The gunman at the door of the church must have taken aim carefully. The Archbishop, his sermon just ended, must have seen him. Then the sudden deep physical fear; they found salt crystals from copious sweat in his black woollen trousers.
He knew that his sermons might result in his assassination. Broadcast nationally on church radio to a huge audience, they provided the only news of the Salvadorian military’s latest barbarous acts, and his appeals to the army to stop the repression. The death squads and the military in1980s El Salvador were murdering with impunity all they deemed a threat.
The cry “Santo Romero” went up in Latin America, and around the world, soon after the gunshot that killed Archbishop Oscar Romero on 23 March 1980. The army had silenced a resonant prophetic voice speaking of justice and peace. Yet thirty five years passed before Romero's beatification in May 2015, a formal recognition of his holiness attended by a quarter of a million people. It was a first step towards his canonisation this Sunday, 14 October 2018.
Romero’s story has been editorialised by those who opposed his beatification, for whatever reason, and those who promoted it, for whatever reason. For example, Romero's words, supposedly in a telephone conversation, “If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador”, were invented by a Guatemalan journalist. In catching the Christian essence of what happened that day the “quote” has a lingering quality: not true but not false either. Yet the words he didn’t utter could be exploited as a sign of hubris against him.
Romero was an unexpected hero of radical Catholicism. He was close to Opus Dei members, a Catholic association distrusted by radical, and liberal, Catholics; he enjoyed watching cartoons in his slippers on Sunday afternoons with his friends, the Barraza family. And he innocently loved Rome, praying at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul between defending his actions, his outspoken sermons, and his support for the poor of El Salvador. For very understandable reasons, he shared with the Pope whom he revered from his younger days, Paul VI, a struggle with anxiety. With the papal nuncio to El Salvador and most of his fellow bishops against him, denouncing him to Rome, with political pressure from all sides and horrific bloodshed around him from the civil war, he had good cause.
There is a revealing entry in Romero's diary: he recounts how Pope John-Paul II, misapplying his Polish experience of Communist rule, put great weight on the importance of maintaining unity in El Salvador's Bishops' Conference. This advice could only have worried him further. Any prophetic witness to truth precluded unity; most of his fellow bishops were solidly opposed to his stance. Such were his dilemmas as a bishop traditionally obedient to the Pope. The response to his death, like to his later life and sermons, reflected the deep conflicts in a Church tragically divided by the Cold War. In El Salvador, with the oligarchy and army supported by the CIA, there was only the unity of the grave.
George Orwell once said that “who controls the past controls the future” but “who controls the present controls the past”. The way different Church leaders spun Romero's story confirms Orwell. For some Vatican bureaucrats and some important Latin American Cardinals defending their past record, Romero's cause fell under the category of “sensitive”. The “sensitivity” stemmed from a surfeit of calumny and detraction. Or was just a product of bad theology. His canonisation process was blocked for “prudential reasons”.
It was only in 2012 that Pope Benedict unblocked the process and it was cleared by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Then a Pope from Argentina with a similar love of the poor could enthusiastically add San Romero of the Americas to the litany of saints.
Whatever the past opposition to Romero, if a theological plumb line is imagined indicating the centre of Catholic thought, “thinking with the mind of the Church” in Catholic-speak, Romero's words and actions fell plumb along it. He had received a classic - ordinary -seminary formation. He was committed to the vision of the Second Vatican Council, its pastoral theology and the option for the poor endorsed by the Latin American Bishops' Conferences (CELAM). The strength of this formation, the reality of El Salvador, drew him into sharing to the utmost in the pain and suffering of his people. By thinking, preaching and acting with the mind of the Church in the context of El Salvador in 1980, he qualified for martyrdom. The message of his life and death is almost as simple as that.
Almost as simple. Romero’s sermons suggest that he inhabited a traditional Catholic world of binaries: religious/spiritual versus political, the mind of the Church or liberation theology, ideology or sound doctrine. But rejecting the “political”, Romero adopted a deeper understanding of what politics might mean for Christians: he lived it, striving for conformity with the politics of the historical Jesus. Romero's “no” to violence, whether of the oppressed or oppressor, entailed his “yes” to a deeper liberation than promised by the political and armed struggle against tyranny and the rule of the military and oligarchies in Latin America. Liberation theology was not political enough. His martyrdom at the altar, under the cross in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital, San Salvador, bore testimony to this truth.
This Sunday will be a time of joy for those who persevered in promoting the cause of Romero’s canonisation. His story will be celebrated not only by many Catholics round the world. There is a message here for everyone. It is that anxiety and fear can accompany great courage, vision and moral leadership. And the good news is that the ordinary really can become extraordinary.
To read more see Roberto Morozzo Della Rocca Oscar Romero: Prophet of Hope Darton Longman Todd 2015