Is Pope Francis Following St. Romero’s Strategy of Silence?

COMMENTARY: Like the new Latin-American saint, the Holy Father has chosen not to respond directly to harsh criticism.

A special banner with the official portrait of Archbishop Óscar Romero hangs on the facade of St. Peter's Basilica before the Oct. 14 canonization Mass in which he and six others were officially declared saints.
A special banner with the official portrait of Archbishop Óscar Romero hangs on the facade of St. Peter's Basilica before the Oct. 14 canonization Mass in which he and six others were officially declared saints. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

Is Pope Francis taking a page from the St. Óscar Romero book — diary, to be specific — in how he handles the accusations made against him, particularly those made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the United States?

The recent canonization of Archbishop Romero — San Romero, as he is known in El Salvador — brought to publication a good deal of material on the life and message of the martyred archbishop. Notable among them is The Scandal of Redemption: When God Liberates the Poor, Saves Sinners and Heals Nations (Plough Publishing), a small but most useful book of selections from San Romero’s preaching, messages and diaries.

While much of that material may be new to English-language readers, San Romero’s principal writings and diaries have been well-known in Latin America for generations. And certainly they would be well-known by other Latin-American bishops.

Now, San Romero is widely celebrated with pride throughout Latin America, but it was not the case during his life and even after his death, when he faced serious opposition to his ministry as archbishop of San Salvador.

The diaries indicate the seriousness of the situation. Just a year after his taking office in San Salvador, San Romero faced the opposition of all but one of his brother bishops in El Salvador. As he became increasingly vocal in denouncing the oppression and violence directed at the campesinos, the poor peasants, the established elite of Salvadoran society became increasingly hostile toward him. And that included some at the higher levels of the Church in El Salvador.

The diary entry from May 18, 1978, indicates how that criticism expressed itself:

“Bishop Rivera also came to see me — a pleasant surprise — and we talked about the secret document of denunciation the other four bishops are preparing. In it, they denounce me to the Holy See in matters of faith, say I am politicized, accuse me of promoting a pastoral work with erroneous theological grounding — a whole series of accusations that completely impugn my ministry as a bishop. In spite of how serious this is, I feel great peace. I acknowledge my deficiencies before God, but I believe that I have worked with goodwill and that I am not guilty of the serious things of which they accuse me. God will have the last word on this. I am at peace and hope to continue to work with the same enthusiasm as always, since I serve the Holy Church in love.”

San Romero expected criticism from the regime and the military; after all, he was condemning their conduct as not consistent with their Christian faith. He called upon them, in no uncertain terms, to exercise authority in accord with the Gospel. But to be accused by his brother bishops of betraying his mission as a bishop was a profound blow.

That was the situation, though, in El Salvador on the eve of a 12-year civil war. Everything was seen through the prism of politics, sometimes violent politics. Even pastoral work was interpreted in a political key, and some of El Salvador’s bishops saw San Romero in political, rather than evangelical, categories.

A few days later, San Romero’s diary explains how he will react. The entry from May 21, 1978, reads:

“Tonight Father Gregorio Rosa was with me, and we talked a great deal about the accusations in the document prepared by the other bishops and about the reality of our archdiocese. Father Goyo (Gregorio) thinks it is a moment of truth and that we have to use it as an opportunity to reaffirm the position of the Church and remove all the obstacles that keep us from doing a more authentic pastoral work. There is some truth in their accusations, and it is necessary to correct the mistakes, but there is also a great deal of exaggeration, and it is almost calumnious. We are not going to answer it, except through our actions, as we continue the pastoral work of our archdiocese.”

The priest mentioned is Father Gregorio Rosa Chavez, who later became the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. A close confidant of San Romero, Pope Francis made him a cardinal — the only cardinal who is an auxiliary bishop, a most unusual situation in that he “outranks” his superior, the archbishop of San Salvador. Cardinal Rosa was a principal concelebrant of the canonization Mass Oct. 14, standing at the altar beside the Holy Father that raised St. Romero to the altars.

It is a near-certainty that Cardinal Rosa would have discussed with Pope Francis the many conversations he had with San Romero and how his mentor faced the opposition that confronted him.

There is the humility of San Romero, who acknowledged that his accusers were not entirely wrong, even if they were largely mistaken. To the extent that their criticisms were true, San Romeo resolved himself to correct his mistakes.

But, otherwise, he chose not to respond, to continue with his pastoral approach and to allow his actions to speak for themselves.

Is it possible that Pope Francis, a devotee of San Romero, has adopted, in part, the same approach — to continue with his approach, even when facing criticism, and not to respond directly?

The Archbishop Viganò “testimony” of Aug. 25 was met by the Holy Father with a refusal to say “one word” about it. But more generally, the Holy Father has in various interviews indicated that he is well aware of criticisms of this or that decision he has taken. Those close to him even speak in terms of “enemies of the Pope.” In general, Pope Francis prefers not to respond directly to his critics — or “enemies.”

That approach, too, has met with criticism, because matters of doctrine and of corruption of clergy are different from matters of external corruption. But it is worth considering whether Holy Father is taking his lead from the saintly example of the martyr-bishop of San Salvador.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ aired on EWTN on Good Friday 2023.

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