SAN SALVADOR — On Saturday, the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador reached the ranks of the Catholic Church’s near-saints, receiving the title of “blessed” in a ceremony called a beatification.
Theologically, all such declarations may be created equal, but in terms of star power, some beatifications are clearly more equal than others. Romero, among the most iconic Catholic figures of the late 20th century, is a classic example of the “more equal” category.
Shot to death at the altar in 1980 defending the poor and victims of human rights abuses at the outset of a deadly civil war, Romero became an instant icon, especially to Catholics most invested in the Church’s peace-and-justice teachings.
The beatification was an opportunity to take the temperature of those folks, especially what they made of seeing Romero enter the ranks of officially recognized heroes of the faith.
One constant refrain was the parallels between Romero and Pope Francis, who officially recognized him as a martyr in February.
José Jorge Simán, for instance, a Salvadoran businessman, was a close friend of Romero, running San Salvador’s Justice and Peace office and frequently hosting him at his home for dinner.
Simán argued that Romero’s evolution from a fairly conventional cleric to a champion of the downtrodden reflected broader shifts in Catholicism, which many believe have reached a crescendo under Pope Francis.
“Under [Pope] Pius XII, the Church was mostly about catechism,” he said, referring to the pope who reigned from 1939 to 1958, and during whose term Romero was ordained a priest in 1942.
“Catechism” means a classical form of religious instruction.
“Beginning with the Second Vatican Council, and later with the meetings of Latin American bishops in the 1960s and 70s, the Church began to read the social reality and try to change it,” Simán said.
Vatican II was a summit of Catholic bishops in Rome from 1962 to 1965 that launched the Church on a course of modernization and reform, while the celebrated gatherings of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 and Puebla, Mexico in 1979, embraced the “option for the poor” as a priority.
Simán said it was distressing to see Romero become a lightning rod between the political left and right after his death.
“Some wanted to bury him, and others wanted to use him,” Simán said.
The Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian who’s considered the father of the liberation theology movement in Latin American Catholicism that seeks to place the Church on the side of the poor, said one of Romero’s defining characteristics was a capacity to be open to new ideas.
Gutierrez first met Romero in 1972, when he taught the Salvadoran prelate in a course on liberation theology.
Romero, he said, was “not cloistered or encapsulated in one current … he was a traditional person, but in the good sense, not exactly conservative,” he said.
“He’d quote many different theologians, something equally valid for Pope Francis,” Gutierrez said.
A fellow liberation theologian, the Rev. Jon Sorbino of El Salvador, went so far as to suggest that the beatification didn’t represent a real shift in the Vatican, where “they still think what they want to think.”
Instead, Sobrino argued, the tribute to Romero was all about Francis.
“It’s Pope Francis who, being more sensitive, talks more about these things,” he said.
Retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, where Salvadorans are the second-largest foreign-born community in the city with roughly 70,000 households, said the beatification represents an “examination of conscience” for the United States.
The United States backed right-wing forces in El Salvador in the 1970s that are widely believed to have been behind the assassination of Romero, and more recently the vicious gangs that plague the country today were forged in the United States and then exported back to the country as a result of a 1996 crackdown on immigration.
“Our history in El Salvador is best looked at through the eyes of the ‘Joy of the Gospel’,” Mahony said, referring to a 2013 text from Pope Francis that is widely seen as the magna carta of his papacy.
“We find there a very concrete path for implementing the gospel today, especially in terms of structures of injustice and oppression,” he said. “It’s the underlying structures that need to be addressed, not just occasions here and there of some unjust action.”
Mahony said that when Romero is eventually canonized, the formal declaration of sainthood, it “would just seal that point.”
Many Romero devotees said there’s a straight line connecting the Salvadoran prelate and history’s first Latin American pope, whose core dream is a “poor Church for the poor.”
Sister Elvia Eliset Casut is a Carmelite nun who helps to run the International Romero Center, a small museum located in the modest building where Romero lived as archbishop. Among other things, it preserves the small Chevrolet he used to move around the city and the spartan bedroom where he slept.
Casut put the point as simply as possible: Francis, she said, is the pope Romero would have been if he had ever been elected to the job.
Of course, that’s a hypothesis impossible to prove or disprove. Beatifications, however, are acts of faith, and you’d have been hard-pressed in El Salvador last week to find many fans of both Romero and Francis who didn’t share the sense that they represent alter egos.
A Vatican cardinal faces a sex abuse controversy
Australian Cardinal George Pell is no stranger to controversy, though of late it’s been mostly about his performance as Pope Francis’ hand-picked financial reformer, or his staunchly traditional views on the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family and how that summit may handle hot-button issues such as homosexuality and divorce.
This week, however, Pell faced a new round of charges related not to his present but his past, mostly his time between 1987 and 2001 as an auxiliary bishop and then archbishop of Melbourne, Australia.
A Royal Commission examining child sexual abuse in Australian institutions heard testimony this week accusing Pell of trying to bribe a victim of abuse to stay quiet, ignoring another victim’s complaint, and knowingly transferring a pedophile priest.
There have been calls for Pell to go back to Australia to answer the charges, and he’s pledged “complete cooperation” with the probe.
“I have the deepest sympathy for the victims of abuse, their families, and the community of Ballarat for what they have suffered,” he said, referring to an Australian town where abuse allegations are currently being examined by the commission.
“Once again, I will answer allegations and criticisms of my behavior openly and honestly,” Pell said.
Three points are worth making as the situation plays itself out.
First, this is hardly the first time Pell has faced criticism over his handling of sex abuse scandals, either during his time in Melbourne or his later stint as the archbishop of Sydney.
In fact, most of the charges raised this week first surfaced during a 2013 parliamentary inquiry in Victoria, the Australian state where Melbourne is located. Pell vigorously disputed the accusations then, and did so again in a statement released on Wednesday.
For instance, Pell said of the bribery charge that “at no time did I attempt to bribe David Ridsdale or his family,” referring to the victim who charged Pell with attempting a payoff. Pell insisted that he never offered “any financial inducements for him to be silent.”
Pell didn’t make the point in Wednesday’s statement, but in the past he’s emphasized that as archbishop of Melbourne, he developed one of the first systems anywhere in the world to offer abuse victims financial compensation.
People will either believe Pell or not, but given that the main accusations have been hashed over before, it’s not clear whether a new appearance by Pell before an investigatory body will fundamentally alter those reactions.
Second, it’s striking that Pell has not invoked his Vatican status in an attempt to avoid answering questions about his record.
In theory, as the head of a Vatican department, Pell could try to assert sovereign immunity to avoid being compelled to answer inquiries from another government, in this case Australia. At least so far, however, he’s shown no inclination to play that card.
Third, it will be interesting to see whether the controversy affects Pell’s standing in Rome.
Since taking over as prefect of the new Secretariat for the Economy 14 months ago, Pell has drawn mixed reviews. Admirers see him as taking on an entrenched Vatican culture to promote accountability and transparency, while critics say he has tried to consolidate power in his own hands and has so far failed to deliver substantial change.
Adding fuel to the fire is that Pell’s blunt Anglo-Saxon personality is a bit of a shock for the Vatican’s Italian-dominated old guard.
Last September, the widely read Italian newsmagazine l’Espresso carried a cover story titled “The Dark Side of the Cardinal,” about criticism of Pell’s record on the abuse scandals in Australia. The piece was widely seen in Rome as an attempt by Pell’s enemies to undercut his Vatican standing.
So far, the current controversy has not had much of an echo in the Italian press. If it festers, however, it would surprising if people in Rome with an entirely different set of reasons for resenting him didn’t attempt to make something of it.