Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by a right-wing sniper while celebrating Mass in 1980, was raised to the altars in a magnificent beatification ceremony in San Salvador this May. Romero’s beatification was full of notes of reconciliation, which seemed to mark the official end of the mourning for the Salvadoran civil war, officially unleashed by his assassination. The words of Psalm 125, intoned by the choir, seemed to sum up the day: “They that sow in tears shall reap rejoicing.” Half a million gathered around a temporary altar upholstered in martyr’s red and topped in Vatican yellow and white, on an iconic San Salvador plaza named after the World’s Savior (“El Salvador del Mundo,” the country’s namesake patron saint). Five Latin American presidents were in attendance, and both the Pope and the President of the United States issued statements for the occasion. Nearly 1,300 priests concelebrated; the opening procession took half an hour to complete. The temporary altar was backed by an imposing volcano, and topped by an unexpected solar halo which appeared soon after Romero’s beatification was proclaimed.

When Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Vatican official in charge of the ceremony, entered the square, he was smiling and waving, apparently partaking of the rapturous mood. The joyous tone of the 125-piece, four-part choir was reminiscent of an American Gospel group, and an unknowing observer could be forgiven for not realizing this was the beatification of a man who had been killed a mere thirty-five years before amidst widespread massacres and a fratricidal civil war. Everything about the scene stood in stark contrast to the dread of those years. Whereas Romero had previously been a divisive figure, he was now universally embraced. The sister and the son of the man accused of having ordered his murder had VIP seats to the ceremony. Where he had been rejected by his fellow Salvadoran bishops, the approximately one hundred bishops at the beatification all wore chasubles bearing Romero’s episcopal shield, and Cardinal Amato wore a miter emblazoned with Romero’s episcopal motto: “Sentir con la Iglesia” (“To Think and Feel With the Church”).

“Following the event, watching the course of the Eucharistic celebration,” said Luis Badilla, a Rome-based church-watcher, “I got the strong sense that Romero would be very happy. It seemed to me to be a very meek, very humble ceremony. It was splendid. Nothing was missing and nothing abounded. It was a ceremony about dignity in poverty, just like Romero.” Attendance was at least equal to, and likely exceeded, that of the beatifications of Padre Pio, Mother Teresa and St. Josemaría Escrivá, yet everything went off without a hitch.

For decades, while Romero’s canonization cause was considered by the Vatican, a debate roiled over whether Romero had been killed because of his faith or strictly due to the political content of his preaching, which railed against army abuses and socioeconomic exclusion of the poor. The controversy was forgotten during the beatification ceremony. “His option for the poor was not ideological but Evangelical,” declared Cardinal Amato, to applause.

The debate over Romero stemmed from the fact that Romero does not fit the stock depiction of a martyr. In the idealized example, martyrdom occurs when a non-Christian persecutor asks a faithful Christian to renounce his faith in Christ on pain of execution. The hero refuses to do so and is killed by the tyrant, following through on his threat. That scenario almost never happens anymore because, as Pope Benedict noted in a 2006 address to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, modern persecutors “more and more seldom explicitly show their aversion to the Christian faith or to a form of conduct connected with the Christian virtues, but simulate different reasons, for example, of a political or social nature.”

Benedict should know: the vast majority of those recognized as martyrs during his pontificate (seventy of the eighty-two individuals so recognized—and an even larger percentage, counting the hundreds of their “companions” so recognized) were killed during confusing social upheavals such as the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and crackdowns in authoritarian Communist regimes. In these situations, which—as the numbers show—have become the norm, the persecutor does not ask the victim to give up his faith. The tyrant may not even bring up the question of faith, or may feign a total lack of interest in his victims’ faith. But, the Church has come to recognize that letting the persecutors define their own motives would inappropriately result in a “Tyrant’s Veto” over the beatification process. The Church makes up her own mind as to whether or not a particular would-be martyr was killed “in hatred of the faith.”

The postulator of Romero’s beatification cause, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, calls Romero “the first of the New Martyrs.” In Church parlance, the “New Martyrs” are modern-day martyrs under the prevailing, contemporary standard. They began to be recognized in force during the twentieth century. “In our own century the martyrs have returned,” St. John Paul II declared in his apostolic letter Tertio Millenio Adveniente (1994). When, in 1926, Pope Pius XI beatified 191 martyrs of the French Revolution who had been slain 134 years earlier (including the Archbishop of Arles), it was a preview of coming attractions. The Cristero martyrs in Mexico in the following years ushered in the first wave of New Martyrs that lead directly to Archbishop Romero. Nor does the litany of martyrs end with Romero, as shown by the ongoing carnage of Christians in Africa, the Middle East, and other places, whether by ISIS or Boko Haram, or any number of modern persecutors.

I saw Romero up close during my childhood in El Salvador, and was later surprised both by the resistance to his beatification and by the impression among some that Romero was overly “political.” From my childlike vantage point, I saw only a reverent bishop with a beatific manner and principally spiritual disposition. I attended many of his masses in the Cathedral, which were sumptuous affairs, in part because Romero married the pageantry of popular Latin American devotions with the drama of his own persecuted Church. One week, one might be attending a Holy Week procession, and the next week it would be the funeral for an assassinated priest.

Although many have tried to portray him as a radical who broke away from an overly rigid hierarchical line, Romero himself explained that any change in his pastoral style was only “an evolution of the same desire that I have always had to be faithful to what God asks of me.” Romero was a faithful follower of the Second Vatican Council but there was not a rupture, a discontinuity between an old conservative (read: pre-conciliar) Romero and the new, radical (read: post-conciliar) Romero. This insight about Romero’s evolution offers us a key insight about the faith, and about Romero’s potential to be a unifying figure for the twenty-first century Church. We don’t have to be divided. We don’t have to pick sides. In fact, in the essentials, we only have one choice: to be faithful. And we don’t get to pick our battles: We fight the battle we inherit, and we don’t compromise the faith.

In the end, that is very revolutionary. But not for the reasons one might have thought.

Carlo Colorado blogs at Super Martyrio

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