Possible acceleration of Romero sainthood cause creates mixed emotions

NOTRE DAME, Ind.-- Scholars who have studied the life of murdered Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero say a reading of the tea leaves suggest advancement of his sainthood cause is imminent.

The news is being met with jubilation by many Romero researchers and with mixed emotions by Salvadorans.

Supporters of the cause for Romero's canonization have been frustrated for years by what they view as a stalled effort.

However, the cause now appears to have momentum, and a soon-to-come beatification or sainthood announcement "would be a great day for us," said Damian Zynda, an Archbishop Romero researcher and a faculty member with Christian Spirituality Program at Creighton University.

Zynda was among several scholars Catholic News Service interviewed at the annual International Conference on Archbishop Oscar Romero at the University of Notre Dame in September.

The most promising movement of the cause came Jan. 8, when the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference announced that a panel of theologians advising the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes unanimously voted to recognize the archbishop as a martyr, and declared that the archbishop had been killed "in hatred for the faith."

Archbishop Romero, an outspoken advocate for the poor and an uncompromising critic of a Salvadoran government he said legitimized terror and assassinations, was shot and killed March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass in a San Salvador hospital chapel near the start of the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992.

The next step lies with the cardinals and bishops who sit on the Congregation for Saints' Causes, and will vote whether to advise the pope to issue a decree of beatification. A miracle isn't needed for beatification of a martyr, though a miracle is ordinarily needed for his or her canonization as saint.

Some scholars suggest Pope Francis might forego convention and fast-track the canonization process without a miracle.

"I'm not naive, because I've walked through a lot of trenches, but I'm hopeful," said Holy Cross Father Robert S. Pelton, director of Latin American/North American Church Concerns for the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Father Pelton also organizes the annual international conference on Archbishop Romero at the university.

"It's so long overdue," said Julian Filochowski, chairman of the Archbishop Romero Trust in London. The trust was launched in 2007 to raise awareness about the murdered justice advocate's life and work. "I think it will give great encouragement to the church and to those who are bread-breaking-justice-seeking Christians and Catholics around the world."

Archbishop Romero's sainthood cause was opened at the Vatican in 1993, but was delayed for years as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith studied his writings, amid wider debate over whether he had been killed for his faith or for political reasons. There also has been concern that he has been used as a political symbol rather than a religious symbol in El Salvador.

According to Michael E. Lee, associate professor of theology at Jesuit-run Fordham University, the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero is different than how most people traditionally see martyrs,

"Many of us have notions of ancient Christian martyrs before a Roman emperor, but here is Romero, and so many others, who have given their lives for the struggle for justice and human rights, which was inspired by the Gospels' teachings," Lee said. "These truly are martyrs, and we need to understand martyrdom in a new light because of their example."

While many Salvadorans already consider Archbishop Romero to be a saint, not everyone is convinced an official sanction from the Church is necessary or positive.

Claudia Bernardi, professor of community arts at California College of the Arts in Oakland, California, explained that while many of the people she works with in El Salvador honor and revere Archbishop Romero, they're concerned that his canonization would move him further from average people. She has been involved in community building through art in Perquin, El Salvador.

Beatification and canonization of the murdered Salvadoran archbishop would provide the Church and people of Latin America a role model, according to Thomas M. Kelly.

"It would definitely give people who take the social justice teaching of Vatican II very seriously a model and exemplar who is now a saint in a way that we do not have and have not had before," said Kelly, professor of systematic theology at Creighton University. "It would definitely propel the agenda of (Pope) Francis in many ways."

Pope Francis has been an outspoken admirer of Archbishop Romero and quoted him in a recent general audience at the Vatican. Similarities between Pope Francis and Archbishop Romero include a deep concern for the poor, efforts to minimize the power of the very wealthy and use of the pulpit to advocate for the poor and victims of societal abuses.

"We like to think that he was a good man and that he had the same opportunities to be courageous and not be courageous, and he fought for us, and we like to think that he is a man," and not an unreachable saint, she said.

Zynda doesn't believe the spirit of Archbishop Romero would allow his canonization to disconnect him from the people of El Salvador, saying it's up to ecclesial leaders "to not create that culture, because that's exactly what these icons of discipleship ought to be for us -- someone who is not removed, but someone like Jesus with his feet on the ground, who knows God and knows humanity. So did Romero."

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