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Ending the Speculation About Oscar Romero, A Martyr for the Gospel

Archbishop Oscar Romero

Leif Skoogfors/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

A 1979 portrait of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, an outspoken proponent of human rights. Romero was assassinated March 24, 1980 as he said Mass at a hospital chapel. (Photo by �� Leif Skoogfors/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Gian Franco Svidercoschi - published on 05/23/15

Archbishop Romero to be beatified on Saturday in San Salvador

ROME — He was already a marked man, his fate had been decided. And Oscar Arnulfo Romero himself knew that he couldn’t escape death. For his commitment to the poor, his protests against the absence of even the smallest opportunities for justice and democracy, and especially for his courageous denouncement of the government, against the “death squads,” who were perpetrators of appalling crimes — for all of this, the Archbishop of San Salvador had become a permanent threat, not only to the military regime but also to the economic oligarchy, to the large landowners.

The powers that be had decided that it was time to silence that “voice.” The killer was given the green light, and on March 24, 1980, he assassinated the archbishop at the altar while he was celebrating Mass— the most sacred moment for a priest, when he elevates the Host in remembrance of the Sacrifice of the Son of God.

Everything had been planned, everything decided. But if it had happened, if the murder had been accomplished, it was also because Archbishop Romero had been left alone — tragically alone. Defenseless. And increasingly exposed to the dangers that were gathering about him.

He had been left alone by his own confreres, that is, by nearly all the Salvadoran bishops, including his auxiliary and, to some extent, also by the nuncio at the time. They were all behind the defamatory allegations which for months had been arriving at the Vatican, and which were painting Romero — to the point of requesting his resignation — as a Communist, and even as a subversive, an extremist, and an instigator of violence. They had been so convincing in their accusations that Romero, upon his arrival in Rome, not only was not listened to by any of the heads of the Roman Curia, but a thousand obstacles had been created to prevent him from being received in audience by John Paul II.

Finally, on May 7, 1979, the meeting took place. If before, Pope John Paul II had nourished some reservations about the archbishop’s behavior, due to the less than objective information that had been sent to him, in listening to Romero’s moving and dramatic account, he was convinced that the truth lay elsewhere.

Yes, he recommended that he be prudent and balanced. He also recommended that he do everything possible to restore unity in the episcopate. Nevertheless, he supported him in his evangelical boldness, and even in the criticism of the military regime. In conclusion, he had a substantially favorable impression of the Salvadoran prelate, and pledged to make known his sentiments in a Curia still suspicious and opposed to him.

But Archbishop Romero had not been left alone only within the Catholic world. Paradoxical as it may seem, his solitude was accentuated precisely by those who wanted to exalt him. They had advanced the great myths of the guerrilla Left in Latin America, Camilo Torres, Che Guevara, Salvador Allende. They made him the model of that liberation theology that was imbued with the Marxist ideology of class struggle. And so, if the goal — assuming it was always in good faith — was to defend Romero, they nevertheless ended up enclosing him in the distorted, and exclusively political and revolutionary image that was the origin of his own death sentence, decreed by the military dictatorship and by the economic powers.

However, it only worsened after his death. Having left Romero scandalously alone in life, doubly scandalous was the insult to his memory after he was brutally murdered. There was in fact someone — on the “right” and on the “left,” to put it rather banally — who continued to insult, or at least to exploit, the name and testimony of this man of God. A man who, in his love for the poor and oppressed, and in defense of human rights, had lived the Gospel even to the sacrifice of his life, even to martyrdom.

It was 1983. A papal trip to Central America was being planned, and some of the top leaders of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) explicitly asked John Paul II not to visit the grave of Archbishop Romero, since he was still considered  too politically charged a figure. Those who were present marveled at the vehement reaction of the Pope. He gestured in a manner he had never done before. His fist hit the table, as in an almost angry voice, he said: “No! No! The Pope must go!” And then he went. Upon his arrival in El Salvador, despite the fact that the government had barred the door of the cathedral, the Pope went in to pray at the tomb, and uttered deeply moving words about the ministry of the bishop whom, he said, “was martyred.”

Another insult to the martyrdom of the Archbishop of San Salvador has been recorded. His was a martyrdom that clearly occurred in odium fidei, i.e. out of hatred for the way Romero lived the Gospel. And yet, someone demagogically turned it into a “political” martyrdom, into a martyrdom flowing from his “class commitment” to the people.

Afterwards, an utterly distorted history of Romero was reconstructed, especially regarding his relationship with John Paul II. It was as though the Pope, through his lack of understanding, had brought the Salvadoran prelate to tears. And not instead, as was the case: Wojtyla supported him, and then was shocked to learn of his assassination.

Furthermore, during the Jubilee Year 2000, for the ceremony at the Colosseum dedicated to the martyrs, Pope John Paul II inserted the name of Archbishop Romero into the prayer for Christians who had given their lives for love of Christ and their brothers and sisters in America.

And now — precisely as the first Latin American Pope is sitting on the Chair of Peter — the great moment has arrived. On Saturday, May 23, the solemn beatification of Archbishop Romero will take place in San Salvador. It is to be hoped that finally seeing acknowledged the exemplary nature of Oscar Arnulfo Romero’s witness to the Gospel will help everyone to remember and venerate him for what he really was: a gift from God, a good man, a generous and courageous priest and bishop, and an authentic witness of Christ and his Gospel.

Gian Franco Svidercoschiwas sent as a journalist by ANSA to Vatican II, and has served as vice-director of the “Osservatore Romano”. He is considered to be the official biographer of John Paul II, with whom he co-wrote the book, “Gift and Mystery”. One may write to him at the following email address:

Pope FrancisPope John Paul II
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