Saint Romero of El Salvador, but for who?

Monseñor Romero

The views expressed in this blog post are mine alone. They do not represent the views of any entities I am affiliated with in the past, present, or future.

Earlier this month, the Catholic Church announced it would elevate Monsenor Romero into Sainthood. Believers and non-believers can agree that the man is an important figure in Latin American politics, religion, and daily life.

He was a disciple of Christ, surely. But was he a Robin Hood, too? Or maybe a communist supporter? Perception depends on who you ask, but what is for sure is that he was a prominent enough figure in the Cold War to be turned into a Warner Bros. movie.

That’s not being tongue-in-cheek. When discussing Latin America, Central American countries are often overlooked in favour of their larger, South American relatives–Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, etc. (anyone who wrote a thesis on Central American telecom policy development will know this.)

(Okay, that one was tongue-in-cheek).

Romero is often referred to as a Patron Saint of Latin America. For him to make his way into water cooler chats in North America, and also inspire U2 to write music about the country (as I’ve previously written), is an accomplishment.

Who was Monsenor Romero

For those who are unfamiliar, here’s a very brief/quick summary of who this man was (there’s a lot more to his story. I encourage you to check it out):

Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador and was a respected figure within his flock.

What separated Romero from other priests was his willingness to publicly speak out against injustices in a time when Latin America was rife with military dictatorships. Economic divides had permeated through the social cracks that had spread through the country (and even now, after the fall of many dictatorships, continues to exist). Unfortunately, as is the case of many Human Rights defenders, this made him a target by those who didn’t like what he had to say.

In 1980, just one day after calling on soldiers to turn the other cheek and disobey orders (which implicated human rights violations), Romero was shot dead while celebrating mass. It’s unclear who shot him, but a UN truth commission found that his death was orders by the country’s prominent right-wing death squad leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson. El Faro, a Salvadoran online investigative journalist website, dug into the story in the late 2000s and claims they spoke with a person implicated in the plot. That person implicated d’Aubuisson.

His assassination was a catalyst in driving the war. Guerilla groups quickly claimed him a martyr. The war lasted fourteen years, and since then, Romero has been elevated to “hero” status by many Salvadorans, including those in the political realm.

Saint Romero, but for who?

Romero embodied humility. While I support the recognition he has garnered, the name that has taken the place of the hero troubles me.

National heroes emerge based on who people identify with. Canada has its own list of national heroes: Terry Fox, Margaret Atwood, Gord Downie. The list is as long as the 401.

Romero’s name, though, has been mixed with politics to the point where his message has been diluted as if it were used in a game of “telephone.” The game has been played by both the Left (FMLN, former guerilla group) and, ironically, the Right (ARENA).

For instance, ARENA mayoral candidates promised in 2016 that, if they had won their municipal elections, they would build monument honouring Romero and name prominent streets after him. The rationale is that it would be appropriate to honour the significant contributions of a man of Salvadoran heritage to global peace and harmony (the argument might have merit – after all, Kingston has their “Tragically Hip Way”).

But does that justify not investing resources to address complex issues, such as investing in social programs? The FMLN, on the other hand, continues to build on Romero’s legacy to fit within their political brand of the former good guy guerillas who want to make El Salvador prosperous and just.

In reality, since the end of the country’s civil war, both parties have 1) shown ineptitude and have not accomplished their goals, 2) have been caught up in corruption scandals, and 3) have failed to respect basic human rights. Even the most hard-core left-wing FMLN supporters would have to admit that since it came into power 10 years ago, the party have come up far short in growing the country (I’m trying to stay in the middle here, but FMLN has been in power for the last nine years).

So in spite of what’s going on in El Salvador, it’s important to not forget that a man died at the altar, shot through the heart, fighting for real, important causes: Human Rights. The ability to live free of oppression. Anti-corruption. The willingness to love his brothers and sisters.

Simply put, Romero has been elevated to hero status. The status is well-deserved and should be respected. But for us to truly embrace the messages he died promoting, we should bring his status back to earth.

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