Archbishop Oscar Romero will soon be declared a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Long recognized as a candidate worthy of sainthood by popular acclaim, the Vatican has made moves to officially canonize Romero, that is, to formally recognize him as a saint. Pope Francis, a Latin American and a champion of the poor, has ruled that the declaration of sainthood will come following the usual process; this involves recognition of a miracle attributed to him by the Vatican theological and medical commission. In the Catholic tradition, saints do not have to perform miracles, but as those who are believed to intercede in the heavenly realm on behalf of petitioners, a miracle in response to a prayer directed through a particular person can result in canonization.
As one who stands in the Protestant tradition, I have a different understanding of what constitutes a saint; a miracle of healing through intercession is not my standard of recognition. In the New Testament, the saints are the holy ones, those who form the church. Those who are specifically recognized as exceptional are surely those who live outstanding or exemplary lives of witness to the faith that has informed and directed them. For me, a saint is one who has borne extraordinary witness to the faith. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for witness – marturos – is the same root that gives us our English word martyr.
Oscar Romero meets both the original and the contemporary terms of marturos. A champion of the poor of El Salvador, Romero was a symbol of the loss of freedom and human rights in Latin America after being gunned down in March 1980 by a right-wing death squad while celebrating Mass. John Paul II, raised under a communist regime in Poland, expressed great concern about the political activity of Romero and the links between his theology of liberation and the Marxist social analysis often employed by liberation theologians; while he had recognized Romero as a witness to the faith, he did not push the agenda of his canonization.
Preaching prophetically, Romero often used his sermons to denounce the repression practiced by the Salvadoran regime, and to call for more rights for the downtrodden and the poor. During the Salvadoran Civil War, he appealed particularly in the last sermon he delivered, on March 24, 1980, to the soldiers of the Salvadoran army to respond to the higher law of love and justice, and to stop killing their brothers and sisters. In his homilies and pastoral letters and on his radio broadcasts over several years preceding his death, Archbishop Romero condemned the country’s oligarchy: the rulership of the nation resided in the hands of a few families who owned most of the land. He also condemned the violence employed to hold on to power; Salvadoran peasants had risen up against the feudal regime, demanding ownership of their land and the military responded with violent acts of repression.
A witness to truth, justice, rights and care for the disenfranchised and marginalized, Romero was killed for his defiant and prophetic voice of condemnation directed against the repressive regime under which he lived, and died, a witness and martyr to the cause of faith and human rights. In a world of passive acquiescence to the powers that be, I believe his life and work were miracle enough for sainthood. May he be remembered as a saint and hero of the faith, inevitably to be immortalized in church windows so that his witness continues to live on, through stained glass.