|St. John Paul II praying at his Tomb in 1983.|
The announcement that Pope Francis has approved a decree that Archbishop Oscar A. Romero is a martyr presents a challenge for the Church: how to explain to Catholics in the new millennium the importance of a martyrdom that occurred during a small Third World country’s civil strife back in the Cold War? [The secret history of the Cause]
Romero is not only relevant but also urgent for our time. Here are ten reasons why.
1. Archbishop Romero represents total fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church. His motto was “Sentir Con La Iglesia” ("To Think and Feel With the Church") which meant, first of all, absolute obedience to and harmony with the Magisterium of the universal Church. Only such loyalty could lead a conservative and reserved bishop to become “the voice of the voiceless” because he felt that his pastoral commitment required it, though he would have to die to fulfill the mandate. This does not mean that every bishop has to focus on matters of social justice; just on whatever his circumstances require.
2. Archbishop Romero is emblematic of the “New Martyrs”. As Benedict XVI pointed out, modern persecutors “more and more seldom explicitly show their aversion to the Christian faith or to a form of conduct connected with the Christian virtues, but simulate different reasons, for example, of a political or social nature.” Seventy of the 82 individuals recognized as martyrs during Benedict’s pontificate were killed during confusing social upheavals such as the Spanish Civil War, World War II and crackdowns in authoritarian Communist regimes. This is the new face of martyrdom in the Third Millennium and Archbishop Romero, martyred at the altar, is its foremost representative.
3. Archbishop Romero is a model of holiness. In his personal life, Romero exemplified the devotional practices and sound morality of a good Christian. His prayer life inspired the admiration of his colleagues, and even his critics could not deny his profound spirituality. Like St. Basil, who lived in an institution housing the poor, Romero lived in a single room within the confines of a hospice for dying cancer patients, which gave him great credibility when he challenged society to increased identification with the poor and suffering.
4. Archbishop Romero is a peacemaker. Romero completely rejected violence, saying: “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love which left Christ nailed to a cross. We have never preached violence except the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us.” Pope Benedict summarized Romero as “a man of great Christian virtue who worked for peace and against the dictatorship.”
5. Archbishop Romero embodies a coherent Christianity. Romero did not abandon traditional fervor to take up “activism;” rather, he put religion at the center of today’s problems. Romero was radical from his orthodoxy and transcends simplistic labels. When he took back a church that had been occupied by the army, he made reparations for the desecrated hosts and then denounced the abuses against the civilian population; simultaneously defending Christ in the sacrament, and Christ present in the poor, highlighting the interrelatedness of the two.
6. Archbishop Romero challenges us to be a Church that goes forth. Romero said he was a “pastor, who, together with his people, has learned a beautiful but difficult truth: that our Christian faith does not separate us from the world, but forces us to become immersed in it; that the Church is not a fortress, separate from the city; instead, she follows Jesus, who lived, worked, fought and died in the middle of the city.” We too must leave the temple and head out to the City, as Pope Francis and Blessed Mother Teresa have said, to bring Christ out to the world.
7. Archbishop Romero is a guide for the “preferential option for the poor”. This point is so obvious that it almost need not be made. The theology of Archbishop Romero sees the poor not only as recipients of our charity but as sources of our own enlightenment. As he said it: “From the transcendence of the gospel we can know what the life of the poor truly is; and by siding with the poor and trying to help them live, we can know what the eternal truth of the gospel is.”
8. Archbishop Romero challenged all parties to work together for the common good. Both sides of the political spectrum heard his call to conversion: “if I am in danger, it could be from both extremes to whom I am a nuisance.” His denunciation of the abuses of the government and the army are well publicized. Now the world is set to discover Romero pleas to the guerrillas to refrain from a violent insurrection; to reformers to avoid banishing God from their political projects; and to all members of society to be converted to Christ and work for the common good.
9. Archbishop Romero is a great preacher. As was made evident when Pope Francis quoted Romero in his General Audience, Romero was a great preacher and evangelist. Pope Benedict said that Romero was a “Pastor full of love for God” who preached the gospel “fervently”. This explains why Romero’s homilies have been published and translated into several languages and his years as archbishop produced good fruits of evangelization. [Homiliarium]
10. Archbishop Romero is recognized beyond the Church. A Jubilee Year Ecumenical Commission points out that Archbishop Romero has been “recognized beyond confessional boundaries” as being among the “martyrs and exemplary confessors of faith, hope and charity,” who could help foster Christian unity and appeal to the non-Christian world. Recently, Lord Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, called him “one of the great gifts of God to the whole people of God in the last few decades; one whose witness and teaching is a legacy for Christians everywhere.”
Each of these points is relevant to the lives of Christians today and is not limited to the Salvadoran situation of the 1970s. Each point also illustrates why Catholics all over the world should celebrate the beatification of Archbishop Romero and study his life and message so as to put it into practice.