Vatican: Oscar Romero is 'a martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council'

  • A woman prays Tuesday beside the tomb of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero at the cathedral in San Salvador. (CNS/Reuters/Jose Cabezasi)
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Vatican City

In announcing the beatification of slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Vatican has made what appears to be a shift toward acceptance of more progressive views of the changes of the Second Vatican Council and its emphasis on a church that stands with the poor.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the Vatican official who is leading Romero's sainthood cause, put it this way Wednesday: Romero was "a martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council."

The Salvadoran's murder, Paglia said, was part of a "climate of persecution against a pastor that followed the evangelical experience, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, of Medellin [and] had chosen to live with the poor to defend them from oppression."

"Romero was killed because he chose this perspective," Paglia said, adding that the Salvadoran wanted to combat a government and a type of oppression "that leaves the poorest without life."

Paglia, who also leads the Pontifical Council for the Family, spoke Wednesday at a Vatican press conference after news Tuesday that Pope Francis officially declared Romero a martyr of the Catholic faith. The Salvadoran is now expected to be beatified -- the last step before being made a saint -- within months.

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Romero was archbishop of San Salvador during the bloody and tension-filled time leading up to his country's 1979-1992 civil war. A right-wing death squad shot him dead as he celebrated Mass March 24, 1980, one day after giving a sermon calling on soldiers to stop enforcing his government's policies of oppression and violations of human rights.

The Vatican official's emphasis on Romero's place in the story of the Second Vatican Council, a worldwide meeting of bishops held from 1962-65 known for introducing reforms to the Catholic church, seems somewhat extraordinary after decades during which the slain Salvadoran was treated as something of a pariah by the Vatican.

While his sainthood cause was opened years ago, it lingered under the pontificates of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI over concerns of Romero's embrace of liberation theology, a type of Christian theology that posits that Christ did not just seek liberation from sin but every type of oppression. John Paul II, who grew up in Communist-era Poland, was concerned that such theology veered too close to Marxist analysis. 

Paglia's mention of Medellin is a reference to a conference held by the Latin American bishops in that Colombian city in 1968, when they called for a "preferential option for the poor" and committed themselves to helping liberate their people across the continent from institutions that subjected them to hunger and poverty.

Asked Wednesday about the hesitancy to move forward with Romero's cause for sainthood over the years and whether John Paul II opposed the process, Paglia said: "It's a bit more complicated than that."

Initial reports about Romero's death that arrived at the Vatican -- particularly over concerns that the archbishop had made unspecified doctrinal errors in his homilies or talks -- "were only in one direction," Paglia said.

He said it took time for reports on Romero's holiness to equal the number of such reports in examinations being made on the archbishop by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But Paglia ascribed a key moment in the eventual proclamation of Romero's martyrdom to Benedict XVI, not Francis.

In December 2012 -- two months before his abdication as pope -- Paglia said Benedict had ordered that Romero's cause go forward and that the investigation be transferred from the doctrinal congregation to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

While the Vatican official confirmed Wednesday that Romero will be beatified in a ceremony in San Salvador, he said it was unsure exactly when the event will be held as Vatican officials have yet to confirm details with organizers in the country.

But, Paglia said, the beatification ceremony will be held "when first possible."

Paglia also unexpectedly announced Wednesday that the Vatican had three months ago opened the sainthood process for a key collaborator of Romero's: Salvadoran Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande, who was killed in 1977 for helping impoverished Salvadorans organize and is known to have spurred something of a conversion in Romero's life.

"It is impossible to know Romero without knowing Rutilio Grande," Paglia said.

He also strongly defended Francis' decree that Romero was a martyr -- an official statement that the archbishop was killed in odium fidei, Latin for "in hatred of the faith" -- saying the way the archbishop was killed while saying Mass shows such hatred.

"They wanted to kill him on the altar," Paglia said, referencing the similar murder of 12th-century English Archbishop Thomas Becket. Paglia also called Romero a kind of "proto-martyr," a reference to the earliest martyrs of the Christian church in the first centuries.

Msgr. Jesus Delgado, a Salvadoran priest who served as Romero's secretary as archbishop, also spoke at the press conference Wednesday. He recalled specifically how Romero's selection as archbishop by Pope Paul VI in 1977 was received by the Salvadoran clergy, who he said did not know Romero very well at first.

"Jesus, help me," Delgado recalled Romero telling him when the archbishop asked him to serve as the priest secretary. "The clergy don't love me."

The Vatican press conference was also marked by moving recitations of many of Romero's most stirring talks and homilies, including his last sermon, in which he said, "No soldier is obligated to follow an order contrary to the law of God" then called on all soldiers in his country to "in the name of God ... stop the repression."

Romero spoke out frequently against the government of the time. He also wrote a letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter a month before his murder, criticizing the president's decision to recognize the government and to send military aid.

With the Salvadoran archbishop's beatification expected soon and the opening of the process for Grande, it also seems Francis may have opened a path for sainthood for many other so-called martyrs of the Second Vatican Council.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: Vatican: Romero is 'martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council' .
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