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Oscar Romero: martyr for the faith

22 May 2015

The poor grasped the truth about him sooner than the hierarchy, says Paul Vallely

AFTER his first confirmation class, our 15-year-old son came home and announced that he had been asked to choose a name under which to be confirmed. Ordinarily, I might have directed him to a dictionary of saints for inspiration, but the next day we had a dinner guest who had worked for decades in Central America. He held us spellbound with vivid first-hand stories of his encounters with the murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero. By the end of the evening, it was clear from our son's engaged questioning that the dictionary would not be needed.

Tonight, when our son steps forward to be confirmed, his sponsor will announce to the bishop that the confirmation name he has chosen is that of the man who will be beatified in San Salvador tomorrow, who inspired almost all those who met him - and many who did not - to a vision of what it means to live the gospel.

I say "almost all" because, although he has long been acclaimed as a saint by the ordinary people of his native land, there have been those who have sought to put every obstacle they could in the way of Romero's progress to sainthood.

The opponents were not just influential figures from the old social, ecclesiastical, and military élites in El Salvador. A succession of key prelates in Rome have, for the past three decades, vehemently opposed it, fearing that it would be seen as tantamount to a canonisation of Liberation Theology. Romero may have had personal holiness, went the most recent of their arguments, but he was not a martyr for the faith. He was murdered for subversive politics.

The idea that it is "subversive" for a priest to speak out on behalf of the poor - and to call on ordinary soldiers in the army not to obey orders to murder the priests and political activists who work with the poor - is clearly not something that makes much sense to Pope Francis. The canonisation process "was blocked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 'for prudence'", the Pope told journalists in one of his impromptu airborne press conferences. But, he added: "For me, Romero is a man of God." Following that lead, the appropriate body of Roman theologians universally declared that Romero had indeed been murdered in odium fidei - in hatred of the faith.

The beatification in San Salvador tomorrow, and in its own smaller way, the confirmation in our parish church this evening, illustrate one great truth. What was immediately obvious to the plain people of El Salvador, and to a 15- year-old boy after a single evening's impassioned testimony, took inordinately longer to be acknowledged by the institutional hierarchy.

The poor are the privileged recipients of the gospel, and to defend the poor is to defend the faith. As Pope Francis put it in Evangelii Gaudium: "We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor." Or, as my son Thomas wrote in his confirmation presentation: "Oscar Romero preached the gospel, defended the defenceless, and gave a voice to those who had none. For that he gave his life."


A new edition of Pope Francis: Untying the knots by Paul Vallely (Bloomsbury) is out in August.

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