Pope to can­on­ize slain Sal­vado­ran ‘folk saint’

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - MAR­COS ALEMAN In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Peter Orsi of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

SAN SAL­VADOR, El Sal­vador — Be­spec­ta­cled, smil­ing and with close-cropped hair, the late Arch­bishop Os­car Romero’s vis­age gazes kindly from postage stamps, hand­made busts on sale at the San Sal­vador cathe­dral, even from a huge black-dot mu­ral on the side of the For­eign Min­istry.

On Sun­day in the Vat­i­can, Pope Fran­cis will of­fi­cially make Romero a saint nearly four decades af­ter he was mar­tyred by an as­sas­sin’s bul­let to the heart. But for many Sal­vado­ran Ro­man Catholic devo­tees who al­ready know him as “Saint Romero of the Amer­i­cas,” that will only for­mal­ize some­thing they have long known in their hearts.

“He was a great man. He al­ready was a saint,” said Jose David San­tos, 73, in a re­cent in­ter­view be­fore he trav­eled to Rome along with 5,000 other Sal­vado­rans to be present for the can­on­iza­tion.

“He was a great ex­am­ple of hu­mil­ity,” added San­tos. “He pro­fessed love for the poor man. He de­nounced in­jus­tices. He de­fended vic­tims. He crit­i­cized the vi­o­lence of the mil­i­tary and of the guer­ril­las.”

Romero was slain March 24, 1980, a day af­ter he im­plored the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship to “cease the re­pres­sion” against civil­ians as the coun­try spi­raled to­ward a 12-year civil war.

At the time — and still to­day — some in con­ser­va­tive sec­tors loathed him as a “guer­rilla in a cas­sock” for sym­pa­thiz­ing with left­ist causes. But he was and re­mains broadly pop­u­lar among the poor and work­ing class, whom he pas­sion­ately de­fended, and many be­gan li­on­iz­ing him al­most im­me­di­ately.

“A real man of the peo­ple. … And so even prior to his can­on­iza­tion, even shortly af­ter his mar­tyr­dom, we see this al­most kind of folk-saint, pop­u­lar-saint de­vo­tion spring­ing up,” said An­drew Ch­es­nut, chair in Catholic stud­ies at Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­sity.

“So yeah, it’s a real, gen­uine kind of grass-roots, work­ing-class, pop­u­lar de­vo­tion that you don’t of­ten see with a lot of other, Euro­pean-born Catholic saints,” Ch­es­nut con­tin­ued.

The fer­vor for Romero is such that the cathe­dral crypt where his re­mains were in­terred can barely han­dle the thou­sands of pil­grims who ar­rive to pray in front of his tomb, be­seech him for in­ter­ven­tion or give thanks. Many also visit the hospi­tal chapel where he was mur­dered while cel­e­brat­ing Mass.

No place is more of a shrine to Romero than the Cha­con fam­ily home in San Sal­vador. It was there that Romero sought refuge, watch­ing TV and din­ing with the fam­ily to for­get, even if briefly, the death threats that were mount­ing daily.

“He would sit next to my fa­ther to watch soap op­eras and tell jokes, while they pre­pared his beans for him. He said that this was his fam­ily. He said this home was his Bethany, that he felt so happy that he had an urge to take off his shoes,” said Leonor Cha­con, 80.

Cha­con main­tains a col­lec­tion of Romero mem­o­ra­bilia — his cas­sock, a shirt, a post­card he sent the fam­ily from Mex­ico City’s Torre Lati­noamer­i­cana skyscraper — and hun­dreds have come to the home to hear her. Among the col­lec­tion is a photo of him taken in March 1980, days be­fore his death.

“He knew that they were go­ing to kill him. He told us, just like that. But he didn’t want to talk about it,” said Cha­con, who first met Romero in 1963 when he of­fi­ci­ated her wed­ding.

Romero’s as­sas­sin was con­tracted by right-wing death squads, but none of those who or­dered the killing were ever pun­ished, in part due to an amnesty for civil war-era crimes that was ruled un­con­sti­tu­tional two years ago.

Many years af­ter Romero’s death, Pope Fran­cis de­clared him a mar­tyr killed be­cause of “ha­tred of the faith,” paving the way for his be­at­i­fi­ca­tion and then can­on­iza­tion.

“It is the great­est thing we can have, it is the great­est bless­ing from heaven, the whole world ac­knowl­edg­ing his saint­hood,” cur­rent San Sal­vador Arch­bishop Jose Luis Es­co­bar Alas said. “Be­cause not only his per­son but his teach­ings as well are be­ing can­on­ized.”

Romero fa­mously urged soldiers to dis­obey im­moral com­mands and even asked Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter to cut off U.S. aid to El Sal­vador.

Tak­ing such a bold stance against the dic­ta­tor­ship, Ch­es­nut said, was es­sen­tially “sign­ing his death war­rant.”

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