given to supporting the traditional devotions and pieties of the Salvadoran peasants. 
El Salvador had from the time of its independence from Spain been controlled by an oligarchy sometimes called “The Fourteen Families.”  (There were, in fact, more families than fourteen, though they were all inter-related through marriages and had common interest.)  These were the great landowners of Spanish blood.  Their children were sent to Cuba or Mexico or even to Spain and other European countries for education.  They lived on large estates farmed by peasants of Native American or mixed blood.  After independence their cash crop was indigo from which an expensive blue dye is produced, but by the latter part of the nineteenth century the economy had switched to coffee production.  90% of the land was owned by this small number of wealthy families.  The Constitution was written to give these families a majority of seats in the national assembly and they—or their client families—held the officer positions in the military.  The military controlled the government by a series of dictatorships from 1931 until 1979.  A 1932 peasant rebellion led by Farabundo Martí was brutally suppressed with the murder of over 40,000 Salvadoran peasants.  In 1979 the government of General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena was overthrown by a conservative but reformist military junta that realized unless there was some economic and land reform the situation in El Salvador would be untenable and the country would be vulnerable to an extreme left-wing (read Marxist) power-grab.  The American government under President Carter, and later President Reagan, supported to the Junta, while Cuba and more left-wing governments supported the FLMN  (Farabundo Martí Liberation National Front) rebels.  This led to a violent civil war.  In an attempt to suppress the rebels the Salvadoran Army, under command of the Junta, was often responsible for indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, most notably the El Mozote Massacre in 1981. 
The teachings of the Catholic Church regarding a just social order—teachings rooted in the Encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius XI, John XXIII, Paul VI and the decrees of the Second Vatican Council—were a powerful stimulus for the poor of El Salvador to seek social change and this left priests, nuns, and lay catechists vulnerable to attack by Junta forces who saw the work of the Church as supporting a more radical social change than they were prepared to make. 
Meanwhile in 1970 Romero had been named auxiliary to Archbishop Luis Chávez of San Salvador and four years later given his own diocese of Santiago de Mariá, a poor rural diocese.  In 1977 Paul VI named Romero to be Archbishop of San Salvador in succession to Archbishop Chávez who reached the mandatory retirement age of 75.
Romero was, as I said, a pious priest of a more conservative bent.  He was certainly no political activist.  But like many holy people, he did not limit himself to those with whom he agreed but had friends across the political and theological spectrum.  Among his closest friends was the Jesuit Rutilio Grande.  Grande worked among the peasants, catechizing them and raising their consciousness to understand that the sort of social dysfunction where wealth in concentrated in the hands of a few while others lack necessities is contrary to the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.  Rutilio Grande had huge influence among the peasantry and his message became a threat to the existing social order.  In a famous homily he declared
I am fully aware that very soon the Bible and the Gospels will not be allowed to cross the border. All that will reach us will be the covers, since all the pages are subversive—against sin, it is said. So that if Jesus crosses the border at Chalatenango, they will not allow him to enter. They would accuse him, the man-God ... of being an agitator, of being a Jewish foreigner, who confuses the people with exotic and foreign ideas, anti-democratic ideas, and i.e., against the minorities. Ideas against God, because this is a clan of Cain’s. Brothers, they would undoubtedly crucify him again. And they have said so.
On March 12, 1977, Grande and two lay associates travelling with him were ambushed and killed.  Romero heard of the murders and went at once to the church where the three bodies lay.  After celebrating Mass there, the Archbishop spent hours listening to the stories of the peasants who had gathered their to mourn.  Unable to sleep, he spent the night in prayer and underwent a deep personal conversion where he realized that the Church, if it were to be faithful, could not stand silently by while the poor were being driven ever deeper into the dirt but had to stand with them and for them.  He said that as he looked at the body of his friend,  he thought “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same pathThe morning after the murders, Archbishop Romero announced that he, as Archbishop, would attend no government function until the murders had been investigated.  In a Catholic culture where the presence of the Archbishop gave a legitimacy to the government, this act of separation was seen as a repudiation of the government’s moral legitimacy and a severe blow to its credibility.  It was an invitation to reject government authority.  The following day Romero published the following statement
The true reason for [Grande's] death was his prophetic and pastoral efforts to raise the consciousness of the people throughout his parish. Father Grande, without offending and forcing himself upon his flock in the practice of their religion, was only slowly forming a genuine community of faith, hope and love among them, he was making them aware of their dignity as individuals, of their basic rights as words, his was an effort toward comprehensive human development. This post-Vatican Council ecclesiastical effort is certainly not agreeable to everyone, because it awakens the consciousness of the people. It is work that disturbs many; and to end it, it was necessary to liquidate its proponent. In our case, Father Rutilio Grande.
As if this was not sufficient aggravation to the government, Archbishop Romero next cancelled all Masses throughout his Archdiocese, instead summoning the faithful to a single outdoor Mass in San Salvador.  150 priests and over 100,000 faithful attended.  
to be continued


  1. Thanks for this. Not only is it helpful with respect to Abp Romero, but my diocese has a number of priests from El Salvador and this helps me to understand the cultural and political background in which they were formed.

  2. As usual the Anglicans are way ahead of you. An image of Archbishop Romero has graced Westminster Abbey for years.

  3. Actually I am aware of that and have seen the statue of Archbishop Romero in the gallery of contemporary martyrs over the west door of the Abbey. It is somewhat easier to make the list of heavenly companions in the Anglican Church than in the Catholic Church; sometimes that works for us and sometimes against us