Saints Without Miracles

The late Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero is rightly remembered as a courageous man of faith who broke with, then stood up to, the El Salvadoran elite.

Then he was murdered by them.

Roberto D’Aubuisson, the army major and oligarchy favorite known by the stomach-churning nickname “Blowtorch Bob” is said to have given the order for Romero’s March 24, 1980 assassination. Romero was shot to death as he was giving a sermon in a small chapel in San Salvador. Only days before his murder he had delivered a radio address beseeching Salvadoran soldiers to disobey immoral orders from their commanders—especially orders to kill civilians. That the Catholic Church hierarchy disregarded Romero’s pleas on behalf of the persecuted is well known.

Which brings to mind another courageous figure from El Salvador’s history who was cut down by his own: the communist poet Roque Dalton, whose assassination at the hands of fellow comrades took place forty years ago this month. Perhaps best known for the quote: “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone” Dalton was a larger than life poet/revolutionary who escaped a death sentence while in prison not once, but twice: the first time in the early 1960s when a coup d’etat freed him and the second time in 1965 when an earthquake destroyed the walls of his prison cell on the eve of his scheduled execution.

The legacies of Oscar Romero and Roque Dalton are linked by something other than mere geography. Their legacies are now contested by the very institutions that shaped  their respective histories–for better and for worse.

And, in their own ways, they are both saints.

Romero 2

In a sign that many regard as heralding a new, more progressive Catholic Church under Pope Francis, Romero is to be beatified this coming May 23, 2015. But beatification—an important step towards sainthood within the Catholic Church—comes at a price. In some respects this is the same church hierarchy that abandoned Romero and other priests and lay people to the tender mercies of dictatorship that now seeks to claim his legacy as its own.

The legacy of Romero has long served as a touchstone for conflicts between factions within the Catholic church—between it’s right wing (pro-free market traditionalists) and left wing (followers of Vatican II and Liberation Theology) and even it’s ‘North’ and ‘South’. The sainthood process of Archbishop Romero illuminates, and may sharpen, these conflicts. And there is no-one more at the center of this conflict than Pope Francis himself.

Romero was declared a “Servant of God” by Pope John Paul II as long ago as 1997, initiating the sainthood process. There was plenty of opposition to that step from right wing Catholics. Under Pope Francis a Vatican commission established that Romero died in odium fidei, or because of “hatred of the faith”, clearing the way for him to be declared a “martyr.” And there are plenty of right wing Catholics who are unhappy about that, too. But this latter distinction is important, because it means Romero didn’t die on behalf of the poor, or for any reason other than his Catholic faith. In other words, he died because he was a Catholic, rather than because he sided with the masses during the civil war, or because he delivered fiery sermons attacking the Salvadoran ruling elite. As with much in the Catholic Church this is a small, but important, distinction and one which represents an approach by Pope Francis which can be viewed as clever, or nauseating, depending upon your point of view. As when Pope Francis was asked about homosexuality and the Church and he responded, with clever ambiguity, “Who am I to judge?”

In my view, the Catholic Church’s beatification of Oscar Romero will most likely elevate, and bring low, his legacy.

These titles and definitions are linked to a process of institutional recognition that may eventually culminate in sainthood—the highest regard in which a deceased Catholic can be held. My admittedly limited understanding of this process is that for someone to be declared a Saint, two “miracles” have to be “proven”: One which occurred when the saintly prospect was alive and one posthumously. Apparently, the latter often involves someone praying to the prospective saint on behalf of a sick person who is then miraculously “cured”—magical steps that, it seems to me, cheapen the whole process; sort of a mirror image of the largely (and thankfully) disregarded Catholic practice of exorcism.

What all this means is that we don’t need a Catholic commission to find “proof” of Godly intercession to tell us what we already know: that Romero—call him what you like— played an important role in the struggle for freedom and equality and there is much to be learned from his example. And it is precisely this lesson that is problematic for the Catholic Church—in particular for Pope Francis himself.

I would argue that Pope Francis did not take that critical step towards the poor during the dirty wars in Argentina (1976-1983) when his fellow Argentinians were being hunted down and murdered by the dictatorship. When Romero was castigating his fellow ruling oligarchs for repressing preasants, what was Jorge Mario Bergoglio saying? Pope Francis claims that he protected some fellow Jesuit priests, but I think it’s clear from his own recollections of that time that he did not have his epiphany when it was needed most. And no brave actions against the dictatorship were forthcoming on his part. And I, for one, am still waiting for a fuller Mea Culpa from this Pope who, from the current relative safety of his Pontificate, now rails against the injustices suffered by the poor and downtrodden of this earth. Where were these impassioned homilies when they were needed?

But perhaps it will be the beatification of Romero that gives Pope Francis his opportunity to square the circular hole that is his past behavior during the Dirty War dictatorship with the square peg that is his contemporary denunciation of privilege and oppression in the new millennium.

The earthly ‘miracle’ of Archbishop Oscar Romero is that he set aside a life of immense privilege, stood up for the oppressed, made himself vulnerable and then paid the ultimate price for having done so.

This is something Pope Francis did not do.

If every person, from whatever background—religious or non-religious— would do as much, we would have paradise in the here and now, where it counts, rather than some imaginary beyond, where it doesn’t.

Romero had his epiphany following the murder of his friend, the radicalized parish priest Rutilio Grande. And while Romero probably wouldn’t have put it in the currency of Liberation Theology, he took that “preferential option for the poor” and stood up to torture, repression, poverty and inequality. And that’s why he was killed, not, in a narrow sense because he was Catholic, or because he professed his faith. Unless, of course, we equate the Catholic faith with standing up to oppression in the manner of Oscar Romero. In this respect the Catholic Hierarchy wants their cake and to eat it too—they want to take credit for Romero’s legacy of social justice, but without linking it to actual struggles for equality or their own complicity in the death of Romero and so many, many others.

And Catholics concerned with social justice should not allow this to happen.Roque Dalton

Roque Dalton’s murder by his own comrades in arms presents the left with its own ethical dilemma: Some who are reputed to have executed Dalton went on to play leading roles in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) umbrella guerrilla movement that now, as a political party, governs El Salvador. Dalton’s sons, Juan Jose and Jorge Dalton have both petitioned the left wing government of El Salvador to investigate the murder and bring to justice his killers, to no avail. 

The late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano has this devastating three-sentence-long poem about Dalton’s murder which eloquently lays out the stakes:

The Unforgivable

The poet Roque Dalton wielded a defiant wit, he never learned to sup up or take orders, and he laughed and loved fearlessly.

On the eve of this day [May 10] in the year 1975, his fellow guerrillas in El Salvador shot him dead while he slept.

Criminals: rebels who kill to punish disagreement are no less criminal than generals who kill to perpetuate injustice.

(Retreived May 1, 2015 from

Since the day I first read it in El Salvador in 1985 my favorite poem of Roque Dalton’s is Watchtower. (Please forgive my translation, it is largely from memory and what I have been able to scrape together from the Internet as I cannot find my copy of Datlon’s Clandestine Poems within which it appears.)


A religion that tells you there’s only pie-in-the-sky

and that all earthly life is lousy and vicious

and that you shouldn’t be too concerned

is the best guarantee that you will stumble at every step

and dash your teeth and soul

against absolutely earthly rocks

While it may seem counterintuitive, it is nonetheless true: the legacy of Archbishop Romero demands a reckoning from the Catholic Church that cannot be satisfied by his elevation to sainthood; it can only be given true meaning when his example transforms the Catholic Church and makes it a vessel for delivering us from oppression and opening the door towards justice and equality. Likewise, the assassination of Roque Dalton by his own comrades cannot be atoned for by placing his visage on a postage stamp or including his poems in the school curriculum; it can only be set to rest when his killers are brought to justice and when Dalton’s vision of a socialist future is won.

Jonathan Mozzochi