Mixed reviews for “Romero” (1989) and “For Greater Glory” (about the Mexican Cristero Martyrs, 2012) illustrate the challenge of telling saints’ stories in a complex historical context. How do you pare down politically complicated stories without leaving some of what makes them compelling on the cutting room floor?
The same challenges faced by Hollywood filmmakers awaited the relators and analysts of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who took sixty one years to beatify Father Miguel Pro (pictured—the first of the Cristero martyrs to be recognized as such by the Roman Catholic Church), and are still working on the Romero case, thirty one years on. In fact, political sensitivity regarding Father Pro’s case was so high that the beatification, originally scheduled to occur sixty years after his death, was postponed by the Vatican because 1987 was also an election year. And rather than promote a national celebration of the country’s first modern candidate for sainthood, the Mexican church proceeded cautiously, avoiding any large scale celebrations of Father Pro’s beatification. (ROHTER, “State Power vs. God's Glory: Of Saints and the Not So Saintly,” New York Times, September 24, 1988.)
The political aftermath of the Cristero war was similar to the post-war period in El Salvador against which the Romero beatification process has played out. Part of the difficulty in beatifying Father Pro and the Cristeros was that when the beatifications took place, the PRI party ruled Mexico. The party was established by Plutarco Elías Calles, a populist leftist strongman whom Pope Pius XI accused of “ferocity” in facilitating “the persecution of the Catholic Church,” during the Cristero wars (Encyclical Letter «INIQUIS AFFLICTISQUE,» ¶12, Nov. 18, 1926). After the strife, the party became the entrenched power in Mexico for 71 years, including a period of economic growth and low inflation that some call “the Mexican Miracle,” during which church-state relations stabilized. Similarly, in El Salvador, the country was governed for five consecutive governance periods by presidents from the same political band, the right-wing ARENA party, founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who reportedly ordered the Romero assassination. ARENA rule was characterized by social stability following the upheaval of war, and the strengthening of democratic institutions as well as peaceable relations between the government and the Church.
The Cristero saints prove that the Church is equipped to handle complexity. After all, as Pope Pius XI observed at the time of the Cristero conflict, “the frequent revolutions of modern times have ended in the majority of cases in trials for the Church and persecutions of religion.” (I.A., supra, ¶5). In fact, one month before issuing his encyclical on the Cristero conflict, Pope Pius XI had beatified 191 martyrs of the French Revolution—including the Archbishop of Arles—who had been slain 134 years before. (Id., at ¶4). Whether it is the French Revolution, the Cristero Rebellion, or the Salvadoran Civil War, such conflicts conflate religious and political motivations—both of potential martyrs as well as their persecutors, that are necessary to sift through in order to assess whether the victims were killed in hatred of the Christian faith. In some cases, “it may be difficult to prove martyrdom ... if it is necessary to discern between the political and religious motives of the persons involved,” according to a former high ranking official in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. (Msgr. Edward Novak, quoted in WOESTMAN, Canonization: Theology, History, Process 58, St. Paul University, 2002.) Difficult, but not impossible, because the Congregation can use historical experts to sift through the motive strands to discern theology from ideology. (Op. Cit.)
Archbishop Romero had been studying for the priesthood in Rome during the final years of Pius XI’s papacy, admired the pope’s robust defense of Catholic interests, and took up the Christ the King devotion promoted by the pontiff. “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (‘Long live Christ the King!’) had been the Cristero motto, exclaimed by some of the martyrs at the moments of their deaths. In fact, Archbishop Romero had been discussing the Cristero martyrs at a retreat with an Opus Dei delegation on the day he was killed. “We were in a beach house and suddenly I do not know why someone brought up the subject of the Cristero martyrs in Mexico, just that day, the day of his death,” recalls Msgr. Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, who succeeded Romero as archbishop. (SÁENZ, "The Legacy of a Friendship," El Diario de Hoy, March 21, 2005—in Spanish.) Invoking the Cristeros in Salvadoran Catholic circles in 1980s would be understandable. During the Cristero conflict, “Churches, seminaries and convents were seized, desecrated,” recalled Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gómez (who was born in Mexico. He writes in a reflection, ‘For Greater Glory’—available online here). “Priests were tortured and killed, many of them shot while celebrating Mass.” In other words, it was very similar to El Salvador in 1980, when Romero was shot while saying Mass.
The famous picture of Father Pro with his arms outstretched to make his whole body a defiant cross before the firing squad compares dramatically with depictions of Romero. “Growing up,” Archbishop Gómez recalls, “we had prayer cards made from a grainy photograph of ... Blessed Miguel Pro ... standing before a firing squad without a blindfold, his arms stretched wide like Jesus on the cross as he cries out his last words: ¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (Gómez, supra.) In November 1979, Romero was called to mediate a tense standoff at a church one block down from the Cathedral. Rebels inside were holding a soldier hostage and virulent national guardsmen surrounding the church threatened to open fire. Romero stood with his arms outstretched, between the rabid guardsmen and the multitudes taking sanctuary inside. “He began to sweat, to shake, his arms were trembling” as the soldiers threatened to unleash their fire power, an onlooker recalled. (Giovanni Galeas Interview, El Faro, Feb. 2, 2004, cached here.) “This was not Romero the great preacher, but a small man who was scared to death.” But, Romero refused to budge as the tension roiled. “I saw this scared to death little man rise to greatness,” the witness recalled, as one who “rises above his own fearfulness assuming responsibility for the community.” (Id.) After the standoff was diffused, the refugees asked Archbishop Romero to spend the night with them, and he did. (His Diary, Nov. 1, 1979 entry.)
Romero was certainly serene on March 24, 1980, when a sharpshooter fired at him from the open door of the Divine Providence Hospital Chapel in San Salvador. The layout of the small church makes it impossible for Romero not to see the shooter, and experts examining his vestments found evidence of “a sudden and profuse outpouring” of perspiration, consistent with Romero, “in the few seconds before his death, having seen his assassin,” and having “sweated as a natural reaction to the shock and in anticipation of what was about to happen.” (“Stonyhurst Curator returns to San Salvador,” Romero News, January 2009.) The audio recording shows that—on the day he had been discussing the Cristeros—Romero did not falter as he defiantly prayed, “May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for mankind nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain—like Christ—not for self, but to bring about a harvest of justice and peace for our people.” (March 24, 1980 sermon.)