Saturday, March 26, 2011


He came, he saw ... he lit a candle. President Barack Obama, at his own initiative, visited the tomb of Archbishop Romero during his brief stop in El Salvador—the only outing outside of his official cortege, save for a visit to the U.S. Embassy—leaving behind a wake of snarled traffic and many unanswered questions. The one we will concern ourselves with here, is: Does Obama’s visit help or hurt the canonization cause, or even matter at all? For additional discussion, please see the post mortem in Tim’s El Salvador Blog.

The short answer is that Obama’s visit does not hurt, and that it does, in fact help, but only indirectly, Romero’s canonization cause. It does not hurt, despite the fact that the visit was a political act by a political leader, and we have been told for years that the “politicization” of Archbishop Romero has been impeding the progress of the canonization drive. Here, we must note the extreme care and discretion with which the President’s visit was handled. Obama did not (to the chagrin of the activists) go down to Romero’s Tomb to give a speech or otherwise make a big political statement. In fact (to the disappointment of the journalists present), Obama did not make a statement at all. He went to the Crypt, accompanied by the current archbishop, and lit a candle at Romero’s grave. The approach was delicate and respectful: the scene was not even broadcast live (to the frustration of television audiences). And, to the extent that Obama’s visit had political content at all, the message was reconciliation and overcoming the division and conflict of the past. For that reason, Obama’s visit does not hurt at all.

While Obama’s visit definitely did not hurt, it also did not help directly. That is, the fact that the President of the United States visits a would-be saint’s grave does not add weight to any of the considerations being deliberated in the Vatican to determine whether or not he is a saint. There is no credit for having friends in high places and, while the President of the United States may be “the most powerful man on earth,” he should not and does not wield authority over a religious process like a canonization cause. But this does not mean that Obama’s visit will not help at all. In fact, it should help in two important respects.

First, Obama’s visit is a high profile event: as Archbishop Escobar said, a “world event,” which can shape the world image of Archbishop Óscar Romero. The visit by a President of the United States strengthens and bolsters the idea that Archbishop Romero is being transformed into—or has already become—a universal figure, as opposed to a partisan figure that is attractive only to a narrow ideological sector. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Obama’s visit can help assure that the impression becomes the reality, and that Romero is accepted by a broad segment of the society, including the various political factions; and that the Left accedes to this process and stops using him as a proprietary symbol.

Obama’s visit provides a template of how this can be accomplished. Obama showed the Left that you can literally go down to Romero’s grave and bow your head and light a candle and that, even though you don’t shout slogans and have a sit-in, that act is symbolic enough that it will send an unmistakable signal of solidarity and empathy with Romero’s cause. On the other hand, it also showed the Right that there is a necessity to acknowledge the past, to pay respects to the victims, and to begin to celebrate the heroes who stood against repression and abuse. If the visit leads to some conversion—or, at least, some conversation—then it will do much needed good.
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