Boris Pelcer

What Óscar Romero’s Canonization Says About Pope Francis

Reassessing the Catholic Church’s dubious history in Latin America

“I implore you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God: stop the repression!”

When the archbishop denounced the military government for its campaign of violence against its opponents—and called on soldiers carrying out the violence to disobey orders—some men in the military decided that it was time to kill him. El Salvador was on the brink of civil war—it was March of 1980—and the archbishop had made his plea in a Sunday homily broadcast nationwide on the radio. He was asking for trouble; he deserved to be killed. The killing itself was easy. The next day’s newspaper named the chapel where the archbishop would be saying Mass that evening. The archbishop disregarded advice to stay home. The assassins drew lots to determine who would be the gunman. As the archbishop read the Gospel, the assassins pulled up to the chapel. As he raised the consecrated bread and wine, the gunman fired a shot to the heart.

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Nearly four decades later, Pope Francis has declared Óscar Romero a saint. An archbishop murdered at the altar, in the manner of England’s Thomas Becket, would seem a simple case. But Romero’s path to canonization—at an October ceremony at Saint Peter’s Basilica, in Rome—has been tortuous. More than 100,000 people thronged the cathedral plaza in San Salvador for Romero’s funeral, and yet the papal representative to El Salvador and all but one of the country’s remaining bishops stayed away, cowed by the regime and the Vatican alike. As the murdered man became the face of a “people’s Catholicism” in Latin America—a saint by acclamation—Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI slow-walked the official canonization process, precisely because of what the archbishop represented.

For the Catholic left, Romero’s assassination is as epochal as Martin Luther King Jr.’s, and his canonization—long awaited—is apt. At a moment when bishops in the United States and around the world are being called to account for their criminal cover-up of priestly sexual abuse, Óscar Romero stands in stark contrast as a bishop who strove to be holy by being accountable—a voice for the voiceless rather than for the Church and its patrons. To celebrate Romero, the Church has to address unholy episodes in its past—episodes as troubling, in their own way, as the current sexual-abuse scandal. The canonization also forces us to consider Francis in a different light—as a figure scarred by Latin American politics and his own encounter with fear and violence, compromise and complicity.

The Pope Francis depicted in the North American media since his 2013 election is largely a figure in the culture wars—conflicts fought over issues such as divorce, homosexuality, gay marriage, and the Church in a diverse society. The issues are different in Latin America. As the first pope from the region, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio has inherited the Catholic Church’s 500-year history as handmaiden to local oligarchs, dictators, and military strongmen. In Latin America, in his lifetime, the Church and its leaders have figured directly not just in the culture wars but in actual wars: in Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, and Nicaragua; in Argentina, the pope’s native land, whose so-called Dirty War ensnared Bergoglio and his fellow Jesuits; and in El Salvador.

The role of archbishop of San Salvador in the mid-1970s was all but impossible. The archbishop was expected to serve the interests of the people, the ruling oligarchy of landowning families, the local Church, the Vatican, and even the United States, which funded El Salvador’s military.

Romero’s appointment, in February 1977, coincided with troubled times: The country faced a growing concentration of power in the military; torture and threats of torture against campesinos who sought concessions from landowners; and a government-backed campaign against activist clergy. In a country named for Jesus—El Salvador means “The Savior”—fliers were passed out urging, “Be a patriot. Kill a priest.”

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Romero did not start out as a leftist reformer. Born in 1917, the second of eight children, he entered a seminary in El Salvador when he was 13 and was eventually ordained in Rome, at the age of 24. To the people in his parishes, he was a down-to-earth pastor; to his fellow priests, he was an organization man—a “stickler,” one associate recalled. When the Second Vatican Council relaxed the dress code for priests, he continued to wear a long cassock (and disdained priests who did not). As the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, he was an episcopal bureaucrat, consumed with paperwork. He shifted the content of the weekly archdiocesan newspaper from calls for social justice to calls for personal improvement, honing in on drug use, promiscuity, and alcoholism. He faulted the Jesuits at Central American University for promoting “political theology” and defended the government’s armed occupation of the University of El Salvador on the grounds that the school was a hotbed of Marxism. He made his weekly confession to a priest who was a member of the secretive traditionalist movement Opus Dei. But for all that, he was not doctrinaire. In 1968, an epochal conference of Latin American bishops held in Medellín, Colombia, dramatically sharpened the Church’s commitment to social justice; Romero sought a middle ground between the “Medellínistas” and the Salvadoran oligarchy. The Vatican, noting his moderation, installed him as archbishop—after the oligarchy signed off.

Three weeks later, a Jesuit priest named Rutilio Grande and two companions were murdered in Aguilares, a village outside the capital, where Grande had been organizing sugarcane workers. Grande was a friend of Romero’s—they had lived in the same seminary in the early 1970s, often taking meals together. The new archbishop went to Aguilares to pray over Grande’s bullet-riddled body. Romero, one priest would recall, had previously been “reluctant to go through the door of history God was opening up for him”—but now he did. He returned to San Salvador a changed man, vowing that he and the Church would not take part in any official government ceremony until the killing was dealt with. He canceled all scheduled Masses the following Sunday, replacing them with a single misa única in the cathedral in memory of the slain men. That morning, 100,000 Catholics gathered outside the cathedral.

Romero lived modestly. For his quarters he took a bungalow on the grounds of a hospital. He declined to make use of a luxury car and driver. He opened the chancery to poor people, who came to him with their problems. As the military regime’s repression escalated—priests murdered, campesinos “disappeared,” protesters massacred—he condemned from within the Church the “social sin” perpetuated by the government and the ruling class, whom he accused of “paying to kill the voice that speaks out.” He used his Sunday homilies to report on people murdered or kidnapped, identifying each by name. He made the archdiocese’s radio station, YSAX, an alternative to state-controlled media. Once an organization man, Romero now found his brother bishops writing to Rome to complain about him. In February 1978, Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution in Washington, D.C., decided to give Romero an honorary degree. The Vatican sought to stop it, but the university stood its ground.

May 1979: Less than a year before his murder, Archbishop Óscar Romero appeals to the international community for help in ending government repression in El Salvador. (Bettmann / Getty)

Karol Wojtyla was elected pope that fall. As the archbishop of Kraków, he had set the Church against Communism in the Soviet bloc; as Pope John Paul II, he set the Church against Latin America’s liberation theology, which mounted a wide-ranging critique of entrenched social structures in the region and called upon the Church to cast its lot, in word and in deed, with the poor and the powerless. Romero had not read much liberation theology, but he made common cause with its advocates. The Vatican sent a bishop from Argentina to “check on” Romero. It began planning for his removal. When threatened campesinos occupied churches to protect themselves, he supported them. When the president of El Salvador failed to stop the murders of priests and laity, Romero excommunicated him.

Washington was watching, too. Under President Jimmy Carter, the State Department and the Pentagon were working with the Salvadoran government. When the Marx-inspired Sandinista rebels came to power in neighboring Nicaragua (and appointed four priests to the cabinet), many in official Washington feared that El Salvador was next. The Carter administration pursued a quixotic policy toward the country: denouncing the government’s human-rights violations while funding its lawless military. The undersecretary of state for the region derided Romero as “a weak archbishop strongly influenced by an idealistic but naïve Jesuit cadre.”

After a so-called bloodless coup by the military in 1979, the government’s war on its opponents grew even more brutal. Campesinos were murdered at the rate of more than 300 a month. Priests continued to be killed. Romero had observed that his role was “to tend the wounds … pick up the bodies”; now he presided over funeral after funeral. With the U.S. Congress set to renew funding for the Salvadoran military, he wrote a letter to Carter imploring him to end the funding. Romero read the letter aloud in the cathedral and over YSAX, whose facilities were soon bombed. He refused to hire a bodyguard or wear a bulletproof vest. Why should he be protected when the campesinos were not?

Romero’s letter to Carter circulated among the president’s staff. The national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski—Polish-born, anti-Communist—reached out to John Paul, asking him to compel Romero to tone things down. The new U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, saw things differently. White described the military regime as a “right-wing Murder Incorporated.” In a State Department communiqué he remarked, “Probably the most serious threat to a moderate solution would be the assassination … of Archbishop Romero, the most important political figure in El Salvador.”

YSAX’s transmitter was eventually repaired, and on Sunday, March 23, 1980, in an hour-long homily broadcast across Central America, Romero begged the military regime to “stop the repression!” The next day he was dead.

Pope Francis has had Romero in mind ever since his election. After taking the name of a saint who served the poor—Francis of Assisi—he spurned the papal palace, opting to live in a guesthouse. He rides in a Fiat, not a luxury car. He is open, bold, improvisatory. He has likened the Church to “a field hospital after battle,” called in to bind up the wounds left by society.

But he was not always this way. In Argentina he was known as dour and cautious, a loner, sometimes a scold. Two decades younger than Romero, Bergoglio made his final vows as a Jesuit in Buenos Aires in April 1973, at age 36. Two months later, he was named the provincial, or regional leader, of the Jesuits in Argentina—a young conservative appointed to counter the surging progressivism of the order. His profile then was strikingly akin to Romero’s at the same moment: making priests wear clerical collars (and wearing a collar and a cassock himself), favoring traditional devotions over Vatican II innovations, standing against liberation theology, and staying on gracious good terms with the authoritarian Catholics who ran the country. He didn’t vote. He sometimes wore gold-embroidered vestments when celebrating Mass, explaining that ordinary people liked “a touch of Evita” in their liturgy. Some of his fellow Jesuits wrote to Rome to complain about him.

In 1976 he faced a test of his leadership. Inspired by the Medellín declaration on social justice, two other Jesuits had founded a community in a shantytown of Buenos Aires, living among the poor and among Marxist guerrillas, which some interpreted as tantamount to supporting terrorists. Bergoglio had been their student. Now he was their superior. Following an order, he said, from Pedro Arrupe, the leader of the Jesuits in Rome, he told the two Jesuits that they had to choose between the community, with its politically provocative agenda, and the Jesuit order. They refused to give up their work. He invited them to stay at the Jesuit house in Buenos Aires. They declined. Bergoglio warned them to be “very careful.”

The coup came five days later. The Jesuits were hauled from their dwelling in the shantytown—two of some 150 priests taken in the Dirty War that followed. The men were stripped, shackled, hooded, and tortured for five days, then relocated and kept blindfolded. They became convinced that Bergoglio had either turned them in or acquiesced to their abduction.

Had he? Almost certainly not. But he had been careless. Carrying out the dismissal, he had left the priests without institutional protection. In the flurry of paperwork and consultation, he had somehow drawn the regime’s attention to the two men. In any case, once they were taken, he worked for their release. The priests were eventually let go—drugged and dumped on a remote stretch outside of Buenos Aires, but alive after a five-month ordeal. Bergoglio’s efforts likely helped secure their release. In the terrifying period that followed, as the Dirty War escalated, Bergoglio arranged protection for other people threatened by the regime. He got them passage out of the country on flights to Brazil. He put them up at the Colegio Máximo, claiming that they were there to undergo the Jesuits’ famous “long retreat.” On one occasion he gave a man his own government ID, and the man escaped as Padre Bergoglio, in a black suit and clerical collar.

That is what Jorge Bergoglio did. What he did not do was openly oppose or denounce the repressive government in Argentina in the late 1970s—the very time when Óscar Romero was opposing and denouncing the repressive government in El Salvador, a stand he paid for with his life.

The Dirty War in Argentina went on until 1983. Up to 30,000 civilians were killed or “disappeared.” Bergoglio, after two terms as provincial, was named the rector of the Jesuit seminary. He remained fundamentally conservative, and as a result proved divisive. He was sent on sabbaticals to Ireland and West Germany and eventually posted to the Argentine mountain town of Córdoba—a move intended as informal exile—until he was called back to Buenos Aires in 1992, where he became an auxiliary bishop and then the archbishop. The archbishop who called him back was the same man the Vatican had sent to El Salvador to check on Romero.

After Bergoglio’s election as pope, some Argentines revived the accusations that he had betrayed the two Jesuits and had ignored the entreaties of the “Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” a group devoted to reuniting children whose parents had been disappeared during the Dirty War with their blood relatives. In a lengthy interview published soon after he became pope, Francis spoke remorsefully about his efforts in the 1970s. “My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults,” he said. “I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself … My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems.”

He had changed in the decades since then. The change had begun during the Dirty War and it had deepened during his time in Córdoba. He returned to Buenos Aires a humbler man, and one squarely on the side of the poor. He lived in spartan quarters. He took the subway and bus. He walked the slums. When the bishops of Latin America convened in Brazil in 2007, Bergoglio, entrusted to write the official statement about the meeting, called for the Church to become “a traveling companion of our poorest brothers and sisters, even as far as martyrdom.” In the years after Romero’s death, the murdered archbishop of San Salvador had become an inspiration to the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Bergoglio said of Romero in 2007, “If I were pope, I would have already canonized him.” It was the future pope’s rebuke to his two predecessors, who felt that Romero—in death as in life—needed to be restrained.

Pope John Paul II visited El Salvador in 1983. That he went at all took courage: The region was in a state of war. He had just visited Nicaragua—where he bellowed “Silencio!” after he was heckled during an open-air Mass—and tensions were high. Terror threats called into question his plan to pray at Óscar Romero’s tomb, in the crypt below the cathedral. He went and prayed anyway.

Robert White, the U.S. ambassador, had seen Romero as essential to any peaceful way forward in El Salvador. He proved prophetic. The assassination of Romero presaged a civil war that would last 12 years and leave up to 80,000 dead and 8,000 disappeared. Progressive Catholics were targets. Four American churchwomen were raped and murdered. Six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter were shot point-blank by members of a paramilitary group, who also trained their guns on a poster of Archbishop Romero that was hanging on the wall.

John Paul visited El Salvador again, in 1996. He again knelt at Romero’s tomb. But he declined to visit the chapel where Romero had been murdered, and he was not eager to see Romero canonized: Better to wait a couple of decades, he believed, until the war was over and Romero’s political charisma had dimmed. John Paul’s go-slow approach gave cover to subordinates who opposed Romero’s canonization on theological and political grounds. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the rigorist prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sought to suppress liberation theology, and Romero was seen as implicated by association. Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, of Colombia, another archconservative, stated that Romero was not a true martyr, because he had been killed for political reasons, not religious ones. The ties between the Church and Latin American elites proved hard to break.

May 2015: Thousands gather in El Salvador’s capital to celebrate Romero’s beatification—a key step on the way to official canonization. (Rodrigo Arangua / AFP / Getty)

El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992 with a rough-and-ready peace accord, and five years later John Paul and Ratzinger allowed the “cause” for Romero to be opened in Rome. A youngish Italian monsignor was made postulator—the man with the job of seeing the matter through. It would not be easy. The process was held up at every stage—by the bishops in El Salvador, and in Rome by the bishops’ office, by the clergy office, and, in 1998, by Ratzinger and the doctrinal office, which wanted to review Romero’s homilies for traces of Marxism. Six years passed. Then Ratzinger announced another delay, so that Vatican clerics could “delve deeper” into Romero’s writings. Pope John Paul II died. Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. Seven more years passed. John Paul was canonized. At last, after meeting with the postulator—who by now was a white-haired bishop—Benedict approved the cause. Then he resigned. Bergoglio was elected pope. Three weeks later, Óscar Romero was authorized for canonization.

On one level, the canonization represents a wrong finally righted. On another, it is an occasion for Francis to confront the darkness of the late 1970s—the struggles he faced, the decisions he made. There is no one right way for religious leaders to challenge repressive governments in every circumstance. Francis is now taking a conciliatory approach with China, for example, remaining quiet on human rights in order to gain space for the Church to operate there. And outspokenness, for its part, is not guaranteed to bring results. But this canonization marks a real change: After centuries of cozying up to strongmen, the Vatican has legitimated Romero’s way of denunciation and confrontation, recognizing that it is not the path of a reckless maverick.

Pope Francis, greeting pilgrims from El Salvador in the fall of 2015, went off script to speak candidly about Romero’s posthumous ordeal, making clear that he laid the blame for the long delay not on Central American despots but on princes of the Church, whom he placed among Romero’s persecutors: “He was defamed, slandered, soiled—that is, his martyrdom continued even by his brothers in the priesthood and in the episcopate.”

He went on to lament that the same posthumous fate had been suffered by Rutilio Grande, the Jesuit organizer of poor agricultural workers whose murder in 1977 prompted Romero to commit his life to social justice. Asked once about prospects for Romero’s canonization, Francis had said, “Yes, yes, yes … And right after that comes Rutilio Grande.” Typically, a candidate for sainthood must be associated with miracles. Francis responded to that notion in a brief encounter with Grande’s biographer two years later. He said, “Rutilio Grande’s great miracle is Óscar Romero.”

This article appears in the November 2018 print edition with the headline “The Martyr and the Pope.”