THE BLOG
03/22/2013 11:31 am ET Updated May 22, 2013

New Pope's Election May Boost Sainthood Drive for Slain Salvadoran Archbishop

A top Salvadoran church official says the elevation of Cardinal José Maria Bergoglio to Pope Francis could advance the plodding campaign for sainthood for Msgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero, an outspoken peace advocate and possibly the country's most revered figure, assassinated for his views on March 24, 1980.

Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, led the Salvadoran Catholic church on a path of "liberation theology," a controversial approach that interprets Christianity through the eyes of the poor and oppressed and gives them preferential consideration. He had influence throughout Latin America.

In the eyes of many, his assassination 33 years ago quashed the last chance the country may have had to turn back the civil war that eventually claimed some 75,000 lives. It also opened a wider window on the brutal nature of the extreme far-right in the polarized country. His tomb in the basement of the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador continues to draw streams of pilgrims to this today.

His followers initiated the campaign for sainthood 17 years ago, and the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith agreed to initiate the process in 2006.

Romero worked tirelessly urging an end to end the country's growing civil war, at one point urging government soldiers not to fight, telling them the guerrilla forces they opposed were of their own class and urged former President Jimmy Carter to end American military aid to the country, saying, "It is being used to oppress my people."

He spoke for the country's majority underclass at a time when speaking out was to risk death at the hands of the widely tolerated death squads that kept a brutal damper on dissent.

He was murdered while celebrating Mass at a hospital chapel, a death widely blamed on right-wing extremist leader Roberto d'Aubuisson, who was never tried for masterminding the killing.

His successor, Msgr. Arturo Rivera y Damas, was similarly inclined, but when he died in 1994 the post went to a traditionalist, Msgr. Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, a straight-and-narrow former military chaplain with ties to the conservative Opus Dei movement, ending two decades of active liberal leadership in the Salvadoran church.

Pope John Paul II was not overly fond of liberal activist bishops and waited three years after Romero's death to appoint Rivera y Damas.

But San Salvador's long-time auxiliary archbishop, Msgr. Gregorio Rosa Chavez, who worked closely with Romero and Rivera y Damas, told journalists after his March 17 homily that he knew the new pope, and said the pontiff had a special admiration for Msgr Romero, "a devotion to him and a total conviction that he is a saint and a martyr." He added that "all indications are that the stars are lined up (for Romero to be beatified)," but added that proper processes must be observed "and the pope knows it."

He said if they were polled the move would have the overwhelming backing of Latin American bishops.

"I am very optimistic because things are happening in a progressive way and all in the same direction," he said.

It is not clear whether beatification would move the church back along the lines followed by Msgr. Romero, and today's El Salvador is a very different one from the war years of the 1980s when the church was infuriating the often volatile and violent right wing and the military by denouncing massacres and other human rights violations and taking a role in promoting peace talks and defusing crises.

The previous pope, Benedict XVI, accused liberation theologians of assigning Marxist meanings to some theological terms.

Conservatives called Rivera y Damas a "red bishop," and I recall graffiti signs popping up in the capital around 1980 urging Salvadorans to "be a patriot, kill a priest."

At least 17 priests or nuns were killed by soldiers or right-wing death squads, mostly in the earlier part o the 12-year conflict.

Romero and priests in El Salvador who took a similar line said they saw no conflict in their social views and their pastoral works.

How, Romero asked in an interview shortly before he died, could he be a man of God and not look after his parishioners, most of whom lived in poverty bordering on serfdom? If it meant taking on the oligarchy and serfdom to do that, he said, so be it.

The dominant conservative press at the time attacked him as violent and demagogic and one paper suggested it was time for the military to "oil their weapons." Except for the two archbishops, the wider Salvadoran church was considered generally conservative and traditionalist, and many priests and bishops went out of their way to take issue with Romero's views.

Even now some clerics, including some in Latin America, are cool to the drive for sainthood, contending Romero was killed not for his faith but for his political views.

It was a distinction the archbishop steadfastly, and at the cost of his life, refused to make.

PHOTO GALLERIES
Oscar Romero

Joe Frazier covered the El Salvador war from 1979-1986 and was named Central America Correspondent for The Associated Press in 1982. He is now retired. He is the author of a book on covering the El Salvador war, El Salvador Could Be Like That: A Memoir of War, Politics, and Journalism, which includes an interview he had with Romero shortly before Romero was assassinated.