This week, the Vatican announced that Oscar Romero, gunned down while saying Mass three and a half decades ago, is now officially recognized as a martyr slain for his Christian faith, a step closer to possible canonization.
Many are saying that it's about time! It has been nearly 20 years since Pope John Paul II declared Romero a "Servant of God," only to then have the process stall. News reports are full of stories about how official recognition of the late Archbishop of El Salvador as a saint has been held up for years because of concerns on the part of some in the Vatican hierarchy of connections often made between Romero and the liberation theology movement of Latin America that has often been labeled as leftist or Marxist. But as Pope Francis made clear in remarks during the summer, the path towards Romero's potential canonization now has been "unblocked," allowing the pontiff to declare with confidence that the archbishop was murdered for his faith, not his politics.
Romero himself often clarified that his focus was not a political, but rather a spiritual and prophetic one. In September 1978, when speaking of his work of consoling the victims of injustice and revealing the government-supported atrocities, he asserted that this was "not engaging in politics," but rather "building up the Church and carrying out the Church's duty." And on the eve of his murder, in March 1980, he again noted that he had "no ambition for power, and so with complete freedom I tell the powerful what is good and what is bad, and I tell any political group what is good and what is bad." For Romero, to follow Christ meant standing with the poor and the repressed, even to the point of death.
For many people, Pope Francis' decree is cause for celebration, and not only within the Roman Catholic Church. Anglicans, for instance, have long shown great respect for Romero. He is one of ten twentieth-century martyrs honored with a statue above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London, and also is represented by a bust in Washington National Cathedral, as well as in icons. And both the Church of England and The Episcopal Church have marked March 24 in their liturgical calendars as the date to commemorate him.
Most of all, he is not only remembered, but revered, by Salvadorans as well as countless other oppressed peoples. My good friend and five-time Emmy award-winning producer/director helped produce the 1989 feature film, Romero. He remarks with some amazement how years later the movie, which stars the late Raul Julia as the archbishop, continues to be in demand by many who see it as a powerful source of inspiration in the midst of their own sufferings. I remember a colleague of mine from Africa who, after watching the movie, asked to start it over and see it again, as it spoke so powerfully to a brutal situation he knew all too well.
Yes, there are many this week who welcome the pope's decree, and for good reason. Romero stood with those in need against unjust structures without succumbing to the seductive pull of extremists on either side in the struggle. In this, he proved himself to be not simply a Catholic martyr, but an inspiration for us all.
The Rev. Dr. C. K. Robertson is Canon to the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, and author of many books, including A Dangerous Dozen: 12 Christians Who Threatened the Status Quo (SkyLight Paths), which includes a chapter on Romero.