Next Saturday, arguably the most important beatification of the early 21st century will be celebrated in San Salvador, El Salvador, when the late Archbishop Oscar Romero reaches the final stage before sainthood in the Catholic Church.
It’s an event 35 years in the making, and it’s hard to imagine anyone with a more remarkable tale to tell.
At the outset of a bloody civil war in El Salvador in the late 1970s, Romero was the country’s most important voice for the poor and victims of human rights abuses. His stance obviously threatened the power structure, because in a scene straight out of T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” Romero was shot to death while saying Mass on March 24, 1980.
No one has ever been prosecuted for the assassination, though it’s widely believed the killers were linked to a right-wing death squad. Gunmen also attacked a massive crowd at Romero’s funeral six days later, leaving dozens dead.
Following a US-backed coup in October 1979, a military regime took power, and Romero emerged as its nemesis. A month before his death, he wrote US President Jimmy Carter to ask him to suspend military and economic aid to the government, insisting the new rulers “know only how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.”
Just a day before he was shot, Romero begged, even ordered, soldiers and members of security forces not to fire on citizens.
From the moment he died, Romero has been popularly revered as a martyr and saint. The formal pursuit of canonization, however, was held up for decades. In part, the block was due to conservative Latin American prelates who felt that awarding a halo to Romero would be seen as an endorsement of left-wing Marxist politics.
Pope Benedict XVI reopened Romero’s case, and Pope Francis seems determined to finish it. Back in 2007, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina reportedly told a Salvadoran priest that “to me [Romero] is a saint and a martyr … If I were pope, I would have already canonized him.”
There are four reasons why the Romero beatification is a turning point for the Catholic Church.
First, it marks a healing of tensions over “liberation theology,” a movement in Latin American Catholicism promoting social justice. Its core idea is the “option for the poor,” meaning the Church should have a special concern, as Christ did, for the downtrodden and those at the margins.
Titanic battles were waged over liberation theology in the 1980s and 1990s, which, today, are largely over. A moderate consensus has taken hold, which goes like this: If “liberation theology” means fighting poverty and struggling for justice, the answer is yes; if it means armed Marxist rebellion and class struggle, it’s no.
Beatifying Romero, a hero to the liberation theology movement, amounts to an endorsement of that peace.
Second, Romero becomes a patron saint for persecuted Christians everywhere, at a time when anti-Christian violence has become a leading human rights challenge.
In the early 21st century, the high-end estimate for the number of Christian martyrs annually is 100,000, while the low-end is a few thousand. That works out to between one victim every five minutes and one every hour. Especially given the rise of ISIS, Christians today are arguably the world’s most vulnerable religious body.
In that context, the Romero beatification not only provides a patron but also represents a call to action.
Third, the beatification ratifies a new standard for what counts as “martyrdom” in Catholicism. It’s no longer necessary to die explicitly in odium fidei, at the hands of those who hate the faith, which was the traditional test. One can also be recognized as a martyr for dying in odium caritatis, as a victim of those motivated by a hatred of charity.
Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders of liberation theology, recently said, “This is Latin American martyrdom: To give one’s life for justice, for the love to the people … I think the testimony of seeking justice, respect for human dignity, is an affirmation of the doctrine.”
Fourth, Romero symbolizes the socially engaged Church Pope Francis wants to lead.
Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez of San Salvador, who worked closely with Romero, recently told Vatican Radio that the slain archbishop is “the icon of [the kind of] pastor Francis wants, the icon of the Church Francis wants … a poor Church for the poor.”
For the pontiff, beatifying Romero thus isn’t just about honoring his memory. Like the choice of the name “Francis,” referring to Catholicism’s great lover of “Lady Poverty,” it also expresses a program of governance.
Organizers have expressed hopes that the beatification ceremony, expected to be one of the largest public events in El Salvador’s history, will spark a rediscovery of Romero’s legacy, which risks neglect with the passage of time.
When Francis visited a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013, organizers put up a large image of Romero on a soccer field where the pontiff met the poorest of the poor. Curious as to how much Latin Americans outside El Salvador today know about their famous martyr, I stopped several people at random.
The most common response when asked what they knew about Romero was, “What soccer team does he play for?”
Now that he’s set to become the patron saint of a popular Latin American pope, perhaps Romero will regain the fame his compelling story merits.
Crux coverage of the Romero beatification
Along with Inés San Martín of Crux, I’ll be in San Salvador for Romero’s May 23 beatification ceremony. Watch the Crux site for coverage.
Vatican push for Africa shows why sovereignty matters
Every so often, there are calls to end the Vatican’s status as a sovereign state, especially when it seems to provide Rome with a get-out-of-jail-free card for the consequences of a scandal.
For instance, the Vatican has successfully invoked its sovereignty as a shield against civil lawsuits in the United States seeking compensation for victims of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. That has galled some victims and their advocates, and occasionally sparks debate as to whether it’s time to eliminate a legal convention that critics see as a medieval anachronism.
On the other hand, being a sovereign state also allows the Vatican to promote social justice and humanitarian causes in a way that arguably no other force on the planet could accomplish.
Such was the case again this week, as the Vatican announced a new forum for African diplomats to promote solutions to Europe’s burgeoning immigration crisis.
More than 3,000 African migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe in the first half of 2015, an official of the Catholic charitable group Caritas said recently. That is the equivalent of two Titanics.
By early May, the number of casualties trying to make the crossing was already higher than the total from all of 2014.
This week the European Union rolled out a new plan for managing the crisis, which features a quota system for distributing migrants across member states and stepped-up naval efforts to target smugglers off the Libyan coast and to destroy their boats.
Although the vast majority of people risking their lives to reach Europe are Africans, African voices have been strikingly absent from most of the debate.
On Thursday, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, announced the creation of a new forum for African ambassadors to the Holy See. The group will develop concrete solutions on the immigration crisis they can carry back to their governments, with the aim being that those proposals will become part of the international discussion.
(The “Holy See” is the technical term for the papacy’s standing as a sovereign entity in international law.)
“Why is everybody talking about this and nothing is coming from Africa?” Turkson said in an interview with Vatican Radio. “We are not hearing [African] heads of state, we are not hearing the African Union.”
Recognizing that the power of ambassadors is limited, “We still thought we can bring them together and create … a platform for them to exchange thoughts, and at least be able to suggest to their governments that the offices of the Holy See feel this way,” Turkson said.
Among other things, the ambassadors may push back against the militarization of Europe’s response to the immigration crisis, since the primary population put at risk by attacks on boats in the Mediterranean isn’t the smugglers – who are notoriously adept at evading such crackdowns – but poor Africans who, tragically, are treated as expendable cargo.
The Vatican’s sovereignty affords it a unique capacity to provide a platform for African voices to be heard, for three reasons.
First, there’s a higher concentration of African diplomats in Rome than virtually anywhere else in Europe. Given the intense religiosity of most African societies, their envoys to the Holy See tend to be very capable people, with a greater-than-average ability to move the ball on the things they care about.
Second, the Catholic Church is perceived as a serious political and social player in Africa.
In part, that’s due to the rapid growth of the Church there. In the 20th century, the Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa shot up from 1.9 million to 130 million, a staggering growth rate of 6,708 percent. In part, it’s because of the Church’s reach. The World Health Organization, for instance, estimates that faith-based groups provide between 30 and 70 percent of all health care in Africa, much of it delivered by the Catholic Church.
As a result, African governments, diplomats, journalists, and activists take Vatican-sponsored initiatives seriously.
Third, when the Vatican reaches out to African leaders, it doesn’t do so as an outside force.
Today a growing swath of the Church’s power structure is composed of influential Africans, with Turkson a leading example. The idea that the future of the Church lies in Africa has become common currency, with many observers talking about an “African moment” in Catholicism.
An African leader visiting Brussels or Washington can’t count on heavyweight Africa-born cabinet members in those places to back them up, but in Rome they can reach out to Turkson, to Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, to Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, or perhaps even to Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Congo – who’s not actually based in Rome, but who’s often in town as a member of the pope’s all-important “G9” council of cardinal advisors.
Africa’s bishops are also stepping up their presence within the African Union, requesting observer status for SECAM, the continent-wide assembly of Catholic prelates.
As a result, partnerships with the Vatican feel more natural for many Africans than with other Western institutions.
Although the Vatican could still provide a forum even without being a sovereign state, it’s unlikely African governments would invest the same resources without that status. Among other things, there would be no African ambassadors to organize if the Vatican didn’t have diplomatic relations with the countries they represent.
It’s also improbable that the EU, the UN, the White House, and other centers of global power would be quite so attentive to the Vatican without its unique international standing.
Vatican sovereignty, in other words, isn’t just a relic. It’s a powerful tool in the here-and-now, one for which African leaders may be increasingly grateful.