The following post is part of a lecture I had put together on Archbishop Oscar Romero and canonization. I'm not an expert on sainthood and many of the internal Church deliberations surrounding his beatification and canonization are only known through gossip. If there is anything that I should change, please let me know in the comments or email.
I also didn't spend much time on proper citations. Forgive me in advance. I accessed several news stories, the Holy See's website on canonization, wikipedia, and some of Polycarpio's posts on Romero.
On March 24, 1980, Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was shot and killed while serving Mass at the Divina Providencia chapel in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. His murder came just weeks after he had called upon US President Jimmy Carter to stop sending military aid to his country. In his words, these weapons would only be used to kill his people. On the day before his murder, Archbishop Romero begged the Salvadoran military to stop killing its brothers and sisters. He told them that one must obey the law of God even if it is contradictory to the orders of one’s military superiors. Since his death in 1980, many Salvadorans and Catholics from every corner of the world have considered Romero a saint.
The push to recognize Romero as an official saint has been taking shape in both El Salvador and the Holy See for the last two decades. While Salvadorans hold him in the highest regard, often referring to him as “San Romero” or “Saint Romero,” the Catholic Church has made no such designation.
“In the Catholic Church the act of canonization is reserved to the Holy See and occurs at the conclusion of a long process requiring extensive proof that the person proposed for canonization lived and died in such an exemplary and holy way that he or she is worthy to be recognized as a saint. The Church’s official recognition of sanctity implies that the person is now in heavenly glory, that he or she may be publicly invoked and mentioned officially in the Liturgy of the Church, most especially the Litany of the Saints.”
The initial stage in the canonization process typically begins at the level of the diocese where the person either lived or died. This initial investigation cannot begin until at least five years have passed since the person’s death unless the pope grants a waiver. Pope John Paul II issued a waiver for Mother Teresa and Pope Benedict issued one for Pope John Paul II. In the case of Romero, no such waiver was granted. Instead, the process began in San Salvador in 1990 ten years after his death.
Monsignor Arturo Rivera (the sitting prelate archbishop of San Salvador) authorized an investigation into whether there was sufficient cause for the beatification and canonization of Romero. Over the next six years, the Church in El Salvador gathered and analyzed documents to support his cause. This process involved “an examination of his writings and speeches, and testimony from his colleagues and acquaintances” (Catholic Culture). They completed the phase in 1996. In 1997, Pope John Paul II and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints formally accepted these prepared documents and declared Romero a “Servant of God.” The title “Servant of God” means that the person is under official consideration by the pope and the Catholic Church for sainthood. At this point, a postulator was given the task of gathering additional information on Oscar Romero. The postulator acts as an advocate for the Servant of God.
The postulator for Romero completed his report in 1998, but instead of acting on the report, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints forwarded Romero’s dossier to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000. This group was responsible for conducting a more extensive audit of the Archbishop’s writings, homilies, and sermons to determine his “doctrinal orthodoxy.” They wanted to ensure that Romero’s writings and sermons did not stray beyond what the Church considered acceptable. “The cause for sainthood seemed on track in 2005 with formal verification from the Vatican that Romero’s writings contained no doctrinal errors and with strong support from Pope John Paul II.” In May 2000, John Paul “personally added Romero’s name to a list of slain church workers during a ceremony in Rome…for contemporary martyrs” (ncronline.com). These two developments gave people hope that his beatification and canonization would not be far off. At the time, Monsignor Paglia, the postulator for Romero’s cause, predicted that his beatification would occur within six months. Unfortunately, Pope John Paul II died within weeks of those remarks.
John Paul’s death in 2005 and the election of a new pope obviously slowed the process. Since 2005, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints has continued its investigation into Romero in order to determine whether it should recommend that the pope make a proclamation of Romero’s heroic virtue because he “exhibited the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, to a heroic degree.” If this were to happen, Romero would no longer be referred to as a “Servant of God” but as “Venerable.” Sometimes you’ll also hear one referred to as the “Venerable Servant of God.” Pope Benedict declared John Paul II “Venerable” in December 2009, but Romero is not there yet.
If Romero were to be deemed “Venerable,” the next stage on the journey to canonization is beatification. Beatification means that it is “worthy of belief” that Romero is in heaven, having come to Salvation, and therefore has the “capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name.” The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints must also determine whether Romero is a martyr. If the Congregation finds that Romero was a martyr for the faith, there would be no further obstacles to his beatification. On the other hand, if there is only a declaration of heroic virtue, Romero would be considered a “confessor” or a “non-martyr.” For the beatification of a confessor to occur, a miracle would have to be attributed to him. As a martyr, Romero’s beatification would not require having performed a miracle.
If Romero were to be beatified, he would have the new title of “Blessed.” A feast day would be designated for him and the people of his diocese (San Salvador) would be able to celebrate and honor him. It’s possible that his veneration would be allowed throughout El Salvador, and the rest of the Americas where many already view him as a saint, but it is not entirely certain.
If Romero is beatified and declared “Blessed,” he would then be permitted to be canonized a saint. For his canonization to occur, however, one or more miracles would have to be attributed to him. Should the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the pope recognize Romero as a saint, a feast day would be assigned to him and may be celebrated throughout the world. Parish churches may be built in his honor. And, finally, the faithful may freely and without restriction celebrate and honor the Saint.
In many ways, twenty years is not exactly a long time for the entire canonization process (start to finish) to unfold. However, some have complained that these deliberations have been moving incredibly slowly and that it might take several more years for any new developments to occur. There are several reasons why deliberations surrounding Romero seem to be moving slowly. First, Romero was not universally loved or respected as archbishop. “At one point the Vatican received a request to send an apostolic visitor to El Salvador to either replace Romero or appoint a superior to control him.” Some priests were concerned about his stance on social justice and its relationship with liberation theology and Marxism-Leninism. It was only recently that the Catholic Church in El Salvador agreed that Romero always acted in accordance with the teachings of Scripture.
However, it is unclear if all those in Rome have come to the same conclusion. From 2000 to 2005 the Romero proceedings appeared to be going no where while the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “took its time” auditing his statements. Like some Salvadoran bishops, there are some in the church “hierarchy that believe that Romero is too closely tied to liberation theology’s emphasis on social transformation and church involvement in politics” (ncronline) and that is the reason for the slow moving process. However, one can also look at their audit and argue that their review took a few years because they had to meticulously read thousands of pages of documents, including 3,000 just of his homilies. In the end, they found that Romero’s statements and actions were entirely consistent with the teachings of the Church. So while some individuals might hold reservations, the Church does not.
Others fault Pope Benedict personally for the delay. Benedict had permitted an investigation (begun in 2004 before he was pope) into some of Father Jon Sobrino’s controversial writings on liberation theology. Sobrino is a theologian at the UCA in San Salvador who was an advisor to Romero in the late 1970s. Benedict’s “treatment” of Sobrino led some to believe that he was single-handedly holding up a decision on Romero. On the other hand, there is evidence that Benedict supports his beatification and canonization. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict headed the theological audit carried out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They were the ones who declared Romero’s writings and speeches fully consistent with Church doctrine. It is not clear why he would have changed his mind in the last few years.
The process has also been slow because the Congregation for the Causes of Saints must also make a recommendation as to whether Romero was a martyr for the faith or an assassinated hero for the political left. For Romero to be declared a martyr, he must have been killed in “hatred of the faith.” This is not a clear cut decision. Romero was murdered by Catholics in a country where 90% or so of the population considered themselves to be Catholic. He was killed by Catholics because they believed that he was espousing some variant of Marxist-Leninist inspired Liberation theology and that he was an ally of the communist and supposedly atheistic guerrilla group fighting against the right-wing government in the country. This complicated a description of his murder as having emerged out of some hatred for the Catholic faith. While there is one Salvadoran who was identified as Romero’s assassin, the amnesty that was passed in 1993 has made proof beyond a reasonable doubt impossible. In the 1990s, a story emerged that a Cuban-exile from Miami had shot the Monseñor. And, just last week, evidence emerged that it might have been a group of Argentines who were involved in the murder. Argentina worked closely with the Central American militaries during the 1970s and 1980s. These allegations also make a determination of martyrdom more difficult. There is a certainty, more or less, as to who ordered his death but there remains some uncertainty as to who pulled the trigger. (Update – less so given the “confession of Saravia a few days ago).
Even if the Congregation agrees that Romero was martyred because of his commitment to the faith, some might remain reluctant to push for his beatification and canonization because to do so would be to recognize a hero to the revolutionary left in El Salvador and much of the world. Romero’s image has appeared on t-shirts alongside Ché Guevara and Salvador Allende. Guevara was an Argentine doctor who spread communism through violent revolution in both Latin America and Africa while Allende was the socialist president of Chile overthrown by a CIA coup in 1973. Romero’s association with Guevara and Allende, through no fault of his own, has not been helpful. Even though Romero did nothing to associate himself with these political figures, it is impossible for the Church not to take into consideration how its ultimate decision will play out in the debate over the war against communism in Latin America during the Cold War.
The prospects for Romero’s beatification and canonization are a little better than they sound. The two main political parties in El Salvador today were involved on opposite sides of the country’s civil war in the 1980s. Today, both support Romero’s canonization. In 2007, the ruling ARENA party formally supported Romero’s canonization. Their support was important because the party’s founder, Roberto D’Aubuisson, was the intellectual author of Romero’s murder. He planned and ordered the killing. While ARENA does not accept any responsibility for the murder, they support his canonization nonetheless.
In November 2009, the new Salvadoran government led by the former rebel group, the FMLN, appeared before the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Costa Rica and informed the commission that it would open an investigation into the Archbishop’s murder. The current administration’s stance at the IACHR is a complete change from the position taken by ARENA that had been in power for twenty years. ARENA had rejected the IACHR’s ruling for the last ten years. Given that the two main political forces in El Salvador support Romero’s beatification and canonization, it will be more difficult for the Holy See to delay a final decision because of any uncertainty surrounding how such an announcement would play out in El Salvador.
In another positive development, the Catholic Church in El Salvador “urged Salvadorans to pray for promoting the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero” earlier this year. Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador “urged the faithful, ‘who pray to God through the intercession of Archbishop Romero,’ to pray for evidence of obtained graces, or favors, or even miracles. He also encouraged private devotion: "There can be no public worship for a person whose cause is still being studied in the Vatican, but there can be private devotion and it would be good that this continues to increase," he added. As Romero is presently considered a Servant of God, there can be no public acts of his religious veneration. Should some sort of cult or unhealthy following develop surrounding the Servant of God at this stage of the canonization process, it can be grounds to derail the process.
While the people of El Salvador have considered Romero a saint for nearly three decades, the recent decisions by ARENA, the FMLN, and the entire Salvadoran Church to support Romero’s beatification and canonization might help spur the process in the Holy See along. The Salvadoran Church is hoping that they can announce Romero’s beatification on the anniversary of his death later this month.