ROME — Beatification of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador will happen “as soon as possible,” a Vatican official said Wednesday, while a former aide to the slain prelate said it will fall between March 24, the anniversary of Romero’s death, and Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary.
Beatification is the final step before sainthood, and Romero’s path to the honor was cleared on Tuesday when Pope Francis formally recognized him as a martyr.
Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass in 1980. He’s a hero to the Church’s liberation theology movement, which seeks to place Catholicism on the side of the poor in struggles for human rights and social justice.
Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the Vatican official who has championed Romero’s sainthood cause, said in a Vatican news conference Wednesday that it’s “providential” the move is coming under history’s first Latin American pope.
At the same time, Paglia said that sainthood for the El Salvadoran prelate wouldn’t have been possible without emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who, he said, gave the green light to restart the process in December 2012.
Prior to that, Romero’s cause had been blocked for the better part of three decades under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in part because some observers felt he was killed less for religious reasons than for his liberal political stands.
When questioned about that blockage, Paglia said the matter was “complicated.”
Paglia said that at the beginning, John Paul II was ambivalent about whether Romero’s death was truly a case of martyrdom, and said those doubts where the direct result of the negative reports that the Vatican was receiving.
Those reports, Paglia said, claimed that Romero was aligned with the Marxist arm of liberation theology, a movement born in the 1970s in Latin America which sought to place the Catholic Church on the side of the poor in struggles for social justice, at times urging the masses to take an armed stance against oligarchic governments.
But, Paglia said, the Polish pope eventually got the full picture and, when visiting El Salvador in 1983, the first thing he did was visit Romero’s tomb.
On that trip, John Paul praised Romero as “a zealous and venerated pastor who tried to stop violence.”
“I ask that his memory be always respected,” John Paul said, “and let no ideological interest try to distort his sacrifice as a pastor given over to his flock.”
Benedict XVI was an extraordinary interlocutor for the cause, even as a cardinal, Paglia said, insisting on the fact that “robust objections require a robust response.”
“Papa Ratzinger,” Paglia said, “personally told me many times that Romero is a man of the Church.”
Paglia said he believes the beatification of Romero might help bring peace and unity in the Latin American continent, and to El Salvador in particular.
“Today’s fights [in El Salvador]” Paglia said, “are different to the ones from Romero’s time, but I believe that in this opportunity, a healthy dose of Salvadorian pride moved by the example of a man who sought peace and solidarity, can have a big repercussion inside the country and deepen the consensus between the different voices of the current violent conflict.”
Talking about the impact the beatification might have, Paglia said that the murdered archbishop signifies the example of the color, and candor, of Christianity in Latin America.
“It explains the popular faith to a world that still isn’t popular,” he said.
Questioned about the date for the beatification ceremony, Paglia said that it hasn’t been decided yet. “But it’ll be in the next few months, as soon as possible.”
The Rev. Jesus Delgado, Romero’s personal priest-secretary, was also at Wednesday’s press conference, telling reporters that the celebration will fall sometime between March 24 and August 15.
In addition to being the anniversary of the assassination, March 24 has also been designated by the United Nations as the “Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and the Remembrance of its Victims” in honor of Romero.
Speaking to Crux before the news conference started, Paglia said Romero’s legacy is especially apt today, when in the Middle East there are “endless” conflicts, and in Nigeria, Boko Haram is killing Christians as they attend Mass.
“Romero teaches us that we can’t kill ourselves for our faith, but at the same time, that it’s our willingness to die bringing the Gospel to everyone what makes us Christians,” Paglia said.
“He teaches us that unless it changes the world, our faith is senseless,” the Italian prelate said. “A light that doesn’t light up a room is useless. A faith that doesn’t change the world is just as useless.”
Beyond the controversy surrounding Romero’s figure and his path towards being declared a saint, Paglia said that one thing is undeniable: his love for the poor and his efforts to pass on the faith to them.
“Romero was full of love, passion,” he said. “He was moved by the faith presented by the Second Vatican Council: That of a Church that is mother to all, particularly of those who have less.”
“The men who killed him,” Paglia said, “were afraid of this Church that had the Bible in its hands.”