In the 1980s, it was hard to find a scarier place than El Salvador. Crushing poverty and right-wing death squads. Civil war and left-wing guerrillas.
The flashlight in that darkness was Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero.
In his last Christmas Eve homily, Romero urged El Salvador’s reactionary oligarchs to find the infant Jesus on the nation’s streets – among the hundreds of thousands of children “who go to bed with nothing to eat, who sleep covered by newspapers in doorways.”
That’s the sort of Christmas card you expect from a priest. But the powers that be deemed it communist subversion. Three months later, on March 24, 1980 – a day after he called on the army to stop terrorizing the population – Romero was shot dead as he celebrated Mass.
Then, after the goons had gunned down Romero’s body, Vatican conservatives assassinated his character. They branded Romero a Marxist instead of a martyr. For decades they blocked his beatification, which is the first step to canonization, or sainthood.
But this week Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, finally pledged a fast-track beatification for Romero. Let’s hope his canonization comes just as quickly, because Romero’s sainthood is a spiritual and social tonic that El Salvador and Central America desperately need.
It could, in fact, help the region pull out of its homicidal tailspin.
In the 21st century, even to most Catholics like myself, sainthood can seem a quaint custom. Still, its symbolism remains as strong as incense in a sanctuary – and the aura of Saint Oscar would challenge the lurid drug-gang tattoos that defile Central America today.
Those mafias are where the kids Romero spoke of in his day wind up in our day. Ditto kids in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, the country with the world’s highest murder rate. Youths who refuse to join those gangs often get killed by them anyway in retribution. The rest, as we were jarringly reminded this summer, make a harrowing escape to the U.S. border.
Were Romero alive, rescuing youngsters from that violent wretchedness would no doubt be his priority. Lifting them out of the indigence and ignorance that gangs exploit should take policy precedence in Central America. But it still takes a back seat.
El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – Central America's so-called northern triangle – are obsessed instead with sexual politics. They've made sure their citizens' access to birth control is the lowest in the western hemisphere, even though it makes the number of unwanted pregnancies in those countries among the highest. Meanwhile, they seem far less troubled by national poverty levels as scandalous as 75 percent.
Canonizing Romero won’t fix that. But few things would signal more powerfully, especially to a society as Catholic as Central Americans are, that his crusade has to become their crusade.
If not, it could be a long time before the northern triangle – which the U.S. military calls the most dangerous corner of the world outside Iraq and Afghanistan – sees the light of day again.
Opponents of Romero’s sainthood call him a liberation theologian, their derogatory catch-all for Latin American clerics who champion the poor. Because many priests who subscribe to liberation theology naively embrace Marxism as well, conservatives insist Romero is not a church martyr. He died for politics, they argue, not for piety.
But Romero was no communist. If anything he was a conservative himself – early in his priesthood he too was fixated on matters like abortion – who came to understand the real roots of his country’s benighted injustices.
Francis, who last year received a piece of Romero’s blood-stained vestment at the Vatican, understands that. In fact, he all but laid out a defense of Romero last year in his papal document, “The Joy of the Gospel.” It urges Catholics to de-emphasize issues like gay marriage and focus on global threats like mushrooming wealth inequality.
The Pope isn’t promoting Marxism; he's affirming Catholicism. And so was Romero when he was slain at his own altar, a la the medieval martyr Thomas Becket.
But there’s another hurdle awaiting canonization: a miracle. Although many Catholics today consider it an obsolete requirement, the church has to confirm some instance of divine intercession in a saintly candidate’s life – like the Colombian man who said he was cured of Parkinson’s disease after meeting Pope John Paul II, who was canonized this year.
Here’s what the Vatican miracle inspectors should consider in Romero’s case:
At a time when the fresh corpses of death-squad victims lined the highway to the San Salvador airport each morning, the Archbishop summoned the fortitude of his faith and peacefully shouted, “Enough.”
Had he lived, Romero might have healed not just an afflicted person but an afflicted country. That would have been a bona fide miracle – and one his canonization could still help happen.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.