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.