El Salvador celebrates its first saint, whose legacy continues

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jose Cabezas, Reuters

By David Agren

SALVADOR, El Salvador (CNS) — Near the end of his homily at a Mass just prior
to St. Oscar Romero’s canonization, Jesuit Father Jose Maria Tojeira yelled to
the crowd outside the Metropolitan Cathedral: “Viva Monsenor Romero!”
(Long live Bishop Romero!)

overflow crowed lustily yelled back, “Que Viva!” (Long live!)

not venerating a body,” Father Tojeira said, “rather someone who is
alive, together with God and in the hearts of all Christians that want to
continue with the reality of the Gospel.”

During the Oct. 14 at the Vatican — very early morning in El Salvador — Salvadorans gathered in the square outside the cathedral to watch the ceremony on big screens; others watched in their parishes.

Romero was shot dead while celebrating Mass March 24, 1980. His legacy of showing a preference for the poor and promoting
peace lives on in his native El Salvador, where, even in death, he plays an
outsized role in the country’s public life and occupies a special place in its
collective consciousness — for devotees and detractors alike.

becomes El Salvador’s first saint. But his current role in the country
transcends religion. He also has assumed the status of national hero, whose
words — spoken in homilies — sound prophetic and seem apt almost four decades
after his death.

still is the most venerated and respected leader of the last 100 years,
certainly the last 50 years,” said Rick Jones, youth and migration adviser
for Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador.

still the sign post of what people are looking for in terms of some voice that
talks about reconciliation, justice and hope for nonviolent transformation.”

Romero’s slaying came as the country was on the cusp of civil war, which roared
through the 1980s. His canonization comes as the country convulses with
violence, much of it attributed to gangs preying on populations living in
barrios under their control.

archbishop of San Salvador, the national capital, St. Romero accompanied the
poor at a time when some two-thirds of the population lived in poverty. He also
voiced people’s demands for better wages and criticisms of the “oligarchy” 
— as the elites were caustically called — at a time when his critics
considered such talk “communist.” He also called for a suspension of
U.S. military assistance.

poverty and inequality St. Romero spoke out against are still rife in 2018.
Many Salvadorans also still flee the country to escape the violence and indignities,
causing his words to resonate with younger generations and even some evangelicals
and atheists.

he said is still valid. His words still carry enormous weight,” said
Douglas Martinez, a vendor in San Salvador. “He was practically a prophet
on this earth.”

was never certain for St. Romero, though some in the country have long
considered him a saint.

me and for many people in the country — a good number of people with a social
commitment — Bishop Romero has been a saint since his martyrdom, and now it’s
going to be the formal act,” said Gabina Dubon, coordinator of the
transformational social ministry in Caritas El Salvador.

that time there was no freedom of expression. He became a voice for those
without a voice, a defender of life, dignity, solidarity and the common good.”

Romero served only three years as archbishop of San Salvador, yet he left a
legacy via his homilies, which were broadcast across the country.

in a procession to the cathedral carried signs with quotes culled from those
homilies. “There’s no more diabolical sin than taking bread from the
hungry,” read one sign. “It’s necessary to call injustice by its
name,” read another.

celebrations carried political overtones for some. A U.N. truth commission named
Roberto d’Aubuisson, an ex-army officer and founder of the conservative ARENA alliance,
as the intellectual author of the murder. He died of cancer in 1992.

Neftali Ruiz carried a banner castigating ARENA, but saying of Romero, “The
people made him a saint.”

Ruiz stood outside the same cathedral where tens of thousands of Salvadorans
mourned St. Romero at his funeral. Snipers opened fire on the funeral, killing
at least 40 people.

Only one
Salvadoran bishop attended the funeral: Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas, who was
named St. Romero’s successor in San Salvador.

always defended Romero,” Father Tojeira said of Archbishop Rivera, “but
speaking in confidence … he would say, ‘A bishop like Romero arrives every
500 years.'”

The St.
Romero canonization showed how time had changed in the country and church
though, in an interview, Father Tojeira quipped of St. Romero’s critics, “They
used to say ‘communist.’ They now have a little more civilized discourse but
continue being similar.”

of the canonization occurred in dioceses across El Salvador — even in San
Vicente, where priests would bless army helicopters during the civil war.
Father Ruiz recalled being expelled from the minor seminary there in 2000 for refusing
to stop displaying an image of St. Romero.

images of St. Romero grace everything from postage stamps to murals to the
walls of the presidential palace to political ads, as the ruling party attempts
to capitalize on his popularity and incorruptible reputation.

politicians try to appropriate St. Romero’s image bothers some devotees as
crime, corruption and poverty persist at alarmingly high levels. St. Romero
also criticized both sides of the political spectrum.

don’t practice what he preached,” said Elsy Cornejo, who was selling CDs
of St. Romero’s homilies. “He spoke of peace and accompanying the poor.”

With the
murder rate in El Salvador ranking among the highest in the world and gangs
preying on poor barrio dwellers with crimes such as extortion and the forced
recruitment of teenagers, Cornejo added, “We’re also practicing very
little of what he preached.”

observers expressed hope St. Romero’s canonization could bring unity to a country
with polarized politics and offer a possibility of improvement.

presents a figure for reconciliation,” Jones said, “and a different
way to move forward other than … just the left or the right.”

– – –

Copyright © 2018 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Original Article