Pope Francis has reached a milestone decision regarding El Salvador’s late Archbishop Oscar Romero. The head of the Catholic Church has “unblocked” Romero’s beatification process, a necessary prelude to full sainthood.
This is good news for supporters of the late Romero, not only from his homeland but also throughout Latin America. Hopefully, when he officially becomes “Saint Romero” the late priest’s image may finally become less commercialized and politicized in El Salvador.
Archbishop Romero was murdered on March 24, 1980, while he held a mass in the ‘La Divina Providencia’ Hospital, in El Salvador’s capital. Nobody has ever been convicted of his murder. Nevertheless, it is generally believed that a sniper shot Romero following orders from the Salvadoran Army officer Roberto D’Aubuisson, who eventually founded the powerful political party ARENA.
One of Romero’s most memorable acts was anopen letterto then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter. In it, Romero warned that U.S. support for the Salvadoran government, known for its human rights abuses, would only “sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their fundamental human rights.” The plea proved to be useless and ironic, it was published on February 17, 1980, weeks before Romero died.
His murder is regarded as the opening act of the country’s civil war which lasted until 1992. Over 70,000 people are estimated to have died.
In a historical move, then-president, Mauricio Funes apologized for the crime in 2010.Heexplained that Romero was a victim of death squads “who unfortunately acted with the protection, collaboration or participation of state agents.” Gaspar Romero, the archbishop’s brother, thanked the president in the name of the Romero family.
Other Salvadoran administrations have supported Romero’s canonization, including current President Salvador Sanchez Ceren. But in spite of the general support among the government and population for Romero’s canonization, the process, which began in 1994, has only gained speed in recent years. One major reason for theChurch’s apparent reluctanceto support the process is that there were “concerns of his Marxist ideas.”
A Latin Pope for a Latin Saint
Pope Francis is the Catholic Church’s first Latin American pope. Since his election in March 2013, he has reached out to Catholics across the world. Hence, supporting Romero’s beatification is logical in order to strengthen support for the church in the Americas. Flying back from South Korea, Pope Francis stated, “for me Romero is a man of God.”
As early as 2013 there were reports that the Vatican was revisiting Romero’s case.
In a July 26, 2013 interview by theVatican Insiderwith Gerhard Ludwig Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church official praised Romero, describing him as “a great witness of the faith and a man who was thirsty for social justice.” Furthermore, Cardinal Muller explained that “the process for the doctrinal ‘nihil obstat’ [objections] carried on as normal and sped up significantly during Benedict XVI’s pontificate… underFrancis’pontificate, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is moving the process along even faster.”
The commercialization of a martyr
While Romero is a symbol of peace and understanding, his image and legacy has been routinely utilized inEl Salvadorfor other goals. Back in 2010, Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez declared that Romero’s legacy “has been politicized especially by revolutionary groups [i.e. political movements].” More recently, in 2013 Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas declared that the use of Romero’s image by political parties is “unfair” as “he was not a political leader.”
Former President Funes himself declared that Romero was his “mentor” when he ran for president in 2009. Meanwhile, current President Sanchez Ceren could not help combining Pope Francis’ decision with his presidential objectives as he stated that “we are sure confident that in this land where … Romero lived, will also be blessed and we will move forward in important areas like security and economic growth.”
Moreover, a 2011 report in the Salvadoran dailyLa Paginadiscussed businesses and arguably illegal non-profits entities, utilizing Romero’s image for profit. The report stressed that no person or entity (i.e. the church) has a copyright over Romero’s image, so this can be easily exploited for commercial gain. For example, during the anniversaries of Romero’s birth and murder, vendors make a profit selling t-shirts, key chains, calendars and scapulars with his image.
It is tragic, but unsurprising that the image and legacy of a just person like the late Archbishop Romero has been politicized and commercialized. His eventual official ascendancy to sainthood (he is popularly known as “Saint Romero of the Americas”) will likely exploit his legacy even more for personal gain rather than the general good.
With that said, Pope Francis’ decision is a positive move, not just to strengthen Church-Latin America relations, but also to award Romero the title he undoubtedly deserves.