Blessed Óscar Romero: The Church Elevates an Evangelical Champion of the Poor to the Altars

The famous Latin-American martyr’s May 23 beatification celebrated a bishop whose life witnessed to his profound Christian faith, not to any political ideology.

A procession in San Salvador for the beatification Mass of Oscar Romero.
A procession in San Salvador for the beatification Mass of Oscar Romero. (photo: The Oscar Arnulfo Romero beatification committee via flickr)

SAN SALVADOR — Archbishop Óscar Romero’s beatification is a “cause of great joy,” and his elevation to the altars is a call “to sanity and reflection, to respect for life and harmony,” Pope Francis said in a letter to mark the May 23 beatification in San Salvador.

In the message to Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador, the Holy Father said Blessed Óscar Romero “knew how to lead, defend and protect his flock, remaining faithful to the Gospel and in communion with the whole Church.”

Around 250,000 people gathered in Salvador Plaza of the Mundo de San Salvador for the beatification Mass, celebrated in the city’s cathedral.

Archbishop Romero, a vociferous defender of the poor and oppressed, was killed in hatred of the faith on March 24, 1980, when he was shot dead by a gunman as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. His martyrdom came in the midst of the birth of a brutal civil war between leftist guerrillas and a far-right dictatorial government.

His cause was opened in 1990 but stalled due to concerns over whether he was killed in hatred of the faith or for political reasons. Benedict XVI unblocked the process in 2012, and Pope Francis confirmed his beatification earlier this year. The date of his death will now be the blessed’s feast day.

Blessed Romero’s ministry was “distinguished by a particular attention to the most poor and marginalized,” the Pope wrote in the letter, read at the beginning of the Mass, adding that, in the moment of his death, while celebrating “the Holy Sacrifice of love and reconciliation, he received the grace to identify himself fully with the One who gave his life for his sheep.”

The Pope said his beatification is “a favorable moment for a true national reconciliation” in the face of today’s challenges. The Salvadoran is a “bishop and martyr, pastor according to the heart of Christ, evangelizer and father of the poor, heroic witness of the kingdom of God,” the Holy Father wrote.


‘Not Ideological, but Evangelical’

In his homily, Cardinal Angelo Amato, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who presided over the beatification, said that “the figure of Romero is still alive and giving comfort to the marginalized of the earth.”

“His option for the poor was not ideological, but evangelical. His charity extended to the persecutors.”

In a May 23 article for L’Osservatore Romano, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of Archbishop Romero’s beatification cause, said Blessed Romero is “linked in a strong way to the Church of today and her mission,” especially the pontificate of Pope Francis and his Church “of the poor, for the poor.”

The newly blessed could “smell the sheep,” and they “listened to his voice and followed it,” he continued. The postulator, who is president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said Romero was a bishop “in the best tradition of Trent, who was then enriched by the teaching of Vatican II.”

He was not an intellectual, theologian, manager or administration, he added, “neither was he a reformer, let alone a politician, as some have wanted to see him, exploiting his name.” Instead, he was a “man of God, a man of prayer, a man of obedience and love for people,” he said.

Chris Bain, director of the British Catholic aid agency CAFOD, said “labeling Romero left or right did not fit the man.” He added that he is sure there are “many reasons” why it is perceived that the left hijacked the Romero story, but to him, a key one is that El Salvador at the time was “run by a repressive, self-styled right-wing regime whose brutality was justified as doing what was necessary to stop the country becoming communist, an approach supported by the U.S. government at the time.”

For this reason, Bain argues, the political left “made him in their image without understanding him fully, and the right colluded.”

“Neither wanted to understand how he was a critic of the way some liberation theologians had embraced Marxism or that all the evidence suggests he was a social and theological conservative,” Bain continued. This, he said, “was evidence of the repression, affecting both ordinary people and servants of the Church, that led him to speak out — his belief that every person was a child of God, and the brutality was unconditionally wrong.”

CAFOD honors Romero because at the time of his martyrdom he was a CAFOD partner, and the aid agency supported many of his archdiocesan social and communication programs, including the diocesan radio station that broadcast his homilies.


Strength Through Prayer

Archbishop Paglia stressed that, through prayer, Archbishop Romero found “rest, peace and strength.” He recalled how the archbishop had written of his fears that his life was in danger just a few days before his martyrdom but took solace in the fact that the Lord assists the martyrs, who “feel his closeness when offering their last breath.”

Archbishop Paglia also noted how much the martyred archbishop was surrounded by a climate of persecution and had lost 30 priests from his diocese — either killed, deported or expelled. Hundreds of catechists and faithful had also been killed or disappeared.

“The leaders of [Romero’s] killer wanted to silence the Church of Vatican II by his death,” said Archbishop Paglia, one of the founders of the Sant’Egidio lay community. “So he was killed at the altar.

“His martyr’s death occurred in odium fidei [in hatred of the faith] because, as shown in the carefully documented examination carried out in the process of beatification, it was caused not only for political reasons, but for hatred of a faith that, imbued with charity, would not be silent in the face of the oppression of the people.”

“John Paul II — who knew well the lives of two other saints killed at the altar, Stanislaus of Krakow and Thomas Becket of Canterbury — effectively noted: ‘They killed him right at the most sacred moment, during the highest and most divine act,’” Archbishop Paglia said. “The killers, preventing Romero from concluding the Mass, wanted to divide the worship of God from his mercy.”

“The martyr Romero reminds us,” Archbishop Paglia concluded, “that one cannot separate the Eucharist from the poor. And Pope Francis never ceases to show us this with words and gestures.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.