Archbishop Romero’s Winding Path to Sainthood

By Kevin Clarke, SJ 

Oscar Romero had the chance to meet privately with Pope John Paul II in 1979. He was treated to a few expressions of support but mostly to a good scolding on the importance of maintaining episcopal unity before the eyes of the public. [1]

In his diary account of the meeting, Romero writes,

“He acknowledged that pastoral work is very difficult in a political climate like the one in which I have to work. He recommended great balance and prudence… He reminded me of his situation in Poland, where he was faced with a government that was not Catholic and where he had to develop the church in spite of its difficulties. He said the unity of the bishops is very important… Again I clarified, telling him that this was also something that I want very much, but that I was aware that unity cannot be pretended. Rather, it must be based on the gospel and on the truth.”

Pope John Paul II had been receiving numerous reports from within the Salvadoran bishops’ conference full of accusations against the archbishop. Now closing out the meeting, Pope John Paul II suggested to Romero that “to resolve the deficiencies in the pastoral work and the lack of harmony among the bishops” an apostolic administrator sede plena be appointed, meaning that Romero would remain archbishop of San Salvador but that the actual responsibilities of the position would be moved to the administrator.

Romero apparently accepted the suggestion without protest and

“left, pleased by the meeting, but worried to see how much the negative reports of my pastoral work had influenced [the pope]…  I think that the audience and our conversation were very useful because he was very frank. I have learned that one cannot expect always to get complete approval, and that it is more useful to hear criticism that can be used to improve our work.”

A remarkably cool accounting of the meeting, perhaps for posterity’s sake, considering Pope John Paul II was essentially proposing to cut the episcopal legs out from under Romero and throw everything he had accomplished into turmoil. [2]

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It had been a fantastic hope of the Catholic faithful of Latin America that one day one of their own should become Bishop of Rome and represent the perspective and experience of this largest population of Catholics in the world before the rest of their Catholic brothers and sisters. That hope was finally realized in the humble form of Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has become fondly known to the world as Pope Francis.

Soon after his election in April 2013, Pope Francis stepped into one of those occasional – and inexplicable to outsiders – disagreements that trouble somber Vatican corridors in what would become typical of his direct and empathetic style. Pope Francis “unblocked” the canonization process for Servant of God – declared so in 1997 by Pope John Paul II – and servant of the people of El Salvador, Oscar Romero.

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Pope Francis and Archbishop Romero share a striking and sincere simplicity, humility, and modesty that encouraged them to renounce many of the symbolic and practical privileges of their ecclesial positions, right down to the clothing they wore and the means of transportation they employed. Surely they both possess a taste for modest living and a sense that their vocations demand a life of community, not one that could be endured in practical and psychological isolation. No mean feat for either man.

Both men have been considered conservative, bookish, withdrawn. But now Francis proclaims he was never the “rightist” that some took him to be, though in his too-youthful appointment to provincial, his authoritarianism, driven by insecurity, may have suggested it to some people. Romero, considered a “safe” appointment during a time of class and social uproar in El Salvador, proved that age had not calcified his vision or reduced his consciousness into a hard, lifeless thing. Both men have demonstrated the powerful works that liberation and joy and courage can achieve.

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It wasn’t until 1993 that Romero‘s cause was first opened in El Salvador, but Romero‘s orthodoxy and loyalty to the church were not “confirmed” until July 2005, after a review by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith that had continued for years. [3]

Powerful people in El Salvador and in Rome have quietly campaigned against his sainthood, arguing that Romero did not die for his faith or for the poor, but as a “combatant” in a political struggle, worse, a social antagonist who contributed to public disorder. Powerful bishops within his own conference condemned the archbishop, and after his death opposed the cause for his sainthood, seeing in it an indictment of their role and the side they elected to defend during El Salvador’s years of torment.

In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI said that the archbishop was “certainly a great witness of the faith” who “merits beatification, I do not doubt.” (Words that were later absurdly stricken from the unofficial transcript though they were spoken before a planeload of journalists).

In 2010 on the thirtieth anniversary of Romero’s death, when many thought Romero’s beatification would surely be announced, San Salvador Archbishop José Luis Escobar explained the stalled process as the result of efforts by some to “manipulate, politicize or use Romero’s image.” [4] The cause for Romero sainthood had been held up because of concerns among some powerful bishops that Romero’s canonization would signal the church’s approval of liberation theology, a controversial convergence of Scripture interpretation and Marxist social critique that has long made some clerics, those perhaps most comfortable with the status quo in Latin America, uneasy.

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Few among the poor and oppressed of El Salvador have had to wonder about Romero’s sainthood. And over the years as thousands of Catholics all over the world learn about Romero and his legacy of conviction and courage, no official word has been necessary to confirm his saintliness. The people of El Salvador have already declared their saint; he has never been “blocked” on the streets of San Salvador and in the deepest precincts of the heart where the true sainthood resides.

Now each year thousands march on the anniversary of his death, at times they have done so at great peril, in a statement of resistance that is also a defiant gesture of devotion and a declaration of a popular embrace of Romero’s sainthood. That elevation, a canonization by the people, would undoubtedly be all that Romero would have wished for.

This article is excerpted from Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out  (Liturgical Press, 2014) by Kevin Clarke, SJ.

[1] James R. Brockman, SJ, Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, Orbis, 2005), 169-70.

[2] Oscar Romero, A Shepherd’s Diary, trans. Irene Hodgson, (Washington: USCC, 1993), 214-15.

[3] Cindy Wooden, “Magazine Says Archbishop Romero Was Killed for Actions of Faith,” Catholic News Service, November 4, 2015, htpp://

[4] Pat Marrin, “Oscar Romero Sainthood Cause on Long, Tangled Path,” National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2013, htpp://



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