Vatican’s recognition of Romero’s martyrdom vindicates those working for justice and peace

About ten years ago, a small group of Christians in Penang gathered at the Stella Maris retreat centre in Penang for a special memorial Mass in Penang to mark the 25th annivesary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador.

Feb 13, 2015

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
About ten years ago, a small group of Christians in Penang gathered at the Stella Maris retreat centre in Penang for a special memorial Mass in Penang to mark the 25th annivesary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador.

On March 24, 1980, a gunshot pierced Romero in the chest as he was at the altar saying Mass. He was slain a day after urging soldiers and right wing death squads to stop participating in the brutal slaying of peasants. El Salvador then was ruled by a US-backed regime that protected the interests of a wealthy class of oligarchs.

For years, divisions persisted in the Church over whether Romero was murdered over his faith or his politics — as if faith were something that existed in isolation of politics. (After all, Jesus was executed by the Roman rulers of his time who probably did not care much for his beliefs.) Not a few felt that Romero was murdered because of his politics, and they sent numerous letters to the Vatican opposing any move to recognise him as a saint.

The picture was also muddied by the ongoing Cold War, when the Vatican appeared to take the side of the Reagan administration in the battle against communism in Eastern Europe. No doubt, there was unease over creating an icon in Romero for the resistance to the repressive right wing governments in Latin America.

Even during his tenure as Archbishop, the oligarchs in El Salvador resented him. They did not want someone like Romero, who was championing the rights of the poor, to be seen as a role model for Christians. The bookish Romero had been appointed precisely because of his conservative credentials: as a compromise candidate, it was hoped he would not rock the boat i.e. the political and economic status quo of the ruling class.

But when confronted with the bodies of murdered priests and lay people who had been working with the poor, Romero faced a stark choice. Should he remain quiet or listen to his conscience and his faith and speak the truth to power? He chose the latter, and his fate was sealed from that moment.

For centuries, from the time Christians were persecuted in Rome, Christian martyrs were regarded as those who were killed for their faith and who had known that their faith could eventually result in their death. “Faith”, in this sense, was usually narrowly viewed as one’s profession of the Christian beliefs. Romero’s case does not fit snugly into that definition. But seen from a broader perspective, the assassination of Romero was aimed at snuffing out the vision of the Second Vatican Council for a Church of the Poor. It was a direct shot.

Nonetheless, on Feb 3, Francis, the bishop of Rome, signed a decree recognising the martyrdom of Oscar Romero. In a sense, there was a precedent when Pope John Paul II decided to canonise the Polish Franciscan friar Maximilian Maria Kolbe, who had volunteered to take the place of a prisoner, a total stranger, who along with nine others, had been chosen for death by starvation in a Nazi camp in Auschwitz. Kolbe was not killed solely because of his Christian faith but because his faith urged him to lay down his life for his neighbour, thus effectively making him a martyr of charity.

In Romero’s case, his faith compelled him to speak out against the death squads, the repression and the attacks on the poor. In his last sermon, the one that sealed his fate the following day, Romero said: “Let no one be offended because we use the divine words read at our Mass to shed light on the social, political and economic situation of our people. Not to do so would be unchristian. Christ desires to unite himself with humanity, so that the light he brings from God might become life for nations and individuals.

“I know many are shocked by this preaching and want to accuse us of forsaking the gospel for politics. But I reject this accusation. I am trying to bring to life the message of the Second Vatican Council, and the meetings at Medellin and Puebla.”

Then he added, prophetically: “The great task of Christians must be to absorb the spirit of God’s kingdom and, with souls filled with the kingdom of God, to work on the projects of history. It’s fine to be organised in popular groups; it’s all right to form political parties; it’s all right to take part in the government. It’s fine as long as you are a Christian who carries the reflection of the kingdom of God and tries to establish it where you are working, and as long as you are not being used to further worldly ambitions.”

But Romero warned that any historical plan that was not based on the dignity of the human being, the love of God, and the kingdom that Jesus heralded, would be fleeting. “Your project, however, will grow in stability the more it reflects the eternal design of God. It will be a solution of the common good of the people every time, if it meets the needs of the people....”

Romero, the Martyr, invites us today to look at things through the eyes of the Church, “which is trying to be the kingdom of God on earth and so often must illuminate the realities of our national situation.”

Francis, perhaps, sees a kindred spirit in Romero — except that the Bishop of Rome’s mandate extends to a world where climate change and unfettered capitalism are wreaking havoc in the lives of so many people. More than any other Bishop of Rome in recent times, Francis sees the relevance of the Gospels — and the connection to our faith — against this larger, more worrying backdrop.

Little did that group in Penang who gathered to pay tribute to Romero in 2005 imagine that in a decade’s time, a pope from Latin America would pave the way for Romero’s beatification. Not only that, the recognition of the martyrdom of Romero vindicates all those working on the periphery of the Church to usher in the kingdom based on justice, peace and compassion that Jesus proclaimed.

The door has now been opened for a wider understanding of what Christian martyrdom involves and how it is intricately linked to the realisation of the dream to see a Church of the Poor.

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