Defying over three decades of Vatican tradition, Pope Francis has declared Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero a martyr, clearing the way for his sainthood and lifting a long-held ban on his beatification.
Romero was assassinated in 1980 on the orders of U.S.-backed politician and death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, a favorite of the American right for leading a “crusade of democratic capitalism.” As the Washington Post reports, the announcement has been met with celebration in Romero’s native El Salvador, where he is revered as a national hero for his outspoken support of the poor and criticism of the country’s repressive military junta. In his last days, the archbishop gave a controversial sermon in which he called on soldiers to disregard orders to kill fellow Salvadorans. His murder, while leading mass in a hospital chapel, escalated El Salvador’s ongoing civil war, which claimed an estimated 75,000 lives over 12 years.
Initially a conservative and friend to the regime, Romero was moved by growing popular discontent and the urging of fellow clergy, who birthed liberation theology in opposition to the often U.S.-supported wars that raged across Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century. While the Reagan administration is rightly credited with bolstering free-market friendly authoritarian governments in the region, it was President Carter, “a fellow Christian,” whom Romero called on in a letter to withdraw American military aid to the Salvadoran junta. He was gunned down just one month later and, notably, a week before the United States pledged $5.7 million in emergency military aid to the regime. It wasn’t until 1993 that a U.N. Truth Commission investigation uncovered evidence of the assassination, and even later that deeper connections to the White House were revealed.
Ultimately, Romero was a champion of the popular movements that surrounded him. In the letter to President Carter, he wrote, “It is increasingly the people who are awakening and organizing and have begun to prepare themselves to manage and be responsible for the future of El Salvador; only they are capable of overcoming the crisis.” Romero was murdered because he fed and supported a movement. Approving his sainthood is the least the Vatican can do. Perhaps the most fitting way to honor his legacy, though, would be to follow his lead.