One of the most cryptic remarks relating to Archbishop Romero's canonization cause had to be Msgr. Jesús Delgado explanation of the delay in the case in 2006: “It appears that some shadows of the orthoproxy are still scheming over the Archbishop Romero case, and the Church, in its prudence and wisdom, has wanted to take a little more time.” (Conmemoran el 26 aniversario del asesinato de Romero (26th Anniversary of Romero Anniversary Commemorated), LA PRENSA GRÁFICA, March 25, 2006.) Msgr. Rafael Urrutia shed some light on the issue a year later, when Urrutia told the press that, “the process is in the phase of the study of the orthoproxy, which is the study and analysis of his pastoral practice.” (Homenajes a Monseñor Romero en Aniversario, (Tributes to Archbishop Romero in Anniversary), ANSA Spanish Service, March 24, 2007.)
Romero's ministry was decidedly “difficult.” In fact, that's the word with which Popes Paul VI and John Paul II both assessed Romero's circumstances. (James R. Brockman, S.J., Oscar Romero: A Life, Orbis, New York, 1999.) To understand how difficult, consider the salient features of Romero's archbishopric. Romero got to San Salvador on the eve of a civil war, the inevitability of which had been established before he even arrived. El Salvador was governed by a brutal military dictatorship, which had been killing and disappearing its opponents. In reaction to government repression, a rag tag guerrilla movement had sprang up, which had been taking hostages to get money for weapons, occasionally killing the hostages, raising the ire of the moneyed classes, and of most of the country's bishops, who had for years been cozy with official interests in business, government, and the military. Two days before Romero was installed as Archbishop, an election was rigged, defrauding the little feeble hopes of change through the system there may have been.
Meanwhile, young priests who were sympathetic to the marginalized had become increasingly identified with reformists and revolutionaries, at the same time becoming the latest targets of killings by paramilitary death squads. The day before Romero and the other bishops were to issue a balanced statement of conscience regarding the crisis, Father Rutilio Grande, a good friend of Romero, was assassinated. This was the situation that Archbishop Romero walked into in early 1977 when he was named Archbishop of San Salvador. Incredibly, things were only going to get worse. Still ahead for the three short years Óscar Romero would be San Salvador Archbishop: five more killings of priests, several massacres, a schism among the country's bishops that would leave Romero in the minority, the imminent appointment of a special Vatican referee to supervise him, a coup d'etat, and the slow motion train wreck that was the last chance to avoid an all-out civil war in the country. The record is messy. The reality was messier. And the implications of these facts resonate in considerations ranging from Romero's general virtue to the question of the motives for his assassination (which is important for canonization purposes).
To sort out the difficulties of Romero's ministry -- be it to gauge orthoproxy, or just to understand his challenges -- it is useful to take Romero's archbishopric, year by year.
1977: Trial by Fire. Romero is installed on February 22nd. He is coming from a rural diocese in a lush, coffee-growing region to a gritty urban archdiocese, whose Cathedral is unfinished and Romero must have his installation ceremony at the seminary's church in Western San Salvador. By the time he arrives in the capital, San Salvador is bristling with strife over the election fraud. A huge crowd swells at a central plaza. The army fires at the crowd to disperse it, sending the protesters fleeing into a church. On March 12, Fr. Rutilio Grande is killed; the new Archbishop demands an investigation and, unsatisfied with the foot dragging, breaks off relations with the goverment. At the end of the month, Romero goes to Rome and reports to Pope Paul VI on the situation. After his return, he issues his introductory pastoral letter “The Church of Easter,” some of which had been composed at Kennedy Airport en route to Rome. In April, the insurgents kidnap the foreign minister and, the day his lifeless body was found, right wing death squads kill Fr. Alfonso Navarro as revenge. Romero has not been Archbishop for three months. In August, he releases a second pastoral letter, entitled “The Church, the Body of Christ in History.” Romero becomes the most relevant actor in El Salvador and the freshest voice -- the “Voice of the Voiceless.” His broadcast homilies hold El Salvador spell-bound.
1978: The Calm before The Storm. Before completing a full year as Archbishop, Romero has won acclaim. In February, Georgetown University confers an honorary degree and, before year's end, British MPs and later US Congressmen will have nominated Archbishop Romero for the Nobel Peace Prize (he would be beat out by Mother Theresa). The situation remains tense, with leftist radicals taking over embassies during the spring and, to Romero's chagrin, the Cathedral, too. In June, Romero has another audience with Pope Paul, who dies in August, on the same day that Romero issues his third pastoral letter, “The Church and Popular Political Organizations.” Kidnappings and killings continue. In September, a university dean and economist is murdered. The general manager of Philips El Salvador is kidnapped in November. After the brief papacy of John Paul I, the Polish Karol Wojtyla takes over in October as John Paul II. In November, a young priest who was running with the guerrillas is killed, in what the government alleges was a shoot-out. By the next month, the archdiocese gets an “apostolic visitor” (church jargon for an auditor or special investigator checking in on Romero). By the next year, these would be remembered as the good old days.
1979: A National Crisis. On January 20, on the anniversary of the 1932 massacre of up to 30,000 peasants, Fr. Octavio Ortiz is assassinated, about a week before the Latin American Bishops Conference begins in Puebla, Mexico, with the new pope, John Paul II, in attendance. Romero attends, but in a snuff, he is not sent by the Salvadoran bishops conference, which is by now hostile to Romero. In May, four bishops sign a scathing document that is very critical of Romero. That month, Romero meets with John Paul and realizes that the pope is getting very one sided and negative reports. The next day, protesters are gunned down on the steps of the San Salvador Cathedral. In June, Fr. Rafael Palacios is assassinated. Fr. Napoleón Macías is assassinated in August, two days before Romero's fourth pastoral letter, “The Church's Mission amid the National Crisis,” is released. That month, the president of El Salvador denies that there are political prisoners. Two months later, a coup d'etat, staged by reform minded young military officers removes the president and puts in place a military-civilian “junta” government. Romero urges calm. In November, the Salvadoran bishops conference meets to elect officers. The wide open dispute between Romero and most of the other bishops holds the results hostage for over a month and requires the papal nuncio to step in and mediate. Meanwhile, the condition of the country continues to deteriorate. In November, the South African ambassador is kidnapped and by the end of the year, even the U.S. Embassy cuts back its staff on the grounds that El Salvador is too unsafe.
1980: War. El Salvador is at the breaking point. Throughout January, officials quit the military-civilian junta on the grounds that it is corrupt and ineffective. One former minister even joins the guerrillas. As the year begins, Archbishop Romero holds a summit with ministers and justices to try to resolve the crisis. At the end of the month, Romero goes to Rome and meets with John Paul II one last time. He comes away feeling more understood. A few days later, he delivers an address at Leuven University, Belgium, in which he speaks eloquently about the political dimensions of the faith (available here -- in Spanish). The Spanish and Panamanian embassies are taken over by rebels that month. At the end of February, the radio station that transmits Romero's sermons is blown up. A few days later, a centrist, reformist leader is assassinated. At the funeral mass, the pulpit from which Romero preaches is rigged with dynamite, but it fails to go off. The junta tries to push through bank and aggrarian reform to avert all-out war. Violence continues to escalate, and the government repression gets increasingly more harsh. In March, Romero writes to President Carter, urging him not to send military aid to El Salvador. On March 23, Archbishop Romero makes a last ditch, desperate appeal to the armed forces directly, to “Stop the repression!” The next day, he is gunned down saying Mass. The day after Archbishop Romero was assassinated, El Salvador was in all-out war. Forty bombs rocked downtown businesses and banks. By March 27, three government ministers had resigned. At Romero's funeral on Palm Sunday, the rival bishops were booed, and later, 68 civilians were killed and more than 200 injured after on-lookers reported that the army had fired at the crowd.
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After Archbishop Romero's death, Pope John Paul moved to restore the unity of the Salvadoran bishops. He appointed Romero's ally, Arturo Rivera y Damas to succeed him, but moved cautiously, naming him first in an interim basis, and encouraging him to chart a centrist course through the Salvadoran Civil War that was now raging. John Paul also took up Romero's request to appoint another like-minded bishop, appointing Gregorio Rosa Chavez as the youngest bishop in the continent, to help Archbishop Rivera. Finally, when the Pope visited El Salvador in 1983, he prayed at Archbishop Romero's grave, making it difficult to claim that Romero was an outcast. In the years hence, the Church has promoted more conservative bishops, but all of them have embraced Archbishop Romero and his canonization. It is hard to say that the “shadows of the orthopraxy” have been cast out entirely, but the candles in Archbishop Romero's hallowed grave site burn very bright.