Announced just days ago, later this year, Pope Francis will lead a canonization mass that will declare Father Oscar Romero a saint. Being a fussy Protestant, I have little to say about the official policies the Roman church follows to arrive at such conclusions. But as a longtime admirer of Romero, I am pleased.
A native of El Salvador, Romero entered formal religious education before most kids in the US get a learner’s permit to drive. Education complete, he returned home to faithfully serve his country as a priest. In 1977, as he turned sixty, he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, just as his country descended into an atrocity-ridden civil war.
The establishment saw Romero’s appointment as a “safe” choice. He was conservative and cautious, far past youthful fire-brandishing, and had enjoyed a quiet, settled career. But shortly after his appointment, Father Romero’s closest friend was assassinated for impassioned defense of the poor and publicly condemning the violence led by the government.
Romero was forever changed. He began to speak out and to pull himself away from the oppressive systems that asked for his silent assent. He began to wage a war of confrontational love from his pulpit and his weekly radio address to the country.
Using his voice, influence, and resources, he defended the poor; he condemned the bloody struggle for power and unmitigated violence; he confronted the injustices and oppression that were tearing his country to tatters. By 1980, he was a deliberate, focused, and painful thorn in the side of the tyrants who wanted governmental control in the midst of the civil war.
In one of his most powerful, nationally broadcast sermons, he preached: “I make a special appeal to the men of the army, the police and the military. Brothers, you are killing your own. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. Recover your consciences. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop this repression.”
The next evening, as Father Romero presided over the Eucharist at a hospital chapel in San Salvador, he was gunned down, assassinated by a death squad. For his part, Father Oscar Romero knew his life was in danger. Sometime before his murder he said, “I am bound by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that includes all, even those who are going to kill me. If they kill me, I shall rise in the Salvadoran people. I offer my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador.”
That’s the thing about true saints – canonized or not. They do what they do, not for the recognition or acclaim, but for love: The love that lays his or her life for others. That kind of love – saintly love – is the only thing capable of truly changing the world.