ROME — Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a hero to the progressive liberation theology movement in Catholicism who was assassinated in 1980 while saying Mass, will be beatified on May 23.
The act brings Romero to the final step before sainthood, and comes after a decades-long debate in the Vatican as to whether the populist archbishop’s death had more to do with politics or faith.
The date for the beatification ceremony was announced by Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, a Vatican official who has championed Romero’s sainthood cause and who is currently in El Salvador working on details for the ceremony. The event will take place in San Salvador, at the city’s Divine Savior monument.
Typically the head of the Vatican’s office for sainthood causes, Italian Cardinal Angelo Amato, would lead the beatification Mass. Since Amato is already scheduled to lead another beatification event in Kenya that day, however, someone else may be tapped to preside.
Pope Francis cleared the way for the announcement earlier this year by decreeing that Romero was a martyr, meaning someone who died as a witness to the faith.
Romero is the most prominent victim of the 75,000 people believed to have been killed in El Salvador’s bloody civil war, which went on from 1980 to 1992. No one was ever prosecuted for his assassination, but right-wing death squads have long been suspected.
Romero’s priest secretary, Rev. Jesus Delgado, has said that Romero’s love for those in need was rooted in the Second Vatican Council, a summit of Catholic bishops from around the world in the mid-1960s that called for a personal encounter with Christ implying a preferential option for the poor: “Jesus opted for the poor to save us all.”
In an interview with Crux Feb. 4 while in Rome for a press conference, Delgado said that if anything, Romero was very faithful to the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, and to the Jesuits.
Delgado said that at the moment of his death, Romero had two priests that he spoke to with regularity, one an Opus Dei member and one a Jesuit.
“He had a very traditional formation, faithful to the Vatican and to the pope,” Delgado said. “But as archbishop in El Salvador, his spirituality wasn’t with the Jesuits or the Opus Dei, it was with the people of his country. Romero went from a very traditional Catholicism to a very committed one.”
The beatification cause for Romero has been a complicated one, with many denouncing it was being blocked by Vatican officials who received negative reports on Romero. Those reports claimed that the bishop was aligned with the Marxist arm of liberation theology, and that his murder was political, not religious.
Born in the 1970s in Latin America, this theological movement sought to place the Catholic Church on the side of the poor in struggles for social justice. Some of its proponents, such as Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez and Brazilian Leonardo Boff, urged the masses to take an armed stance against oligarchic governments and defied the idea of a hierarchical Church.
During the February press conference, Paglia addressed the rumors of popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI blocking the cause.
Paglia said that in the beginning, Pope St. John Paul II had been ambivalent about whether Romero’s death was truly a cause of martyrdom, but he eventually embraced the full picture. In 1983, while visiting El Salvador, John Paul II praised Romero as a “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.”
It’s of great symbolism that the date for the beatification was announced during the vigil of the death of another Salvadorian priest murdered and who is currently in the process of beatification: the Rev. Rutilio Grande, killed March 12, 1977.
Grande, a Jesuit, is said to have inspired Romero in his solidarity with the poor.