Pope Francis decreed Tuesday that slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed in 1980 out of hatred for his Catholic faith, approving a martyrdom declaration that sets the stage for his beatification.
I drive by a church each week that is named for a Catholic martyr, someone who has died for their faith. As you may know, “martyr” comes from the word for “witness.” If you dramatically show how much faith you have by dying (or getting killed) then you are a good candidate for saintly martyrdom status. You are an example, a witness that your faith is true, real and to be emulated through sacrifice. So the belief is.
I was in seminary when Archbishop Romero was shot while celebrating mass (the death of another martyr–God Himself) in a chapel in San Salvador. We thought it was pretty awful. I knew of a pastor who had killed himself in a local church a few years earlier, but he sure wasn’t a martyr. . . I guess. Maybe just a “witness” to how ministry can drive you crazy (sorry, couldn’t resist the macabre humor).
Seriously, Romero always got my vote for faithful representative of good humanity. After all, he was actively present with the poor, assisting them while resisting the abuses of an unjust government. Loved and hated for what he did, and what he represented. Since we seminarians were studying many of the Liberation Theologians, particularly those in Latin America, Romero was a shining (though bloody) exemplar of “faith in action”. . .that is, relevant and real, pragmatic religion. Somewhat rare it seems sometimes in our world. In fact, that seems to be why it’s taken God’s Best and Only Church 35 years to fully appreciate Romero.
So, fine, hold him up as an example of compassion and justice. We do that with Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Good. We need those examples (hopefully not all assassinated examples). But does elevating these exceptional people, making them less human and more holy, really help, or really hurt?
There are those who die FOR faith and those who die TO faith, or faith dies TO/FOR them. The real point is what we DO with our lives, faith or no faith. Don’t you agree? For every “saint” or “martyred witness” or “beatified” person there are hundreds, thousands, who do their daily work to help others, often without much reward or praise.
Those are the real “saints,” in my mind. But not saints at all. Good, decent, caring, thoughtful human beings. I don’t care if they have a god or not.
Here’s to the memory of Oscar Romero. May his life not be elevated so high that people forget to live with the same compassion, for the same justice, speaking truth to power.
(and how about those Murdered Nuns?–are they martyrs or saints?)