El Salvador’s Catholic Church has declared a jubilee year to honor Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero, hailed as a champion of the poor, the oppressed, and Latin America’s liberation theology movement, who was shot to death in 1980 as he was celebrating Mass.
Long a divisive figure in Latin American Catholicism, Romero was declared a martyr by Pope Francis last May, clearing the way for his beatification.
The jubilee year, set to mark the centenary of the birth of Romero, began August 15 and will go on until the same date in 2017.
When he announced the decree of the holy year, San Salvador’s Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas expressed his hope that “when the jubilee year is over, Archbishop Romero will have already been declared a saint.”
Francis’ decision to declare Romero a martyr was seen by many observers as marking a close to one of the most divisive debates in Catholicism in the last 35 years.
A hero to the progressive liberation theology movement, which sought to place the Catholic Church on the side of the poor in struggles for social justice, Romero’s detractors argued that his death didn’t meet the traditional test for martyrdom because it was motivated by politics rather than hatred of the Christian faith.
Through the years, supporters of Romero saw the Vatican’s caution as betraying a broader ambivalence about liberation theology.
For the record, Romero was not actually part of the liberation theology movement, something Peruvian theologian Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, widely considered the founding father of Liberation Theology, has repeatedly stressed.
If anything, Gutiérrez told Crux last May in San Salvador, Romero was a traditional person, “but in the good sense: Not exactly conservative, but a very pious person.”
Romero was shot to death in 1980 while celebrating Mass, during a period of social revolt fueled by poverty and abuses of power. His murder helped trigger a bloody civil war that went on from 1980 to 1992, with fighting between Communist guerrillas and a US-backed right-wing military government, reaching a death toll of more than 75,000 people.
Although ongoing, the cause to declare him a saint is currently at an impasse. Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, champion of Romero’s cause, said last July that they still haven’t found a miracle to advance the process.
“The beatification process itself was a miracle,” he told the blog Tierras de America. “It was very hard to overcome the objections, from very different origins, but all of them oriented towards stopping the process.”
In 2014, when the decision to declare Romero a Martyr was first announced, Paglia told journalists that contrary to popular belief, it was emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, not Francis, who had lifted an informal block on Romero’s sainthood cause.
Regarding how long it’ll take to see the martyr declared a saint, Paglia said that “the only problem is the miracle,” acknowledging that some healings had been studied, but that he hadn’t even presented them as possible causes. “We considered it was better to avoid rejection.”
However, when a miracle is in fact attributed to Romero’s intercession, the slain archbishop could see his cause fast-tracked by Francis, who’s repeatedly express his support for the sainthood cause.
Last year, when a delegation from El Salvador visited him at the Vatican, Francis told the group that “[Romero] was defamed, slandered, his memory despoiled, and his martyrdom was continued, even by his own brothers in the priesthood and the episcopacy.”
“It’s nice to also remember him like this: a man who continues his martyrdom,” Francis said at the time. “[Romero is] a man who, after having given his life, [was] continuously whipped by incomprehension and calumnies.”
“How many times those who have given their lives continue being struck with the hardest stone there is: The tongue!” the pope said.