“I don’t want to be an ‘anti,’ against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.”
The words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed in 1980 by the military regime in El Salvador, still echo in the minds and hearts of Salvadorans who follow his inspiring message of peace and love.
On Tuesday, Feb. 3 Pope Francis declared that Archbishop Romero died as a martyr—a decree which sets the stage for his eventual beatification. Francis, the first Latin American pope, approved the decree honoring one of the heroes of Latin American Christians at a meeting with the head of the Vatican’s saint-making office. In the Roman Catholic tradition, beatification is the step before sainthood.
A beloved figure in the church of El Salvador, Romero, 62, was shot dead by right-wing death squads, while celebrating Mass at the beginning of the nation’s 12-year civil war. His assassination sparked a nationwide movement and period of violent conflict that killed nearly 75,000 people.
An advocate for peace and human rights, Romero spoke out against political violence and repression by the Salvadoran army, as well as the right-wing death squad operations in Guatemala. He was also a main proponent of “Liberation Theology”—an interpretation of Christian faith from the poor’s perspective, which holds that Jesus Christ’s teachings require followers to fight for social and economic justice.
For years, the Church blocked the beatification process for Romero because of concerns that his ideas aligned with Marxism. The Vatican was also concerned about his association with liberation theology, and had been studying it under then-Pope Benedict’s jurisdiction. The case lagged in part over questions about whether Romero was killed for his political beliefs, or for his faiths.
After his election in 2013, Pope Francis unblocked Archbishop Romero’s delayed case, and allowed the process of sainthood to continue forward.
Pope Francis’ sympathies—concern for the poor and marginalized, and for social justice/human rights issues—very much align with those of Monsignor Romero’s, who like Pope Francis was conservative at his core.
Francis told reporters that Romero’s case had been “blocked out of prudence” by the congregation, but it had been “unblocked” because there were no more doctrinal concerns. He also said he hoped for a quick process, calling the Archbishop a “man of God.”
No date for the beatification has been set, but Pope Francis has all but ruled out celebrating it himself, saying recently that it would be up to the heads of the saint-making office—Cardinal Angelo Amato, and prelate Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, who has spearheaded Romero’s cause for years.
The Church traditionally restricts the official “martyr” designation to people who were killed out of hatred for the Catholic faith, typically in acts of anti-Catholic persecution. The one-line decree signed by the Pope makes clear that Romero was a martyr in the classic sense, although an expanded definition for those killed “for doing the work that Jesus commands” is being worked on.
“A church that is poor and for the poor, that’s what Romero lived for, even to the point of shedding his blood,” said Paglia.
(With reports from Associated Press, BBC)