SAN SALVADOR — From the outside, it’s hard to imagine why anyone in El Salvador wouldn’t be overjoyed on Saturday when the late Archbishop Oscar Romero becomes the country’s first-ever native son to reach beatification, the final stage before sainthood in the Catholic Church.
Romero, after all, is one of the most iconic figures in contemporary Catholicism, a Church leader who gave his life to defend the poor and the oppressed in the most dramatic fashion possible.
He was shot to death while saying Mass on March 24, 1980, and although no one has ever been officially charged, a 1992 United Nations investigation concluded that the intellectual author of the assassination was a right-wing politician and former army officer named Roberto D’Aubuisson.
He’s also a source of deep national pride in this small Central American nation of 6 million, which otherwise is known best internationally for its bloody civil war in the 1980s and now its astonishing levels of gang violence, featuring the world’s highest murder rate in 2014.
Certainly, Salvadoran authorities are doing their best to project a celebratory mood. One of the country’s largest newspapers on Friday featured a full-page ad taken out by the local government with the slogan, “All Salvadorans are united in welcoming the first Salvadoran saint.”
While it’s a nice thought — aside from the technicality that beatification makes someone a “blessed,” not yet a saint — the reality is that it’s just not true.
Roberto Flores, communications director for a San Salvador school, estimates that as much as 40 percent of the country will be watching Saturday’s celebration with reactions ranging from ambivalence to outright opposition.
He has mixed emotions himself, objecting that not only is Romero’s image subject to political manipulation, but that politicians who support abortion rights and gay marriage may claim an endorsement.
Flores described recently driving through the downtown square in San Salvador where the beatification Mass will be celebrated, seeing a large crowd of people wearing T-shirts with the Venezuelan flag and carrying banners of Che Guevara chanting “Romero, saint of America!”
He said he worries the beatification will bring more of the same.
“The country isn’t ready for this,” Flores said. “It’s going to shine a spotlight on us at the wrong time.”
Such anxiety generally has little to do with Romero the man, and more to do with Romero the symbol.
Among other things, Romero is sometimes rolled out as a sort of informal patron saint for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the former guerillas-turned-political party currently in power. Government spokesmen recently suggested that the beatification would not have happened if they were not in charge.
Even the blue background posters touting Romero as the “Saint of America” dotting downtown San Salvador this week are seen by many people not as an act of devotion but as a political display, since they were put up by the center-left government.
This background helps explain the undercurrent of discontent one detects in some circles here, especially among political conservatives and more tradition-minded Catholics.
For a sample of the kind of things being said, consider the following comments posted on the Facebook page of an elite private school in San Salvador.
“Sure, he’s blessed,” groused a woman named Gracie Rivas. “He’s blessed for anyone who didn’t actually meet him, and for all he did for the guerillas.”
Another woman named Imelda Amaya wrote, “He who doesn’t know God kneels in front of anyone” — her suggestion being that if you actually knew God, you wouldn’t kneel before Romero.
Reaction from the political right has also been muted.
“It’s a Catholic Church thing, and if they want to make him a saint, they’re in their right to do so,” said Mario Valiente, a congressman from the conservative ARENA party. “If they believe he’s a saint, then [I suppose] we have to include him among the saints of the Catholic Church.”
In another indication that not every Salvadoran cherishes Romero’s memory, D’Aubuisson’s son was recently elected mayor of a working-class town near San Salvador.
Laura Morataya, a 22-year Salvadoran journalist who’s engaged to Flores, said the polarization over Romero runs through her own family.
Friends of her mother, she said, came from one of the country’s coffee-growing elite families, and saw Romero as encouraging the leftist guerillas attacking them. Her father, she said, came from a modest family near the Guatemalan border, where the threat came from the army and right-wing paramilitary groups, and thus saw Romero as their defender.
Flores and Morataya said that when they were attending school, there was no instruction offered on Romero, so their impressions were forged by their families, friends, and whatever was in the air.
“The wounds of the war were still too fresh, and there was a taboo on talking about anything related to it, including Romero,” Flores said.
Both Flores and Morataya said that the beatification has prompted them to learn more about the “real Romero,” and they’re now convinced that he was a holy man trying to do the right thing in very difficult circumstances.
Carlos Mayora, a local newspaper columnist, said he’s optimistic about how the beatification will play out.
“Certainly people will try to manipulate it,” he said, “but I’m convinced there’s a growing awareness among the people of who Romero really was.”
Mayora believes this is the “perfect time” for the beatification, because “it will unite us and not divide us.”
Morataya was not quite sure.
“The country hasn’t been prepared to handle this properly,” Morataya said. “Honestly, I’m not sure we’ll ever be prepared.”
A projected half-million people are expected to attend the beatification, making it the largest public event in the country’s history. Images from the event will likely capture deep emotion, especially joy, and it will all be real.
Just don’t mistake it for universal sentiment here, because it’s clearly not the only reaction in circulation.