Two weeks before the beatification of Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, how to put forward the Salvadoran martyr, and based on whose criteria, is becoming a major plotline in the drama of the event. This fundamental controversy is behind a number of conflicts that have emerged in the last couple of weeks:
- Concerns about a promotional jingle criticized for reflecting the interests of a corporate marketing campaign more than the values of a “Church of the Poor;”
- Accusations that the Church has gotten too close to Telecorporación Salvadoreña, a corporate TV network, giving it exclusive broadcast rights for the event, at the expense of other outlets and Salvadoran Catholic television stations;
- Claims that the motto for the beatification, “Romero, Martyr for Love” seeks to sweeten things up so as not to offend the political right and sidelines the theological fact that Romero was killed out of hatred of the faith.
- Allegations that the cast of artists selected for musical spots features commercial artists who have never expressed interest in Romero or justice for the poor, and has overlooked many artists long committed to the cause;
- Generalized criticism of the event, along the lines that it is an oversized spectacle, far from the humility Romero would have preferred;
- More specifically that by designating limited seats for representatives of marginalized communities, and placing them behind cardinals and bishops, heads of state, the family of the Blessed and thousands of priests, the event diminishes their importance, and that it is insensitive to designate them as “poor peasants” in the official program;
- Dissatisfaction that the relics of Romero’s bloodied clothing, preserved by nuns in the cancer hospital where he lived will be confiscated by the bishops disregarding the nuns; and
- The conflict generated by a group of civil war veterans who had occupied the site designated for the beatification to demand greater pensions, threatening not abandon clear the plaza for the beatification event.
Three factors belie all of these conflicts. (1) There is a real dispute about who really has the right to claim Romero and speak for him. In fact, this dispute has been the central debate in the history of this cause. (2) Part of what we’re seeing is the classic conflict generated when a cause goes from being an insulated one to one which can be claimed by a more extensive following, which leads to growing pains. (3) Finally, the expedited calendar with which the beatification ceremony was scheduled after being approved has not left enough time to build consensus on several issues, leaving landmines that have not been disarmed on the field.
First of all, we are seeing the climax of an epic battle over the identity of Archbishop Romero. When Pope John Paul II visited the tomb of Archbishop Romero in 1983, he reportedly said to those present, “Romero is ours”—indicating his desire that the Church claim to Romero as theirs. In May 2007, Pope Benedict XVI complained that the “problem” in Romero’s beatification had been that “a political party wrongly wished to use him as their badge, as an emblematic figure” and it remained to be resolved “how we can shed light on his person in the right way and protect it from these attempts to exploit it.”
Romero had the support of ordinary people, but the Church at first doubted the wisdom of his actions, and both the right and the left detected the uncertainty and took advantage of it. The right argued that Romero had departed from the orthodox line, and accused him of a double-insurrection: against the state and against the Church. Based on this slander, the extreme right moved decisively to silence him. After his death, when it was clear he was a martyr and popularly considered as such, the left did not hesitate to claim him, while the right was left with no other choice but to relegate him to oblivion, while it privately sought to highlight the prudential concerns about his orthodoxy. When the Church began to recover his figure, it found these two self-interested stratagems which seemed to coincide on the conclusion that Romero was a leftist agitator. Now that the Church seeks to complete its reclamation of the figure of Romero, there is still reluctance on the part of the “popular” sectors, who are reluctant to let go of something they consider to be theirs.
Who owns the legacy of Romero is a dispute that harkens back to the day he was buried, when leftist activists hung posters on the facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral specifying which bishops were not welcome at the ceremony. We can be sure that the beatification ceremony will not degenerate into the chaos of Romero’s funeral, where shooting and suspected bombs triggered a stampede, and forced thousands of clergy and faithful to take refuge in the Cathedral, still under construction at the time. Romero was hastily buried in a makeshift grave on the main floor of the church and was not moved to his tomb in the crypt until a decade later—and that transfer unleashed accusations that the Church had banished Romero, relegating him to “the basement”. In those days, jarring statements about Romero were often heard. When John Paul II brought up Romero in a private meeting with Salvadoran bishops, one conservative prelate reportedly said that Romero was responsible for all the Salvadoran civil war deaths.
Beyond Romero related concerns, there is always a natural tension between the historical supporters of a cause that breaks through to new levels of success, and new adherents. The paradigmatic case is that of the early Church as told in the Acts of the Apostles, when Christianity attracted Gentile converts, and the original followers had to decide whether it was necessary to first become Jewish in order to be a Christian. To follow Romero, do you need to be a ‘progressive’ Catholic? And if you have not been with the cause for years, what are the conditions for joining? Can you speak your mind freely if you just joined the cause recently? These types of tensions occur in other circumstances, such as when an artist becomes a “superstar” and his former followers feel displaced by the new fans.
Finally, conflicts in the planning of such a large scale event as a beatification expected to be attended by 250,000 people or more should not be surprising, and the emergence of divergent views in such cases is also normal. To wit, in the recent canonization of popes John Paul II and John XXIII, there was controversy over a group that organized an exclusive luxury dinner to watch the ceremony from a privileged location, which many said was not worthy of the dignity of the occasion. In the case of the beatification of Msgr. Romero, the time between the announcement of the approval of the beatification and the beatification date was only two months, and this shortened the time available to discuss and try to smooth over conflicts. This has led to tensions and conflicts that probably could be placated if there was more time.
Ultimately, the persistence of these tensions is not likely to interfere with the success of the event. But undoubtedly tensions will continue to move below the surface, and it is important to understand the dynamics behind them. It is fitting that the ceremony will take place the weekend of Pentecost, the feast that celebrates the unity of diverse views within the Church. Hopefully this beatification will be seen as an example of unity and reconciliation among the disciples.