SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
In 1980, just one day after urging El Salvador’s military to terminate a series of cruelties that would inflame a 12-year civil war in his impoverished country, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while celebrating Mass.
His homilies had lambasted the U.S.-backed military dictatorship while voicing solidarity with the poor, making him a Latin American human rights icon.
On Oct. 14, he was declared a saint.
Romero was considered for canonization decades ago, but his nomination stalled on concerns that he was overly political.
His reputation rebounded in 2015, when Pope Francis, committed to defending the poor, declared him a martyr who had been killed for hatred of the faith.
Attending the canonization was a delegation of four staff and faculty members from Marquette University: Terrence Miller, director of the office of international education; Stephanie Quade, dean of ttudents; Theresa Tobin, associate professor in the department of philosophy; and Fr. John Thiede, S.J., Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of theology.
Fr. Thiede penned his first book, “Remember Oscar Romero and the Martyrs of El Salvador, A Cloud of Witnesses,” in response to a challenge by Pope Francis to consider how we may allow for an expanded definition for martyrdom in the 21st Century. Attending the canonization was a great experience for the professor, who attended Notre Dame-sponsored Romero Conferences for the past 25 years.
“I was part of a group of scholars working on Romero and his cause for canonization for quite some time,” he said. “It was what helped the group of us get to Rome. One thing surprised me, and it was wonderful, the archbishop of San Salvador in the papal audience said that Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande should be beatified as the first Salvadoran priest killed in what was said was the start of their civil war and that Romero not only be named saint, but also doctor of the church.”
If Romero is declared a “doctor of the Church,” it would signify that the newly canonized saint’s writings are considered to offer key theological understandings for the faith.
“I think Romero is a great example of a saint for modern times and a sign for El Salvador as he is the first Salvadoran saint in a very small country with a troubled past,” said Fr. Thiede. “Personally, the experience was incredible and the Mass of Thanksgiving the next day was wonderful. During the Papal audience, the Salvadoran people literally screamed when he came in. They love Francis and started to chant, ‘Francis, I know you are with us.’ The archbishop invited Pope Francis to come to El Salvador to celebrate this new saint.”
For Marquette members, the experience to be part of the delegation allowed members to take part in various celebrations. On the morning of the canonization, they lined up at 5 a.m. outside St. Peter’s in Rome to walk in with the delegation that included mothers of the disappeared Salvadorans and those expelled during the war.
“They walked in five abreast and raised their Salvadoran flags. I told them I was a Jesuit and a woman hugged me and said, ‘My son is not here, you are my son,’” said Fr. Thiede. “It was incredible, and I was so glad I did not concelebrate that Mass because I wanted to be with the people as they celebrated Mass with the pope. I was able to hand him a copy of my book, and he told me it had a beautiful cover. The cover featured a Salvadoran flower in the form of a crucifix. I owe the Holy Father a great debt, because I wrote my first book in response to his question on martyrdom.”
Terence Miller said being in St. Peter’s Square in the midst of the crises in the Church and celebrating the canonization of Romero, who stood for the poor, was significant and a powerful moment for the Vatican and the Church.
“The Church as a whole has to stop and realize we are a church for the people. The Salvadoran people’s tenacity of promoting the canonization of this man long recognized by the people as a saint and finally having the Universal Church recognize his humble witness was a powerful moment,” he said. “It was also powerful for me to see the thousands of Salvadorans that had to seek refuge in other countries lined up in the Square with their Salvadoran flags and the flags of the countries that that accepted them as refugees at the height of the civil war, chanting and spelling out the word Romero. It sent chills down my spine to realize the significance of the people who have been divided by civil war.”
Equally touching to Miller and Fr. Thiede was the bloodstained rope belt worn by Romero at the time of death, tied around the pope’s waist to honor his memory.
“It really brought home the reality of Romero,” said Miller.
St. Romero’s namesake, Casa Romero Renewal Center, integrates faith and justice in their programs, retreats and renewal to youth and adults. As Director of Spiritual Programs, Fr. David Shields S.J., said the canonization of Oscar Romero is an example of concrete values and strength while they do their work.
“We see ourselves in Romero’s line of those being a voice for the voiceless and we work with the marginalized and underserved,” he said. “For the Salvadorian people, I think it is in effect the canonization of tens of thousands of people who died unjustly in their civil war and it is a huge acknowledgement in that Romero gives meaning to the lives that were lost, giving them a spiritual hero and an identity for us today as Church. I think it highlights and exemplifies how the church can bravely stand for the truth of the gospels without falling into partisan polarization. He was not for violence and wasn’t on either side. He spoke the truth of the Gospel and suffered the consequences of that truth.”