The solemn Beatification in El Salvador on Saturday of the martyr Oscar Romero (1917-1980) will be yet another instance of the centrality of Latin America in the contemporary Church, hastened undoubtedly by the election of a Pope from Latin America. Latin America's transition from being on the periphery to being more at the center of the Church, itself mirrors the transition that took place in Latin America - and that Latin America has especially exemplified for the Universal Church - in the wake of the decisive meeting of Latin American bishops at Medellin, colombia, in 1968. It was at Medellin, in the presence of Blessed Paul VI, that the bishops famously adopted the phrase "option for the poor" - signifying a new stance on the part of the hierarchy, then widely perceived as part of the Latin American political establishment.
Trained as a child to be a carpenter, Romero entered minor seminary at 13 and eventually received an STL from the Gregorian University in Rome, where he was ordained a priest on April 4, 1942 - during the Second World War. Returning home in 1943, he was interned in Cuba for having travelled to an enemy state (Italy), but was able to return eventually to El Salvador after several months imprisonment in Cuba. Back in El Salvador, he served as a parish priest and eventually as a seminary rector and secretary to the National Bishops' Conference. Ordained a Bishop in 1974, he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, At that time, he was seen as a basically conservative spiritual leader who would not rock the political boat in an increasingly polarized society - a society where some priests were openly siding with the poor and were even perceived as Marxists. Shortly after his appointment, however, the political assassination of one such progressive Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande, who was also Romero's personal friend, deeply affected and helped to radicalize him. He later said: "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'." As with so many issues, it is often one's personal experience of actually knowing people who are personally affected by a situation that motivates movement on an issue.
After the military junta came to power in 1979, Romero criticized United States' President Jimmy Carter for giving the government military aid. His heightened political profile got him an honorary degree from Louvain (now Leuven) in Belgium. In his acceptance speech there on February 2, 1980, he said: “That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people's defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.” Back home again, he was famously assassinated while celebrating Mass on the evening of March 24, 1980. Three years later, during his first visit to El Salvador, Pope Saint John Paul II prayed at Romero's tomb and praised Romero as a "zealous and venerated pastor who tried to stop violence." Finally, the Congregation of the Causes of Saints voted recently to recognize Romero as a martyr, thus clearing the way for immediate beatification. The Congregation recognized that his murder "was not caused by motives that were simply political, but by hatred for a faith that, imbued with charity, would not be silent in the face of the injustices that relentlessly and cruelly slaughtered the poor and their defenders."
In his own life and ministry, Romero personified the process of - as Pope Francis likes to say - going out to the peripheries. By is beatification, the Church itself further embraces that process for the Church Universal.
Blessed Oscar Romero, pray for us!