On October 30, 1984, the body of Father Jerzy Popieluszko was recovered from a reservoir in Poland. The priest, an outspoken and internationally well-known opponent of the communist regime, had been beaten to death by agents of the government’s Security Police.
Immediately, a Vatican functionary, possibly hoping to curry favor with the Polish pope, called for Popieluszko’s canonization as a martyr. In fact, he was beatified in 2010 as a martyr, 25 years after his murder.
On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador was fatally shot at the altar while celebrating Mass. The archbishop was an outspoken and internationally well-known opponent of the El Salvador government’s oppression and violence against its own people.
Now, 35 years after his assassination, Pope Francis has described Romero’s death as martyrdom and the long-delayed process of his recognition as a saint has apparently been put on the fast track after languishing in the Vatican.
It is clear that if the Latin American Francis had not moved the process along, Romero would have remained as buried in a Roman file cabinet as he is in his shrine at the cathedral in San Salvador.
The delay has been incomprehensible because throughout Latin America and the rest of the world the archbishop is already revered as a martyred saint. The Anglican Communion even has a day honoring him on its liturgical calendar, as does part of the Lutheran Church. So, at long last, his own Catholic Church may catch up with Catholics and non-Catholics in recognizing another of its martyrs.
Why the delay? In one word, politics.
There has always been a close tie between martyrdom and politics. Until the recent rise of fundamentalist Hinduism and Islam those who have killed Christians have usually done so for political rather than religious reasons.
In the Roman Empire, Christians’ refusal to join in the official cult of the divine emperor was punished as a threat to the political system. In 17th century Japan, Christians were killed as a possible “fifth column” for European colonialism.
Popieluszko and Romero were not murdered because they said their prayers. They were martyred because those prayers led them to oppose the oppressive political systems under which they lived.
Politics has not been a concern solely on the part of the killers, however. The process of declaring saints is also marked, and sometimes marred, by politics.
An example is Joan of Arc, who was burned alive by the English after having led an army against them. Her trial and condemnation were political, but so was her activity. She had not led an army on behalf of the Kingdom of God, but for the Kingdom of France and the installation of Charles VII as its ruler.
Joan’s canonization, too, may have had political aspects. Though she was executed in 1431, she was not canonized until 1920. There had been efforts over the years on the part of French Catholics to have her canonized, but why did it not happen until nearly half a millennium after her death?
There may be a clue in the date, just after the end of World War I and the Russian Revolution.
At one point during the war’s carnage nearly half the French divisions on the Western Front mutinied. Though the mainspring of the mutiny was the exhausted morale of troops who had been sent “over the top” again and again to be butchered, another element was news of the revolution that eventually led to a communist government in Russia.
Might Joan’s canonization have been at least in part a political move to restore French pride in its military traditions while also countering communism, a mainstay of which was atheism?
This brings us back to the contrasting Vatican reactions to the murders of Popieluszko and Romero.
The Polish priest was explicitly challenging a communist political system.
The Salvadoran archbishop was confronting a political system that proclaimed anti-communism and claimed to be defending the Church and society from the inroads of leftist liberation theology.
However, the fact that Romero sided with the same people that atheist leftists tend to side with or claim to side with — the powerless, the poor, the oppressed, the outcast — made him suspect in Rome.
The Vatican would naturally look kindly upon the Polish priest who confronted leftist godlessness.
It is incomprehensible that the massacre of whole villages and the murder of an archbishop, no matter how the perpetrators might describe themselves, could be viewed as anything but godless.
But, Romero’s speaking out bothered physically comfortable prelates in Rome made morally uncomfortable by what seemed to be support for leftist critiques. And so, Romero’s canonization went nowhere even while the people of El Salvador followed the ancient custom of de facto local canonization.
Now, we have a pope who reminds us that true peace does not “act as a pretext for justifying a social structure which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle while others have to make do as they can. Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority. The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 218)
Both Father Jerzy Popieluszko and Archbishop Oscar Romero raised that prophetic voice.
So finally, whether to mollify their Latin American boss or because they have realized that their own politics have hampered the Church in recognizing another of its martyrs, Vatican bureaucrats are moving ahead with the canonization of Oscar Romero.
The Church will not make Romero a saint any more than it makes anyone else a saint. Their generous response to God’s grace does that. It will merely recognize his example and present it to the world as worthy of emulation; and that will have political implications for all who believe.
Maryknoll Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com, based in Tokyo.