Thursday, November 06, 2014

Abp. Romero beatification story retracted

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A world renowned Jesuit theologian claimed on Thursday that Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar A. Romero would be beatified next year.  But in further developments that day, a Salvadoran Church official identified with the canonization cause denied the information and the source has retracted the story.  The vicar of the San Salvador Archdiocese, Msgr. Rafael Urrutia, has stated that while the cause continues to progress satisfactorily, there is no official announcement and no definitive result to report from Rome or San Salvador.  He also said that the beatification could well occur in 2015.  The Church is simply not ready to say it yet.
The original news was reported by Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino, who said that Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas had told priests attending meeting of the clergy on Tuesday that “during his stay in Rome, Pope Francis communicated to him that Archbishop Romero will be beatified the coming year.”  (Escobar Alas was recently in Rome for the Synod on the Family.).  On the day of the clergy’s meeting, the San Salvador Archdiocese posted a message to its Twitter account calling on the faithful to keep praying for Romero’s beatification.  The “news” posted by Fr. Sobrino was picked by national and international media.

In an interview over local Jesuit radio, Fr. Sobrino has since admitted that he did not attend the meeting of the clergy where the Archbishop made the announcement, but got the information second hand from someone who conveyed incorrect information.  In particular, Fr. Sobrino clarified that Archbishop Escobar did not speak to Pope Francis but to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of the cause; and that the message conveyed was not that the beatification would definitely be in 2015 but that it would "possibly" be in 2015, which varies signaficantly from the facts he reported.

The news and retraction constitutes the second time this year that the a leaked beatification report regarding Romero turns out to be unfounded.  Earlier this year, there was fevered speculation that Archbishop Escobar was about to make a major announcement which also proved to be only hype.  Reading in between the lines this time, it appears that Archbishop Escobar made the announcement on Tuesday, but intended it to be confidential because the word from the Vatican was merely tentative.  That is, Urrutia confirmed that Escobar had made an announcement, did not deny that Escobar had received positive news in Rome, nor did the retraction come until the end of the day after the news had been broadly reported.  Meanwhile in Rome, Pope Francis has received the Nuncio to El Salvador in a private audience, which may be related to the reported developments.

Technically speaking, of course, Fr. Sobrino’s post had been in no way an official beatification announcement.  The process is still continuing in the Vatican, where theologians are reviewing a recently submitted «Positio Super Martyrio,» that lays out the case for Romero as saint.  Fr. Sobrino acknowledged that no date or other relevant details have been established.  The newsworthiness of the story stems solely from the high placed source--the Pope himself, though Fr. Sobrino has retracted that detail.

The fact that there have now been two misfires highlights the difficulty in interpreting and reporting news about such an arcane process.  Often, the news media do not understand how the beatification process works and therefore are unable to discern the details that should raise red flags in a purported beatification report.  It helps to keep in mind what a real beatification announcement looks like.  In the first place, the confirmation typically comes from Rome, from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, when the Prefect of the Congregation meets with the Pope and delivers a beatification decree for the Pope's approval.  Usually, the approval of the beatification is announced immediately after the meeting during which the Pope approves.  In high profile cases, the news could be leaked before the meeting with the Pope.  In such cases, what would be leaked is that the theologians and cardinals have given their approval and their report will be submitted to the Pope.  Typically, the source of such leaks is the postulator of the case.  In some instances, the local bishop of the diocese from which the saint comes may reveal news that he has received from the postulator.  Anything outside of those circles, and the circumstances just described, should be suspect. 

Here, the source of the leak was a respected Jesuit scholar, therefore the news was accorded some credibility.  However, people familiar with the Salvadoran Church politics would know that Fr. Sobrino has a bit of a reputation as a maverick and an activist.  It seems to be in his character to want to promote transparency by making public what he thought was an important piece of news.  Critics might say that Fr. Sobrino demonstrated insufficient deference to the hierarchy, including the two men who would normally claim the right to make the announcement--the Archbishop of San Salvador and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  In the case of the latter, the current Prefect, Cardinal Angelo Amato has a prior history with Fr. Sobrino.  Cardinal Amato was one of the Church officials who signed a 2006 Church reprimand of Fr. Sobrino regarding the orthodoxy of his scholarship.

In fact, Fr. Sobrino has an interesting history with respect to the canonization cause.  By his own admission, Fr. Sobrino has been seen as a bit of a drag on Archbishop Romero’s cause, because of Fr. Sobrino’s reputation as a theologian who works at the outer edges.  Sobrino worked with Romero and the scope of their collaboration was investigated by the Vatican in vetting Romero’s qualifications for the sainthood (the outcome of that investigation appears to have been positive).  Additionally, Sobrino has repeated expressed reservations about canonizing Romero on the theory that the Church will so throroughly “scrub” Romero to promote him as a holy man that they will promote an inaccurate and two-dimensional understanding of his figure.  Buried in his bungled announcement was Fr. Sobrino’s declaration that he now recognizes the value and validity of canonizing Romero.  “My fear that they will beatify a watered down Archbishop Romero has disappeared,” Sobrino said in his post.  “It is more difficult to manipulate him now.”

If it had been true, the beatification announcement would have capped a 33 year process of seeking Romero's beatification after he was shot down saying mass on March 24, 1980 in San Salvador.  His death is considered to mark the beginning of a 12 year civil war in his native country, pitting a right wing military defending a feudal oligarchy against Marxist insurgents seeking to topple decades of dictatorships.  Romero served three years as Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital city, becoming a vocal critic of military rule.  The political dimensions of his acts complicated the Church's analysis of whether Romero was killed in hatred of the faith (a requirement for martyrdom), as Romero's critics maintained that he was killed because of the political views he espoused.  In finding that his assassination qualifies as a martyrdom, the Church has concluded that the views for which Romero was killed constituted the approved social doctrine of the Church, which promotes social justice and a preferential option for the poor.

The authorization of Romero's beatification after years of stagnation would have owed largely to personnel changes at the Vatican.  The approval of Romero's cause early in the pontificate of Pope Francis would fulfill a top priority of Roman Catholicism's first Latin American pontiff, who was familiar with Romero and reportedly admired his example.  Before becoming Pope, Francis told Salvadoran clerics that if he were in St. Peter's throne, “the very first thing” he would do would be to order Romero's canonization to go forward.  With the announced approval, it seems Francis has carried out his promise.  But the fast-tracking of Romero was also facilitated by the arrival of Msgr. Gerhard Ludwig Müller as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) half a year ahead of Francis.  Müller, a friend of Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, also admired Romero and had been to San Salvador for Romero commemorations.  Müller sped up the process of releasing the Romero file from the archives of the CDF, where it had been bureaucratically held up for several years.

Although Romero always figured as a high profile canonization cause, and was thought to be destined for fast-tracking, it ran afould of geopolitical considerations as well as internal Church politics.  It drew the involvement of three successive popes.  St. John Paul II, who was Pope when Romero was killed, believed that the archbishop died a martyr, but he asked Salvadoran Church authorities to hold-off on initiating the canonization process until such time as it could be assured of a positive reception.  In fact, the process was not started until the late pope signed off on the timing: even though the cause “did not sit well in some Vatican dicasteries ... John Paul II, personally and in spite of this, gave his approval,” says Sobrino, who knew Romero.  According to Sobrino, it was John Paul who gave the Romero sainthood drive the greatest boost when the Pope visited and knelt at Romero's grave during the Pontiff's war time visit to El Salvador in 1983.

Romero also received worldwide notoriety as a result of a Hollywood film, financed in part by the Catholic church, which portrayed his life.  “Romero” (1989) starred Raul Julia in the title role and portrayed the archbishop as a shy and quiet man who rises to the occasion when he discovers the grave situation of injustice that his countrymen were living in.  This becomes obvious to him after a priest he knows is killed.  Romero's canonization cause was announced the year after the film was released, although, due to the civil war, the movie not allowed to be shown in El Salvador for many years.  The first leg of the canonization cause, called the diocesan phase in canon law, went smoothly, wrapping up in two years.  In 1997, the Vatican accepted the documentation from the diocesan phase, recognizing it as valid.   Since 1998, the “Roman phase” of the process has been pending.   Bishop Vincenzo Paglia, a high ranking prelate, known for his diplomatic efforts and proximity to the Sant Egidio movement, was named the postulator of the cause by Pope John Paul II.   There was talk of a quick beatification for Romero.

However, Latin American cardinals though to include the Colombian Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, raised objections that twice derailed the canonization cause and sent it for a detour to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: first, for a study of the writings, sermons, and speeches of Archbishop Romero to ensure that they were free from doctrinal error(2000-2005) and, subsequently, for a review of Romero's pastoral actions, reportedly also requested by the same cardinals.  While some were raising objections to proceeding to canonize Romero too quickly, there were visible efforts to keep the cause moving.  Most significantly, John Paul, who had asked for the process to be instituted, also insisted that Romero's name be inserted into a Year 2000 Jubilee ceremony at the Colosseum honoring 20th century martyrs.  The following year, Bishop Paglia, the postulator of Romero's cuase, held a special congress in Italy, bringing together experts and theologians to rehabilitate and promote the figure of Romero.

In 2005, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints came very close to doing what it is doing today in authorizing Romero's beatification, but the process was short circuited by the second Latin American cardinals' objection and the unexpected death of Romero's great benefactor, Pope John Paul II.  Under the new pope, Benedict XVI, new beatifications slowed to a trickle and Romero's cause soon found itself in the back burner.  Benedict made it clear that he believed Romero's cause was worthy, and he met with Salvadoran president Antonio Saca, a former Romero altar boy, to discuss the cause's progress.  Two years later, Benedict spoke openly--and glowingly--about Romero during his first trip to Latin America.  “That Romero as a person merits beatification, I have no doubt,” Benedict told reporters aboard the Papal plane.  “Archbishop Romero was certainly an important witness of the faith, a man of great Christian virtue who worked for peace and against the dictatorship, and was assassinated while celebrating Mass. Consequently, his death was truly 'credible', a witness of faith.”

Although Benedict, of his own accord, cited Romero publically on two other occasions, his emphasis in recovering Europe's diminishing Christian identity appears to have focused pastoral energies on other projects.  The Pope himself stopped presiding over beatification ceremonies, delegating the task to the Prefect of the CDF, except for cases that fit his thematic priority, such as the beatification of English Cardinal John Henry Newman--and, of course, John Paul II.  Subsequently, the Romero beatification process stalled, apparently neglected by the competent authorities.   The Italian newspaper «La Stampa» would later refer to it as “the lost cause.”

The sea change brought about by the election of Pope Francis dramatically reorganized the priorities of the church in ways that were seen to favor Romero, beyond the obvious fact that the new Pope personally admires Romero and intervened to kick-start his beatification.  Where Pope Benedict wanted to focus on Europe, Pope Francis who came from Latin America, announced that he desired “a poor church for the poor,” which resonated with Romero's perfile.  Romero is the symbol of the Church that Pope Bergoglio wants to project to the geographical and existential peripheries,” Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo told «La Stampa.» And Cardinal Achille Silvestrini told the same outlet that “there is an [‘identity of thinking’] between the magisterium of Pope Bergoglio and the witness of faith offered by Romero to the point of making the ultimate sacrifice, which springs from a common origin in a Church such as a the Latin American Church, which has suffered and still suffers in order to maintain its fidelity to the message of Christ.”

Having outlived the Cold War and much of the power arrangements of that era, to pass through palace intrigues of clerical factions and the preferences of three modern popes, Archbishop Romero emerges like the phoenix to be redeemed by the Church process and the memory of El Salvador's humble peasantry, who hold him in such high esteem that some who had grown impatient with the Church's process had dismissively said it was enough that Romero had already been canonized by his countrymen.  As Romero himself warned those who would take his life, “If they kill me I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”  And he shall rise to the altars, too.  Just not on the timeframe some would wish for.
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