On Sunday, in San Salvador, a ceremony was held for the beatification of the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, the first priest to be killed in El Salvador in March 1977 by the Guardia Nacional at the behest of the landowners, who called him “a communist on the side of the campesinos.” Together with him, in the ambush that took place in the rural area of Aguilares, an elderly farmer and a 15-year-old boy were also shot dead in the same car. They, too, were now declared “blessed,” along with the Franciscan missionary of Italian origin, Cosma Pessotto, who was killed in a church in June 1980, when the civil war had already begun.
The ceremony, presided over by Salvadoran Cardinal Rosa Chavez, was not attended by the young President Najib Bukele, who just a week earlier had also provocatively canceled the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the peace agreements that put an end to the bloody conflict between the civilian-military regime and the guerrillas. Bukele preferred to leave for Ankara, where he is set to sign an unprecedented trade agreement with his Turkish counterpart Erdogan.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a heavy toll of blood was paid by that part of the Salvadoran Church that was influenced by the Teología de la Liberación: 20 priests (including the six Jesuits of the Central American University), four nuns and hundreds of catechists from an eminently Catholic people all lost their lives.
It culminated in the murder on March 24, 1980 of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, while he was saying mass. And yet, he had been initially proposed to the Vatican as candidate for metropolitan by his reactionary fellow bishops, being a conservative himself, with the aim of perpetuating the age-old colonial scheme of an oligarchy with its two operational arms, military and ecclesiastical.
At the same time, paradoxically, the troubled and gruff Monsignor Romero had as his only friend (as well as confessor) Father Rutilio Grande, whom he chose as “master of ceremonies” for his inauguration to the highest religious office in the country. The assassination of Rutilio, not even a month later, opened his eyes to the reality of repression in his country, and led him to become the “voice of the voiceless” for a national reconciliation based on social justice.
From that moment on, Romero was violently opposed by the right wing, the army and the entire local episcopate (except Monsignor Arturo Rivera y Damas).
In Rome, Pope Paul VI received him and encouraged him. However, his standing with the Vatican became more complicated in October 1978, with the arrival of Karol Woytjla to the papacy and his plan to eliminate the subversive opción preferencial por los pobres latinoamericana (which he wiped out in a few years). The Roman Curia began to position itself openly against the Salvadoran prelate, to the point of calling for his ousting by sending in an apostolic administrator. John Paul II did not endorse that particular measure. But in May ‘79, when he received Romero for the first time at the Holy See, he rebuked him severely: “You have to enter into dialogue with the government,” he said. And Romero replied: “But, Holy Father, they are killing our people…”
Woytjla’s delegitimization was a profound one, which completely isolated the Monsignor in his country. It all culminated in his murder (after just three years as archbishop), orchestrated by the founder of the right-wing ARENA, as well as the death squads, former Major Roberto D’Aubuisson. His funeral was also “desecrated” with the killing of dozens of faithful in the cathedral square.
It was in the aftermath of that massacre that a civil conflict broke out in El Salvador that would last for 12 long years.
In March 1983, on his first trip to Central America (which we followed through our correspondent in these pages), the Polish Pope, in violation of all protocol, wanted to go and pray at his tomb. Perhaps it was meant as a sign of reparation; it was certainly influenced by the concern that the figure of Monsignor Romero might be seized upon by the political left. “Monsignor Romero is ours, he belongs to the Church,” the Pope repeated several times in the following years.
It remains a fact that the process of canonization of Oscar Romero, which began only in 1994 on the initiative of his successor Rivera y Damas, remained shelved for the rest of the Woytjla’s papacy, as well as that of his successor, Joseph Ratzinger.
It took the advent of the first Latin American pope (as well as a Jesuit) to greenlight the process. Barely a month after his election, Pope Francis, among his priority measures, instructed the Vatican examiner to process that file, in a true act of reparation towards the Salvadoran prelate. Beatified in San Salvador two years later (in May 2015), Monsignor Romero was declared a “Saint” in Rome by Bergoglio himself in October 2018; coincidentally, together with Pope Paul VI, the only one who had supported him.
To complete the work of reparation, Father Rutilio Grande, the inspiration of the man who later became San Romero de America, was also declared blessed in record time, under the category “in hatred of the faith,” that is, as a Catholic martyred at the hands of other Catholics.
This has all been cogently summarized recently by the Jesuit Martin Maier (the current director in Germany of Adveniat-America Latina), who wrote that “the canonization of Monsignor Romero constitutes the paradigm of the pontificate of Pope Francis” in his intent to redeem the Second Vatican Council.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Your weekly briefing of progressive news.