“Initially, Romero was seen as the conservative choice to be archbishop, someone who would not make any waves. But then he had a conversion experience.” …. After that, he “became a lion in defense of the poor and marginalized, devoting his episcopacy to championing basic human rights and speaking out against violence.”
In an interview with Zenit in Rome, this was pointed out by Fr. Tom Gibbons, CSP, director of development and production for Paulist Productions which is distributing “Romero: Collector’s Edition,” a newly restored and remastered film available now on Amazon Prime, DVD and Digital. It was debuted on Oct. 11 in the Vatican’s Filmoteca and Fr. Gibbons the same day was able to present its DVD to the Pope.
On Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis will make canonized saints one of his predecessors, Blessed Pope Paul VI, and Blessed martyr Oscar Romero (1917-1980), Archbishop of San Salvador. As he spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture, Archbishop Romero was assassinated while offering Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence. Though no one was ever convicted for the crime, there is strong evidence extremely right-wing politician and death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson had given the order, in the midst of the civil war in El Salvador.
Here is our interview with Fr. Gibbons:
Who was Archbishop Romero? How would you describe this figure briefly to those who do not know him?
Óscar Romero was appointed archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 during a time of incredible political strife in the country. The civil war between ultra right-wing and leftist factions was taking a devastating toll on the country. The number of assassinations and disappearances were astronomical.
Initially, Romero was seen as the conservative choice to be archbishop, someone who would not make any waves. But when one of his close friends, Fr. Rutillo Grande, was killed by the military junta for his work with the poor and marginalized in the country, Romero had a conversion experience. As Romero would say later, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'” After that, this meek and somewhat OCD man became a lion in defense of the poor and marginalized, devoting his episcopacy to championing basic human rights and speaking out against violence.
To speak of martyrdom, the laws of the Church require that the martyr be killed ‘in odium fidei’, (‘in hatred of the faith’) towards the Christian faith professed by the martyr. Is this really the case of Romero?
When the concept of martyrdom first started in the early centuries of the church, it was because there often a death penalty for verbally stating that that you were a Christian. By verbally stating that Jesus was your Lord, you were implicitly saying that the secular ruler of the day (Caesar) was not your Lord… which was treason, a crime punishable by death.
The Church has beatified – and often even canonized – innumerable martyrs, who lived not only in the far past, but also in fairly recent times. Many are martyrs of Nazism, of Communism, there are few martyrs of the time of Romero (1970s of the 20th Century) and of the geographical area of Latin America. Why?
First, it is probably important to note that it usually takes a very long time for someone to be officially canonized in the Catholic Church. The founder of my religious community, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, only recently had his cause opened for canonization and he died over 125 years ago. Fr. Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, lived in the same era of the 1800s and while he is farther along the process one undergoes to be recognized a saint, he is not there yet either. Within that context, Óscar Romero is being canonized quite rapidly.
That being said, many people have been asking this question, which is partially why there is a lot of excitement surrounding Romero’s canonization. Like the election of the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere, this is a sign that the Universal Church is continuing to more fully appreciate the contributions and the sanctity of those outside of Europe.
The cause of beatification and then canonization of Romero has had a long and very troubled process. The history of his ‘martyrdom’ has often been read and interpreted through ideological and political categories, which have created controversy and opposition. But was Romero really a bishop who was a politician?
My understanding is that some political forces have tried to appropriate Romero to support their own ideologies and so there was a fear that promoting Romero meant inadvertently promoting the political forces who were trying to claim him. That being said, I think we often confuse being political with being partisan. Most any act we perform within a social context is political, in the truest sense of the word. Romero pleading for the violence to stop and writing the US government to stop sending arms were certainly political acts… but it’s hard to argue that they were partisan acts in support of one party over another. The only party Romero was loyal to was the church and if in certain areas that loyalty overlapped with priorities of other parties, it doesn’t change the fact that he was operating out of his first loyalty to Jesus. According to Romero’s biographer, Romero “was not interested in liberation theology” but faithfully adhered to Catholic teachings on liberation and a preferential option for the poor, desiring a social revolution based on interior reform.”
The teachings of Pope Francis greatly insist on issues of Social Doctrine of the Church such as poverty, development, corruption, an equitable distribution of wealth. Does this canonization contain a message in this sense?
I think it was Cardinal Dolan of New York who pointed out that Pope John Paul II came from the context of Marxist Poland, where he saw firsthand the limitations and humanitarian abuses of communism, and that influenced his pontificate. Pope Francis, on the other hand, saw firsthand the limitations and humanitarian abuses involved with unbridled capitalism and those experiences are influencing his pontificate.
But, as a brother Paulist priest once said during a retreat we were both giving, the narrative of Jesus is always sandpaper to whatever narrative we have going on in our heads. The challenge for all of us is to live as authentically to Jesus message and as limited human beings, there are always going to be various areas that need to be smoothed out, both as individuals as well as a society. Romero definitely experienced that in his own conversion. Christianity at its truest core never allows us to get too comfortable!
The Civil War in San Salvador created deep divisions in the Church and in Salvadoran society. Is there a risk that this canonization reopens some old wounds?
I spoke with a friend of mine whose family came to the US from El Salvador, and who also happens to be the niece of Fr. Rutillo Grande, the close friend of Oscar Romero whose murder by the military had a profound effect on Romero’s Ministry. Ana Grande shares that A small miracle happened when he was to be beatified and soon after. Violence ceased throughout the entire country the week leading to his beatification. Everyone was stunned. Not one single bullet.
After the beatification, the youth of the church became motivated to engage in faith and dialogue. The vast majority of the parishes in El Salvador have rejoiced with this renewed interest in its younger generations.
My own suspicion is that Romero would not want divisions to arise because of his canonization, but he would want it to serve as a challenge for everyone—regardless of politics or birthplace—to recommit ourselves to living lives that forsake violence and create preferential options for the poor within the context of faith and justice.
Anything else you would like to add?
Paulist Productions has had the privilege for the past 30 years of sharing Óscar Romero’s story with the world. Our involvement with Oscar Romero literally began two days after he died, when Fr. Bud Kieser read about the assassination of the archbishop and set out to tell his story to the world. Fr. Bud spent the next nine years of his life bringing Romero’s story to the big screen and he has called his film “the greatest thing he has ever done.” This whole celebration of Romero’s canonization has been a great opportunity to not only celebrate Oscar Romero’s life and example, but also to use Fr. Bud’s film to bring Romero’s story to new generation who might be inspired to use their lives in making justice and equality more of a reality in this world.
On the Net:
The trailer: https://youtu.be/8TZ4hKlo2xk.
Website for the film: www.romerofilm.org.