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A Martyr Whose Sainthood May Be Inevitable : El Salvador: Ten years ago, the Pope refused to beatify slain Archbishop Romero for political reasons. Today, he may have no other choice.

April 11, 1993|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc, who reports widely on foreign affairs, is the author of "Fidel: A Critical Portrait," (Avon). He is working on a book on religion and politics for Macmillan.

WASHINGTON — No figure in the history of the Roman Catholic Church commands greater veneration from Pope John Paul II than St. Stanislaw. In 1079, the patron saint of the Pope's native Poland was assassinated while at church on the orders of King Boleslaw the Bold. He was elevated to sainthood in 1253. The pontiff describes the bishop as "the advocate of reconciliation of all his fellow countrymen."

The Pope is now faced with the infinitely delicate test of deciding whether the church should accord a similar recognition to Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, who was murdered, in 1980, by political enemies while celebrating mass at a hospital chapel. Last month, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas of El Salvador formally introduced, to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, a petition for the "necessary steps" to be taken toward Romero's beatification, which precedes recognition of sainthood.

Ten years ago, the Pope refused to allow Romero's canonization process to open, even though Romero was slain for exactly the same cause--trying to bring peace to a civil conflict--that St. Stanislaw was. The pontiff contended that Romero was "a political banner because they say he was a guerrilla" alongside Salvador's Marxist rebels. As such, he was an ideological problem.

How the Pope handles the Romero case is significant because it symbolizes--and highlights--the great contradictions of his reign, now in its 15th year. The Pope remains relentlessly opposed to abortion and women priests; whenever possible, he seeks to give conservative theologians positions of power and influence. Yet, in his visits to more than 100 countries and in his encyclicals, the Pope inevitably raises his voice against social injustice. Indeed, improving the human condition is his constant theme, in speech and prayer.

The Pope, who survived an assassination attempt in 1981, may have softened his harsh political assessment of Romero since the negotiated end of the 12-year Salvador civil war last December. But it is known that he never cared much for the Salvadoran prelate who became famous for his advocacy of the "theology of liberation," a Latin American religious movement the Vatican regarded as Marxist-inspired, and his incessant protests against murders of suspected guerrilla sympathizers, even Catholic priests and nuns, by the regime's "death squads."

In his "Diary," published in 1989 by the Salvadoran episcopate, Romero poignantly describes his visit to the Pope in Rome in May, 1979. After presenting folders of evidence of political assassinations, including that of a Jesuit priest he knew well, the Pope chillingly recommended "much equilibrium and prudence, especially in making specific denunciations," adding that "it was better to remain confined to principles because it was risky to fall into errors of equivocations in making concrete denunciations." Romero was also threatened with the appointment of a permanent apostolic administrator in El Salvador, who would outrank him, because of the deep split between politically liberal and conservative Salvadoran bishops. And when the Pope visited El Salvador in 1982, he conspicuously stayed away from the site of Romero's slaying.

Curiously, Romero was regarded as a theologically safe, conservative cleric when he was named archbishop by Pope Paul VI in 1976. But the killing, three weeks after his installation, of the Rev. Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit, and the Salvadoran government's failure to investigate it, turned him, overnight, into a champion of the oppressed. As Kenneth L. Woodward notes in his book "Making Saints," this incident "emboldened Romero to accept a larger prophetic role as the voice of the Salvadoran people. . . . Never before had a Catholic bishop spoken so directly, so concretely about the abuses suffered by the masses of Salvadorans."

The cause of Romero's sainthood may also be aided by current political events in his homeland. Rivera's formal request for the initiation of the beatification process coincided with the publication of a report by the United Nations' Commission on the Truth, which investigated human-rights violations in El Salvador during the civil war. The commission found, among other things, that Salvadoran rightists, working hand-in-hand with U.S.-trained Salvadoran military commanders, were directly responsible for the slaying of Romero, four American nuns in 1980 and six Jesuit priests in 1989. In these and most other instances, senior U.S. officials cooperated with Salvadoran authorities in covering up the crimes, assigning the blame to the leftist guerrillas.

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