It's complicated: Romero's beatification highlights long-standing cleavages in Church and El Salvador
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to turn out tomorrow in San Salvador to celebrate the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, 35 years after he was shot in the heart saying Mass.
The presidents of Ecuador and Panama will be in attendance, along with the VPs of Costa Rica, Cuba and Belice, reports the AP.
When Romero was named Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, he was supported by conservative factions who considered him apolitical. But the military regime which repressed popular rural movements, and persecuted liberation theology priests who worked with the poor and organized peasant movements earned his enmity.
Romero dedicated his office to serving social justice. He involved himself in labor disputes, human rights claims and gave refuge to rural populations fleeing persecution.
The entire nation tuned into his radio sermons in the late 70s writes Carlos Dada in the New Yorker. There he demanded social justice and denounced human rights crimes perpetrated by the Army. The day before his death he called on soldiers to disobey orders and stop abusing civilians, reports the Washington Post.
Romero's beatification represents a sea-change in Vatican policy towards Latin America and, specifically, in the definition of martyrdom.
Similar martyrdom beatification processes are underway for other priests killed in Latin America, such as Argentine Bishop Enrique Angelelli, killed in 1976 at the beginning of Argentina's Dirty War.
The AP explains that while martyrdom traditionally people who were killed for refusing to renounce their faith by people who hated the person's belief in Christ. But Romero was killed in a Roman Catholic country. The papal decree that he was killed out of hatred for the faith implies a new interpretation: that that martyrs can be killed, even by church-going Catholics, out of hatred for their Gospel-inspired work in favor of the poor and disenfranchised according to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the main proponent of Romero's cause.
While Pope John Paul II came from a history of resistance to communism, Pope Francis understands the parallel struggle with the Cold War's other major power, the U.S. The Washington Post's coverage notes that Romero's beatification is both a sign of Francis' Latin American sensibilities as well as a gradual healing of Cold War cleavages. The AP also emphasizes the moves potential for unification and healing.
"In terms of the church itself, (Romero's beatification) signifies something of an end to an unpleasant, controversial time when Oscar Romero and people like him on the left were vilified and downgraded and distrusted because they were seen as being too close to the real enemy, which was international communism," said the former Latin America policy adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Tom Quigley in the AP.
(As an aside, Mary Anastasia O'Grady doesn't buy this touchy-feely healing perspective: in her Wall Street Journal column is this week she claims the Pope's warmth towards Cuba's Raúl Castro is the result of Francis' "Argentine sense of cultural superiority over the money-grubbing capitalists to the north and faith in the state to protect it.")
For years Romero's canonization process had been blocked by papal hierarchies and actively opposed by Salvadoran Vatican representatives. Pope Benedict XVI surprisingly pushed the case forward noteThe Guardian and the AP, while Francis made began the formal process.
Salvadoran conservative groups say that Romero is a divisive figure, and that his sainthood will be manipulated by leftist factions. On the other hand, proponents of his beatification have tried to strip his legacy of politics, saying that he acted strictly according to the Gospels.
But Romero's legacy is intensely political, explains Dada. He was killed because he went against the military regime and the established powers that backed it. And because they knew they could get away with it. "There is an institutionalized violence expressed in a political and economic system that believes progress is only possible through the use of the majority as a productive force conducted by a privileged minority," wrote Romero a few months before his death.
Romero's death 35 years ago was a critical moment in the beginning of a civil war that claimed over a 100,000 lives in El Salvador. The army opened fire at the more than 100,000 mourners at his funereal, killing dozens.
Battle lines between different factions in El Salvador were drawn. The AP profiles the particularly strong example of brother and sister Roberto d'Aubuisson and Maria Luisa de Martinez. He is the mastermind behind Romero's assassination, according to the U.N. Truth Commission report, while she sits on the board of the foundation that bears his name and has lobbied for his sainthood for years.
And the cleavages surrounding his assasination continue to impact El Salvador today. After peace accords were signed in 1992, the Arena party, founded by D’Aubuisson, governed until 2009, when it was replaced by the FMLN, the political party that replaced the leftist guerrilla movement of the same name.
El Salvador is wracked with poverty and gang violence, legacies of that time. The most optimistic analysis says the beatification can be a ray of light in the dark. The AP quotes a priest organizing the weekend's celebration, saying he hopes it "will be a point of hope ... Afterward, we can love and break the prejudices that may exist at an ideological and party level."
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