Oscar Romero, El Salvador’s Martyr against Fascism

I noticed in an article in the I newspaper a couple of weeks ago that the current Pope, Francis, has canonized two saints recently. One of these was Oscar Romero, an archbishop of El Salvador, who was martyred in 1980s by gunmen for the Fascist government. The entry for him in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, ed. John Bowker, (Oxford: OUP 1997) runs

Romero, Oscar Arnulfo (1917-80), Christian archbishop of El Salvador, assassinated in 1980. He studied theology in Rome, 1937-43, became a parish priest and bishop of Santiago de Maria in 1974. Thought to be a conservative bishop (not least because of his support of Opus Dei), he was appointed archbishop in Feb. 1977, in the expectation that he would not disturb the political status quo. Three weeks later, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, together with two others was gunned down in his jeep. The even was, for Romero, a conversion. He began a ministry of outspoken commitment to those who had no voice of their own. Paul VI gave him encouragement, but the accession of John Paul II, with its cult of the pope and movement away from the vision of Vatican II, led to an increasing campaign against Romero in Rome. The details of this are disputed. It appears that John Paul asked him not to deal with specifics but to talk only of general principles; Romero tried to explain that specific murders in El Salvador were not adequately dealt with by stating general principles. The Vatican response was to appoint an apostolic administrator to oversee his work, but Romero was killed before this could be put into effect. He returned from his last visit to Rome to the slogan painted on walls, ‘Be a patriot, kill a priest.’ He was killed as he said mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital where he lived. (p. 823).

Pope Francis has supported a range of broadly left-wing initiatives, like refusing to condemn Gays and making the Church more supportive of the global poor. Mike and I went to an Anglican church school, and we were told about the martyrdom of Romero as part of the way totalitarian regimes, Fascist and Communist, were persecuting Christians. The Fascist regimes in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala were given considerable support by Reagan’s government, including his statement that the Contras in Nicaragua were ‘the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers’. And elements of the Tory party under Thatcher were very friendly towards the Central and South American dictators. The Libertarians of the Freedom Association had one of the leaders of one of El Salvadorean dictator Rios Montt’s death squads come over as their guest of honour at one of their annual dinners. This was when Paul Staines, of the Guido Fawkes blog, was a member.

These Fascist regimes have been supported by Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic and promoted to their peoples as protecting and supporting Christianity and religion generally against godless Communism. The Communist bloc has indeed ferociously persecuted Christians and other peoples of faith, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists. But as the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero shows, and those of many other Christian clergy, monks, nuns and laypeople by the Fascist regimes in Latin America show, these regimes don’t automatically respect religious beliefs. They tolerate religion only in so far as it agrees with their political ideas. The moment people of faith speak out against poverty, injustice and oppression, they will kill them as readily as they will murder, maim and torture anyone else.

Pope Francis’ canonization of Romero is a great, praiseworthy act, which I hope will be applauded by all Christians concerned with preserving human rights, freedom, and dignity from persecution and oppression.

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