The perception of Romero in the minds of many American Catholics is largely shaped by the 1989 film Romero starring Raul Julia. Like many low-budget biographical films (this movie was produced by the Paulist Fathers), Romero‘s plot is simple, almost simplistic: Romero is portrayed a quiet, shy bookworm priest chosen by Rome to become Archbishop of San Salvador as a “safe” candidate– neither to the right nor to the left. Early in the film, he says during his first homily as Archbishop,
I come from a world of books and there is much to learn in their pages, but I have much else to learn. There is ferment and division alive in our land. Certain priests accept — express the most radical ideas glibly. But none of us can pretend to know all the answers and demand that others implement them. We, in the Church, must keep to the center, watchfully, in the traditional way, but seeking justice.
He is thus shown to be a cautious man, a traditional man, a man typical of the “conservative” Catholic hierarchy. When he becomes Archbishop, however, he notices all the terrible injustice in his country, especially the persecution of the poor. Profoundly struck by their suffering, he becomes an outspoken champion of their cause, taking to the airwaves to publicly criticize the oppression of El Salvador’s most vulnerable, earning the ire of the government.
Like many films, Romero‘s central drama may appear to some as a First World-vs.-Third World (or right-vs.-left, or high Church-vs.-low Church) conflict; the intellectual priest experiences a dramatic change of heart after the death of his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande, compelling him to take up the cause of the left (and, therefore, the cause of the Third World). However, what the film correctly portrays (even if through characters devised solely for the movie) is that Romero opposed violence in all its forms. He harshly admonished those priests who, disappointed with the status quo, took up arms with left-wing militias during the Salvadoran Civil War.
What the film fails to depict accurately (and this informs the mind of many Americans who admire Romero) is that the government in power at the time of the assassination was the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Military Junta (which nevertheless included right-wing military officers at its highest levels). Romero’s impassioned public defense of the poor was a criticism of all those in positions of responsibility who perpetuated the continued repression of the poor and of those who spoke of their plight. But when, late in the film, opposition to Romero is personified in the (fictional) character of Lieutenant Ricardo Columa (“We penetrated the jungles, planted coffee and sugar cane. We are like the pioneers of the United States. We do not want what doesn’t belong to us. We only want to have what the North Americans have– to live as they do!”), a simple , two-sided conflict is heavily suggested– materialistic capitalism against the righteously indignant leftists. This was not the case. Yes, Romero trod what we might call “middle ground”, but this was not the centrist position of complacent indifference: Romero walked the hard via media of Christ all the way to death.
Romero’s true story dispels the myth, so deeply ingrained in Western minds, that in order to take up the cause of the poor, one must be a leftist and eschew traditional Catholic theology. The Archbishop’s episcopal motto, taken from Ignatius of Loyola’s Exercitia Spiritualia, says it all: sentire cum Ecclesia— to be one in mind with the Church. For Romero, there was no divorce between his so-called “world of books” and Christian practice. In fact, it was his solid formation in the traditional teaching of the Church (at the Pontifical Gregorian University, no less) that allowed him to powerfully and eloquently pose his opposition to those of any political leaning who dared to violate the dignity of the campesinos. Again, what the movie fails to clarify is that many of the policies implemented by the Junta government (including nationalization of the coffee, banking, and sugar industries) were Marxist-inspired, and these are the policies that created conditions for exploitation of the poor (what liberation theologians would call “structures of oppression”). On the other hand, he drew the anger of the far-right death squads under Major D’Aubuisson, who saw in the popular bishop a threat to their own rise to power.
The process to recognize Romero’s martyrdom has taken far too long, mostly due to Latin American Cardinals who viewed Romero with suspicion.
A Roma, operava in quegli anni una influente fazione di alti prelati che ispiravano sotterranee resistenze alla canonizzazione di Romero. Un episodio rivelatore capitò al cardinale Francesco Saverio Nguyen Van Thuan: proprio nel Duemila, predicando gli esercizi spirituali al Papa e alla Curia romana, il compianto porporato vietnamita aveva ricordato anche Romero tra i grandi testimoni della fede del nostro tempo. E per questo, alla fine della meditazione era stato aspramente rimproverato da alcuni porporati latinoamericani, che lo accusavano di aver esaltato davanti al Papa una figura che ai loro occhi appariva come controversa e “sovversiva”.
At Rome, there existed in those years an influential faction of high prelates who inspired underground resistance to Romero’s canonization. A revealing episode occurred to Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan: in the year 2000, preaching the Lenten spiritual exercises to the Pope and the Roman Curia, the beloved Vietnamese cardinal recalled Romero as one of the great witnesses of the faith in our time. And for this, at the end of the meditation, he was harshly rebuked by some Latin American cardinals [porporati latinoamericani] who accused him of praising, in the presence of the Pope, a figure who in their eyes was controversial and “subversive”.
To beatify and canonize the slain archbishop, many thought, would be to beatify and canonize the ultra-Marxist forms of liberation theology. Among the most illustrious detractors of Romero was Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, who for the rest of his life remained skeptical of Romero’s orthodoxy because of his association with liberation theology. It was only the intervention of Pope Benedict XVI on 20 December 2012 that allowed the investigation into Romero’s writings to proceed once again. This week, Pope Francis completed the process, formally recognizing Romero’s martyrdom after no doctrinal errors were found in any of his works.
Perhaps the clearest statement on Romero’s orthodoxy comes from Romero himself. When a reported once asked him, “Do you agree with liberation theology?”, the Archbishop replied:
Si, ciertamente. Pero existen dos teologías de la liberación. Una es la teología que ve la liberación sólo como liberación material. La otra es aquella de Pablo VI. Yo estoy con Pablo VI.
Yes, certainly. But there exist two theologies of liberation. One is a theology which sees liberation only as material liberation. The other is that of Paul VI. I am with Paul VI.
The Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (especially paragraphs 32-38) shows us what Paul VI and Romero actually mean when they speak of liberation: true liberation is the liberation from sin which comes from Christ.
Negare non possumus, revera, multos vel magnanimos christianos, intentos quaestionibus maximae gravitatis, quas liberationis causa complectitur, cum cupiant Ecclesiam implicare ipso motu liberationis, saepe cogitare et conari redigere eius munus ad limites alicuius negotii tantummodo temporalis; eius officia ad consilium ordinis anthropologici; salutem, cuius ipsa est nuntia, ad materialem prosperitatem; eius actionem ad incepta ordinis politici vel socialis, quavis cura spirituali et religiosa posthabita. Si autem sic res sese haberent, Ecclesia omnem suam significationem principalem amitteret. Nuntius liberationis, quem affert, propria sua natura careret, et facile posset flecti ac torqueri a doctrinalibus institutis et politicis factionibus. Ecclesia iam auctoritate nuntiandae liberationis nomine Dei destitueretur.
We must not ignore the fact that many, even generous Christians who are sensitive to the dramatic questions involved in the problem of liberation, in their wish to commit the Church to the liberation effort are frequently tempted to reduce her mission to the dimensions of a simply temporal project. They would reduce her aims to a man-centered goal; the salvation of which she is the messenger would be reduced to material well-being. Her activity, forgetful of all spiritual and religious preoccupation, would become initiatives of the political or social order. But if this were so, the Church would lose her fundamental meaning. Her message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties. She would have no more authority to proclaim freedom as in the name of God.
Thus, Romero’s struggle was not primarily one against a political ideology or a form of government; above all else, Romero fought for the primacy of Christ. It was his fidelity to the teaching of the Church of Rome– his sentire cum Ecclesia— that gave him the strength to courageously stand with the poor against both the government and the guerrillas who were tearing his country apart.
Commenting on the death of John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel, Pope Francis said in his homily of 6 January 2014 (The Feast of Paolo Miki):
penso ai nostri martiri, ai martiri dei nostri giorni, quegli uomini, donne, bambini che sono perseguitati, odiati, cacciati via dalle case, torturati, massacrati. E questa non è una cosa del passato; oggi succede questo. I nostri martiri, che finiscono la loro vita sotto l’autorità corrotta di gente che odia Gesù Cristo. Ci farà bene pensare ai nostri martiri. Oggi pensiamo a Paolo Miki, ma quello è successo nel 1600. Pensiamo a quelli di oggi–del 2015.
I think of our martyrs, the martyrs of our days, those men, women, and children who are persecuted, hated, banished from their homes, tortured, and massacred. And this is not something of the past; this happens even today. Our martyrs, who end their lives under the corrupt authority of people who hate Jesus Christ. It is good that we should think of our own martyrs. Today, we think of Paolo Miki, but this happened around 1600. Let us think of the martyrs of today–of 2015.
Romero’s killers, by opposing a man who preached the Gospel in word and deed, exhibited a true hatred of Christ. “He who welcomes you welcomes me,” says the Lord to his Apostles (Matt 10:40). Oscar Romero, a successor of the Apostles, continued that apostolic preaching in his passionate yet peaceful opposition to the repression of the poor. If Christ’s statement is true, then its converse is also true: “he who opposes you opposes me”. Hate for Romero was nothing other than hatred of Christ and his teaching; thus, Romero, who fell by an assassin’s bullet at the Lord’s altar under the watchful eye of the Crucified One, truly died in odium fidei— out of hatred of the faith.