'St Romero of the Americas' was a martyr of justice

 

'Martyrdom is a grace from God which I don't believe I deserve." So wrote Archbishop Oscar Romero shortly before he was assassinated while celebrating Mass on March 24th, 1980, writes Brendan Butler.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of his death and many people still wonder why he hasn't been declared an official saint in the Catholic Church. Others have been fast-tracked to sainthood, but Romero has been sidelined due to his radical following of Jesus of Nazareth.

This lack of official recognition hasn't prevented the peoples of Latin America from honouring him with the title of "St Romero of the Americas". His tomb in the Cathedral of San Salvador remains a place of pilgrimage and is covered with petitions, thanksgivings and discarded crutches.

While visiting El Salvador in 1993, Pope John Paul II described Romero in measured terms as "a zealous pastor who gave his life for his faithful", but ominously failed to call him a martyr. Such a formula of words was used again by Pope John Paul in May 2000.

However, the Anglican Communion has installed Romero's statue on the facade of Westminster Abbey as one of the "significant martyrs of the 20th century".

The turning point for the conversion of Mgr Romero from a fearful and conservative bishop was the murder of his Jesuit friend, Fr Rutilio Grande.

After much deliberation, he announced that on the following Sunday there would be only one Mass in the archdiocese, at which he demanded an official inquiry into the murder and stated he would not attend the forthcoming inauguration of the president or any official state function until the inquiry took place.

There was consternation among the social elites in El Salvador and in the Vatican. Archbishop Romero was summoned to Rome to explain his position. At the Vatican he was told to remember that "Jesus Christ was very prudent in all of his public life". Romero replied: "If he was so prudent, then why was he killed?"

However, Pope Paul V1 encouraged and supported his work.

Romero's next visit to the Vatican proved to be difficult and disappointing. He had gone to Rome to attend a beatification.

For the first five days of May in 1979 he got the runaround from various cardinals until he attended a general audience.

Romero was in the first line and, as Pope John Paul passed by, Romero held his hand firmly, saying: "Holy Father, I am the Archbishop of San Salvador and I beseech you to grant me an audience." That evening an invitation arrived for the following morning.

After the initial small talk Romero took out all his documentation, but the Pope smiled and said he wouldn't have time to read it all and recommended more prudence and balance in his homilies, and to confine himself to general principles rather than concrete cases when he spoke about injustices.

He then referred to the visit and report of Bishop Quarracino, who had been sent by Rome to El Salvador to investigate what to do with Romero. Quarracino - who became a cardinal - recommended the replacement of Romero with an apostolic administrator with full powers, appointed from Rome.

Later Romero was told by Cardinal Casaroli, then Vatican secretary of state, that the US ambassador had accused him (Romero) of "following a revolutionary line" which was undermining the American policy of supporting democracy in El Salvador.

Romero left the Vatican disappointed, but determined to fulfil his prophetic mission.

A letter from Archbishop Romero, a month before his death, to then US president Jimmy Carter in which he pleaded for no more military support for the Salvadoran government, caused consternation in Washington and Rome. His murder was planned when Archbishop Romero, in his final Sunday homily, told the soldiers in the Salvadoran army to ignore orders to kill their brothers and sisters.

The current Catholic teaching on martyrdom emphasises that martyrdom must be voluntarily accepted and caused by a hatred of the faith. The problem with Oscar Romero is that the planners and executioners were Catholics. However, exceptions have been made over the years. St Maria Goretti was killed by a neighbour while defending her virginity. Even though her attempted rapist was a Catholic, in 1947 Pope Pius XII proclaimed her a martyr.

In 1971 Pope Paul VI, in beatifying Maximilian Kolbe, the priest who gave his life for another prisoner in Auschwitz, used the term "confessor" to describe Maximilian's act of self-sacrifice.

However, at his canonisation in November 1982 Pope John Paul II overruled the curia decision and proclaimed Maximilian a martyr.

If in the church one can be a martyr of virginity or a martyr of charity, then why can Oscar Romero not be a martyr of justice?

Brendan Butler co-founded the Irish El Salvador Support Committee in 1979 and he is its chairman. His first act as co-founder was to write a letter of solidarity to Archbishop Romero, who published it in the diocesan newspaper shortly before he was murdered