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Legacy of El Salvador’s would-be-saint Archbishop Oscar Romero

SALVADORAN ARCHBISHOP OSCAR ROMEROThe recent beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero at a ceremony in El Salvador speaks volumes.  It is a reaffirmation by the Catholic Church that the struggle for justice is a Christian thing to do.  It is a way of saying, this time in a manner that is clear and direct, with no ifs and buts, that working for justice, though it has a price to pay, is the way of bearing witness to the Gospel.

In the Catholic Church, beatification is the last step before a person is declared a saint.

Archbishop Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980 as he was saying Mass. Before his assassination, he was a consistent critic of the ruling military junta which, by all accounts, was repressive.

To understand and appreciate the context that led to Archbishop Romero’s assassination on March 24, 1980, one needs to know the social and political conditions during his time.

The El Salvador that was embroiled in civil war from 1980 – 1992 was in a similar situation as the Philippines when it was under Martial Law: proliferation of government- sponsored death squads, increasing number of desaparecidos (disappearances mostly of human rights workers), assassination of political opponents, lack of adequate services, all forms of government-sanctioned violence, corruption of all shapes and forms by those in power, etc.

The murder of six Jesuits inside a Jesuit university campus and their housekeeper as well as her 15-year-old daughter on November 16, 1989 was an example of the kind of repression that was common in those days.

I can never forget the day these martyred Jesuits and their helpers were dragged out of their beds and summarily killed by Salvadoran soldiers. That event has remained etched in my memory because I remember joining a rally in front of the Federal Building in Seattle, together with the late Fr. Rene Ocampo, former provincial of the Jesuits in the Philippines, who was visiting that week.

On that fateful day, we thought that the only thing we could do, aside from praying, to express our solidarity with the victims was to join a demonstration sponsored by Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

And who can forget the four American nuns who were raped and murdered by US-trained soldiers as they drove from the airport on December 2, 1980.

It was the worst of times, so to speak, in El Salvador, but a voice refused to be silent.

“I implore you. I beg you. I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression,” preached Archbishop Romero.

A day later, he was shot through his heart by a single bullet while saying Mass.

Archbishop Romero’s beatification is not just about honoring his bravery.  It is a call to arms by the Catholic Church to take the task of seriously helping the poor and the oppressed.  Romero is more than a symbol. He is a living proof that fighting for justice is as noble a task as motherhood.

I don’t know why it took more than 30 years for Archbishop Romero to be beatified. But I am guessing that the Holy Spirit is probably convinced that his beatification would have more impact if a socially-conscious pope – Pope Francis – would beatify and canonize him.

If the Holy Spirit were correct, it was worth the wait.

Pope Francis, like Archbishop Romero, is a very simple man. So many articles have already been written about the pope’s humility and simplicity. Lately, he implored priests to live simply and not to be materialistic.

By beatifying Romero under his watch, he is probably sending a message that Romero, in the words of John Allen Jr., a Vatican observer, symbolizes a socially engaged Church.

Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chaves of San Salvador, who worked closely with Romero, told Vatican Radio that Romero is “the icon of a pastor Francis wants, the icon of the church Francis wants…a poor Church for the poor.”

Just like when he was still alive, Archbishop Romero and soon-to-be St. Oscar  Romero, continues to challenge us to work for social justice no matter what the cost is in order to give hope to the poor and the marginalized.