A large canvas depicting Archbishop Oscar Romero hangs on the façade of the National Theatre in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 24.


A large canvas depicting Archbishop Oscar Romero hangs on the façade of the National Theatre in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 24.

April 6, 2015

Few among the poor and oppressed of El Salvador have had to wonder about the sainthood of Archbishop Oscar Romero. For them, he has been viewed as a saint for years. For the powerful, however, it has been hard to accept.

In his book Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out, author Kevin Clarke says powerful people both in El Salvador and in Rome have quietly campaigned against Romero's sainthood for years.

They have maintained, among other things, that the slain archbishop did not die for his faith or for the poor but as a "combatant" in a political struggle.

That's the reason Romero's canonization remained jammed for years until Pope Francis finally unblocked it. He declared Romero a martyr, which paved the way for his upcoming beatification in San Salvador May 23.

It wasn't until 1993 that Romero's cause for sainthood was opened in El Salvador "but Romero's orthodoxy and loyalty to the Church were not 'confirmed' until 2005, after a review by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith that had continued for years," Clarke says in the introduction to his book.

Romero's cause for sainthood wasn't helped when in death he became the unofficial symbol of the Salvadoran armed resistance.

Clarke's biography of this Salvadoran martyr traces the events leading up to the assassination of Romero at a chapel in San Salvador and the reverberations of that day in El Salvador and beyond.

It offers an in-depth look at Romero's beliefs and a prism through which to view a Catholic understanding of liberation and how to be a Church of the poor.

Clarke's book is published by Novalis.

Martyrdom in the Catholic Church has traditionally been reserved for those who are killed after refusing to renounce their faith or those murdered because they are Catholic.

"Romero's martyrdom was of a different sort," suggests Clarke, senior editor and chief correspondent for American Magazine.

During the final years of his life Romero became a touchtone of hope for the oppressed of El Salvador and a lightning rod of resentment among its ruling elite, he writes.

In speaking the truth of Christian faith to the military and the economic elite of El Salvador, "Romero could not help but stir up controversy and outrage among those whose privileges he challenged."

Was he political? "He certainly was," Clarke maintains.

"He came to understand the social struggle in El Salvador as a political conflict, and in that struggle he sided with the poor and insisted that the Church do the same."


Clarke, however, says the archbishop never saw this struggle as a Marxist class struggle but as a struggle of people to protect themselves from violence and establish a more just and equitable society, free of political repression.

Even though Romero criticized some of the violence of the revolutionary forces in El Salvador, he in general supported them in the same way he supported the right of a vulnerable person to self-defence and of a hungry man to steal food to feed his family, says Clarke.

"But these last beliefs were based not on Marxist dialectics but the Catholic catechism."

During an interview with the Mexican newspaper Excelsior just two weeks before he was assassinated, Romero talked about the martyrdom that many feared was rushing toward him.

"If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador," he said. "I'm not boasting. I say this with the greatest humility.

"I am bound as a pastor, by a divine command, to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadorans, even those who are going to kill me."