If you knew nothing about the assassination of Archbishop Óscar A. Romero of El Salvador, you should know this: it was done by someone who hated the Faith. At the conclusion of this Year of Faith, at a time when threats to the Faith have become more subtle and purposefully evasive, Romero’s assassination three decades ago offers us insights on how to unmask modern persecution of the faith. Although designed to elude definition as outward contempt toward Christianity or Catholicism, Romero’s assassination reflects hatred toward three important aspects of the Christian faith: (i) our love of the poor, (ii) the sanctity of the liturgy, and (iii) the Kingship of Christ.
Disdain for Romero’s love of the poor. Perhaps the easiest hatred to recognize is the fact that Romero’s killers hated his work in defense of the poor. Sometimes, we forget that odium fidei—a canonical requirement for martyrdom—can be hatred of the faith or for one particular virtue (for example, social justice). Christian regard for the poor is no small consideration. Pope Benedict said that the Church sees Christ reflected in the poor, “and she constantly hears echoing in her heart the command of the Prince of Peace to his Apostles: «Vos date illis manducare» – "Give them something to eat yourselves" (Lk 9:13).” This “command” from Christ is not optional, but obligatory. Therefore, violence against the Church’s work of charity and social justice presents us with a shocking and appalling example of hatred of the faith.
Contempt for the altar and the liturgy. Less obvious, but more easily recognizable after the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI about the dignity and sacredness of the liturgy, Romero’s assassination at the altar is an abomination of the celebration of the Mass. To a believer, it is Christ who is present at the altar: not just metaphorically, not just symbolically, but “really, truly, and substantially present.” Tellingly, the type of ritual abuse inherent in Romero’s assassination had become commonplace during the persecution of the Salvadoran church: altars were defiled, Church facades were shot up with bullets, and in one particular town the tabernacle containing the consecrated communion hosts was hacked open with machete strikes. The choice to assassinate the archbishop in the act of celebrating Mass is terribly revealing about his killers motives, and similar reports of ritual abuse today (for example, news about the desecration of altars in places where Christians are persecuted) should give us pause.
Scorn for the Kingship of Christ. Most analysts have concluded that Archbishop Romero was killed on Monday, March 24, 1980 because the previous day, Sunday, March 23, he gave a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers to disobey any order to kill innocent civilians. Under a cynical legalism, such a call by Romero was viewed as an act of insubordination, a challenge to military order and the chain of command. But under Romero’s criteria—and ours—it was the soldiers who had inverted the order of principles and Romero was only setting things right. The Feast of Christ the King this Sunday teaches us the primacy of Christ’s law, and of his kingship over any temporal, worldly, political considerations. Romero’s killers could not handle that truth, and their violent reaction to his asserting the Kingship of Christ reflects their contempt for the faith.For thirty three years, the Church has proceeded cautiously in any beatification of Archbishop Romero because his killers were presumably fellow Christians and because their motives likely included political motives, as well (in his defense of the poor, he challenged the political status quo). The Church always proceeds judiciously in these matters. But we ought not to mistake prudence for doubt. There is no doubt that Romero was killed in hatred of the faith. It is therefore providential that Pope Francis ordered that Romero’s cause be allowed to proceed as one of his first acts after becoming Pope during this Year of the Faith. In addition to the positive examples posited by the Church about the Faith, we can also learn from this example by contrast, of those who act in hatred of the Faith.