BEATIFICATION OF ARCHBISHOP ROMERO, MAY 23, 2015
|John Paul II and the Archbishop of Canterbury pray at the altar where St. Thomas Becket was martyred; during the May 1982 ceremony, they also lit a candle for Oscar Romero.|
Venerating the relics of Blessed Oscar Romero and the English saints, Thomas More and John Fisher, at the L.A. Cathedral was occasion to reflect on the lessons of the English martyrs, particularly as it relates to the political dimension of martyrdom.
Martyrdom, we must say, is historically related to politics. There is, as it were, a political dimension to martyrdom. Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez acknowledged this during his homily at the Cathedral ceremony, when he said that, “Following Jesus means that we are going to come in conflict with the authorities in society, just as Jesus did and just as the saints and martyrs did.”
The English saints like St. Thomas More, follow that pattern. Before More, though, another English martyr had run afoul of earthly authority, and that was St. Thomas Becket, the last archbishop killed at the altar before Blessed Romero. There are many parallels between Becket and Romero. Becket originally enjoyed the support of the powerful, having been favored by the King, who expected Becket, a personal friend, to do his bidding. Becket instead became a staunch defender of Church interests in a conflict between Church and state. Becket was urged by the Pope of his day to compromise with the King and he sought to do so, but refused to compromise his principles. In the end, Becket was killed at the altar by four of the King’s knights after the King, in frustration, had blurted out, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”
These parallels between Becket and Romero are obvious, and so are the political overtones to much of Becket’s story. King Henry did not lash out against Becket primarily because he hated the Christian faith. The King was frustrated that Becket was thwarting his political plans. The King and the Archbishop had an ongoing turf war. Becket was excommunicating officials who took the King’s side—he was a thorn on the King’s side. Nevertheless, Becket was canonized within 3 years of his assassination. The speed is attributed to Becket’s popularity among the commoners, and to the horrified reaction of Christian Europe to a murder at the altar. In fact, Pope Alexander III made King Henry II submit himself to humiliating public acts of contrition, including wearing a hair shirt and having to make a pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb to be forgiven.
The similarities between Becket and Romero continue after their deaths. When Henry VII broke away from the Catholic Church in the 1500s, he had Becket’s shrine destroyed and his bones scattered. This event recalls the action of the Salvadoran military, when, during the massacre of the Jesuit staff of San Salvador’s Jesuit university in 1989, they shot up and desecrated the photograph of Romero on the wall—a symbolic second killing of the martyr. Those acts are a testament to the power of the martyrs, who continue to speak after they are dead, and continue to bother and vex their persecutors.