Friday, March 20, 2015

The Making of Saint Oscar

It was 35 years ago, on March 24, 1980, that Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador was assassinated, but he has been back in the news this year. After much hesitation, the Catholic Church is now moving toward making him a saint.

Even though masses of the common people of El Salvador had no question about it, Romero’s martyrdom was not officially recognized until Pope Francis did so last month. And then last week it was announced that Romero will be beatified on May 23. So before long there will most likely be a Saint Oscar.
Romero was born in 1917 in rural El Salvador. (I was interested to learn that I was born on his 21st birthday.) He studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained there in 1942. After serving as a parish priest back in his home country, he was appointed bishop of a poor, rural diocese in 1974. Then just three years later he became Archbishop of San Salvador.
His appointment as archbishop came as a disappointment to the progressive priests of El Salvador, for at that time Romero was quite conservative and traditional. But things soon began to change.
Less than three weeks after becoming archbishop, Fr. Rutilio Grande, his good friend and a progressive Jesuit priest who was working with the poor, was assassinated. Grande’s death had a profound impact on Romero, who later stated, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’”
Grande’s assassination triggered what some have called Romero’s “conversion” to liberation theology. As John Dear, the Jesuit peace activist I wrote about previously, said (in an excellent 2010 article in the National Catholic Review), “Romero was transformed into one of the world's great champions for the poor and oppressed.”
My longstanding admiration increased this month as I watched the documentary “Monsigñor” with a group that gathered at the Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Kansas City and listened to comments by Fr. Michael Gillgannon, who was a missionary in Latin America for over 30 years.
And then June and I watched the 1989 movie “Romero” for the second (or maybe third) time. It is a most engaging movie that I highly recommend. Its portrayal of the last few years of the Archbishop’s life is in harmony with Scott Wright’s excellent biography “Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints” (2009).
According to Fr. Dear (I’m very sad to note),
When President Jimmy Carter announced in February 1980 that he was going to increase U.S. military aid to El Salvador by millions of dollars a day, Romero was shocked. He wrote a long public letter to Carter, asking the United States to cancel all military aid. Carter ignored Romero’s plea, and sent the aid. (Between 1980 and 1992, the U.S. spent $6 billion to kill 75,000 poor Salvadorans.)
(Romero’s letter to Pres. Carter can be found here. Dear’s statement may be somewhat inflated; a more objective statement is found in a 1993 article, “US Policy in El Salvador.”)
The very next month, Romero was shot and killed while celebrating Mass. The assassin was part of the death squad formed and directed by Roberto D'Aubuisson, who was trained at the School of the Americas, moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1984.
U.S. policy may not have changed so much since 1980, but the Vatican has changed during the last two years under Pope Francis. So, thankfully, Romero is now in the process of being made Saint Oscar.


  1. An interesting commentary on the Roman Catholic church. Under Cardinal Ratzinger, Liberation Theology was considered a heresy - which included censures and excommunication. This is only one of Rome's dramatic swings and novel doctrines over centuries. Its novel and aberrant doctrines, which probably would not stand the scrutiny of an ecumenical council, are a key reason why I would not consider joining that "orthodox" branch of the Church. (This is not to berate the concept of doing good, or the justice of serving those being oppressed or in need - but what is the role of the Church in just war? It certainly is not doing much for the middle eastern Christians.) Viva El Cid/ El Campeador (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar).

    The mix of the Church directly into politics and war has always been interesting, but so has dichotomous orthopraxis and orthdoxy in general. But the protestant branches of the Church have faced similar polarities and divisions in the name of Christ. Oh that we could have a true ecumenical council led by the Holy Spirit.

  2. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson shares these pertinent words:

    "The United States has written a sad story in what it has done in Central and South America. We need to give up our hubris and work for the betterment of our fellow Americans."

  3. Archbishop Romero did not get directly involved in politics or war. He continually called for nonviolent resistance toward injustice, but he spoke courageously on behalf of the poor and oppressed and against the political and religious powers that made/kept them poor and oppressed. He was assassinated because of his solidarity with the poor and his criticism of unjust powers.

    The "liberation theology" of Archbishop Romero was not a novel or aberrant theology, for the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church has a long history, even though it has been overlooked and/or ignored at many times and in many places.

  4. Dr. Paul Simmons, whom I first met in the fall of 1955 when he was a sophomore and I was a freshman at Southwest Baptist College, posted the following comments on Facebook, and I am taking the liberty of sharing them here:

    "You are right on target when celebrating, rather than mindlessly criticizing, Romero and other Liberation Theologians. Taken together they remind Christians of the obligation to tackle the injustices of society so as to benefit those who are being oppressed.

    "Liberation theology first openly identifies with the those who are subject to systemic prejudice. Second, strategies are developed to bring about change in the social systems toward greater inclusiveness of the neglected and repressed. Third, pressure escalates as the defense of the status quo becomes more repressive.

    "To what degree we are complicit with repression is measured either by how much we benefit from the policies that take from the poor and give to the privileged or how vigorous our opposition is to those who call for change.

    "Walter Rauschenbusch is famous for his challenge to become involved in social change as a 'third birth.' First from our mother, then into Christian life and thought with our 'new birth.' Other conversions take place as we mature and see the mistakes and repressive policies we support. That 'true' insight leads to remarkable change on the side of those Christ called us to defend and support.

    "Needless to say, there are many 'conversions' thoughtful and growing Christians may experience. Every profound insight that leads to radical changes of the mind and directions of one's life is a life-changing moment.

    "Most American Christians have a negative attitude toward liberation thought because it challenges us to justify our privilege when so many are oppressed; we enjoy ease and comfort when millions have no place to sleep or rest; we are silent when the military is used to extend 1st world dominance and winds up oppressing the very people we need to liberate.

    "Rauschenbusch called for us to be 'thrice born' and Clarence Jordan wondered whether the detached and oppressive have ever had their 'second birth,' which at least should increase our sensitivity to Christ's call to follow his Kingdom and not settle for the misguided, power-hungry and destructive kingdoms of this world."

    "The IRS considers ministers 'self-employed' and thus eligible for tax breaks such as housing allowances. There are volumes of truth in the 'self-employed' designation; one would think we should be 'Kingdom employed' but that would require a far more demanding and sacrificial lifestyle.

    "As a matter of fact, it seems a lifestyle much more like that of the liberation theologians than the oppressive systems and political overlords that dominate them and appeal to us to lend our influence to their policies and be suspicious of heroes for the poor like Oscar Romero, Gandhi, Martin L. King, and other liberationists."