|Romero and Pironio; Quarracino and Bergoglio.|
In May 2007, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio told a Salvadoran cleric, “If I had been pope, the very first thing I would have done is order the beatification of Archbishop [Óscar A.] Romero.” On March 13, 2013, the Argentine became Pope Francis, and on April 20 he let it be known that he had “unblocked” the Romero beatification. Francis came to the throne of St. Peter with significant knowledge of the “martyr bishop”’s story, which he may have derived from the following sources.
- During the ‘70s, Romero was a great friend of the Argentine Cardinal Eduardo Francisco Pironio, the first Latin American to hold a position in the Roman Curia.
- In 1979, Romero was investigated by another Argentine cardinal, Antonio Quarracino, who formed a positive opinion of Archbishop Romero based on that investigation.
- Pironio and Quarracino were dear friends and priestly formation partners, and both were mentors to Card. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis).
To begin with, there is a mutual familiarity among Archbishop Romero, Cardinal Pironio and Cardinal Quarracino. All three were of the same generation, born three years apart (Romero in 1917, Pironio in 1920, and Quarracino in 1923). For ten years between April 25, 1970, when Romero was appointed a bishop, and March 24, 1980, when he was assassinated, all three served as bishops in Latin America, occupying important positions in the life of the Church. Pironio and Quarracino served consecutively in the general secretariat and presidency of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), while Romero served on the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
Pironio was the general secretary of CELAM during the famous Medellin conference of 1968, which produced the “preferential option for the poor.” This made him an authoritative interpreter of the social doctrine of the Church in the eyes of Archbishop Romero. In August and September 1972, Pironio preached a retreat for Central American churchmen, which Archbishop Romero attended. In 1974, Pironio preached the same retreat as the spiritual exercises of the Pope. According to Msgr. Jesús Delgado, former vicar general of Archbishop Romero, “The Salvadoran Archbishop felt an admiration for the Argentine cardinal... who was like ‘his personal pope’.” Msgr. Gregorio Rosa Chávez, the Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador, says that “the saintly Argentine bishop thereafter became the faithful friend and confidant of Romero during his tense visits to the Vatican.” Romero incorporated the ideas preached by Pironio in his first pastoral letter, and during his visits to Rome as archbishop he visited Pironio for approval. In his diary, Romero reports that Pironio received him “in such a fraternal and cordial manner that this one meeting was enough to fill me with consolation and encouragement.” According to his account, Pironio advised: “Have courage Romero... The worst thing you can do is to become discouraged.” [May 9, 1979 entry.]
In a sense, Cardinal Pironio and Archbishop Romero suffered the same fate, both accused of favoring subversives. In another encounter recorded in his diary, Romero reports that, “When we were saying good-bye, when I told him that I was accused of being an instrument of communism in Latin America, Cardinal Pironio told me: ‘It does not surprise me, since they have even published a book with the title of Pironio, Pyromaniac’.” [June 26, 1978 Entry.] in fact, one reason why Pope Paul VI decided to bring Card. Pironio to Rome was to spare him an Argentine dictatorship that may have wanted to harm him.
Antonio Quarracino had contact with Archbishop Romero in 1979 when, in an atmosphere of accusations against Archbishop Romero, he was appointed to conduct an “apostolic visitation” to El Salvador to investigate the actions of the Archbishop and report his findings to Rome. Quarracino interviewed several local Church officials and reviewed documentation submitted by Romero, and was deferential and even apologetic: “Well, I was sent here.” [Brockman.] According to Msgr. Delgado, the vicar of Archbishop Romero, Quarracino “stated that he had never found ‘a bishop who was so holy’,” as Romero. Although he recommended the appointment of an apostolic administrator “sede plena” to coordinate political matters in the archdiocese because of the internal divisions of the local Church, Quarracino recommended that Archbishop Romero remain in charge of spiritual matters. [Brockman.] (On the other hand, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who served as personal secretary to John Paul II, has recently said that after meeting with Archbishop Romero, the Pope “was so convinced of Romero’s arguments that he always defended him within the ranks of the Curia.”)
Cardinal Pironio and Cardinal Quarracino were partners in their priestly training. Quarracino called Pironio his “soul friend” and revealed that “when we were young … we made a pact. I would emphasize the Faith in my preaching, and he would emphasize Hope, joining the two in Charity.” So close were the two that when Card. Pironio died, it was said to have affected the health of Card. Quarracino, who died 23 days later.
Pironio, Quarracino and Jorge Mario Bergoglio have a lot in common. Besides being eminent figures of the Church in Argentina, there are other similarities. The three are children of Italian WWI immigrants. Bergoglio recalled Card. Pironio as “a man of open doors who made you want to be in his presence;” “When you’d go see Pironio, wherever he was and whatever work he was doing, he made you feel that you were the only one there.” Views undoubtedly shared by Archbishop Romero. As for Card. Quarracino, Bergoglio served as his auxiliary in Buenos Aires since Bergoglio was appointed to that position in 1992 until Card. Quarracino’s death in 1998 (Bergoglio was appointed coadjutor the previous year, which allowed him to take over as archbishop automatically upon Quarracino’s passing). As pope, Francis recalled Quarracino and Pironio when he appointed Msgr. Fernando Vérgez Alzaga as Secretary General of the Governorate of Vatican City.
During his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Card. Bergoglio attended several ceremonies paying tribute to Archbishop Romero in events organized by the Sant Egidio community of Argentina, in the framework of the ecumenical commemoration of twentieth century martyrs. For example, in the 2005 commemoration of Romero and others, held at the Buenos Aires Cathedral, Card. Bergoglio railed against the “greatest evil that can happen to the Church of the Lord: spiritual vulgarity—when we enter into accommodations with the schemes of this world.” When Card. Bergoglio led a delegation of Argentine bishops to Rome in 2009, they visited the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island, which pays tribute to twentieth century martyrs, including Archbishop Romero.
Two more points in the Argentine experience forged the views of the cardinal who would become Pope Francis about Archbishop Romero. During the meeting of Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, for which Card. Bergoglio was in charge of preparing the final document, there was a movement to acknowledge Romero. It was during this meeting that the cardinal said, “If I had been pope, the very first thing I would have done is order the beatification of Archbishop Romero.” And a tribute was paid to Archbishop Romero and to Argentine Bishop Enrique Angelelli during a National Eucharistic Congress in Cordoba, Argentina, in 2009, as part of an effort for reconciliation in light of the perceived failures of the Church during the dictatorship.
Card. Pironio and Card. Quarracino were close friends who knew Romero. The two have been influential on the cardinal who became Pope Francis. The notable admiration of the Pope for the Salvadoran archbishop has certainly been enriched by these points of reference.