|The Divine Savior Plaza in San Salvador on the morning of Monday, May 15, 2015, where the beatification took place.|
Three distinct voices were heard at the beatification of Archbishop Óscar A. Romero in San Salvador this past May 23rd. [VIDEO OF BEATIFICATION CEREMONY.] There was the voice of the people, voting with their million feet (the best estimate appears to be that about half a million attended). There was the voice of the church hierarchy, beginning to tell the official story of the bishop who defended the poor, and the theological significance it is to be accorded. Then, there was the voice of the event itself, its ineffable message being the spectacle, the ceremonial, the grandeur of the moment, and the expectations that it will raise.
Crowd estimates for such events can be hard to pin down: for starters, it is impossible to count a free-ranging crowd at an outdoor event with any precision. There were no turnstiles or ticket scans to go by. Estimates by organizers can be overly enthusiastic. The crowd here was reported to range from 200,000 on the low end (too low, in my estimation) to 750,000 on the high end (this was the police estimate reported to the church). Based on government reports that 285,000 entered the country in the days before the event, City of San Salvador estimates that 100 tons of trash were picked up after the ceremony, and eyewitness observations, Super Martyrio assesses that the crowd was in the 300-500,000 range.
Regardless the actual number, it was, John Allen of CRUX, reported, the largest religious gathering in the history of Central America [ed. note: the canonization by John Paul of Brother Pedro Betancurt in Guatemala in 2002 may have been larger]. I just say that it was the largest event of its kind; that is, the largest non-papal beatification in history (the beatification of Pope John Paul II drew approximately a million and a half, but other large beatifications for figures like Padre Pio, Mother Teresa and Josemaria Escrivà come in at the 200-300,000 range) as well as the largest beatification outside Rome. Again, regardless the actual number, the message from the people through their multitudinous presence, is enough to make one sit up and take notice.
Striving to be heard over these throngs was the voice of the Church, headed by no less than Pope Francis, who took the unusual measure of issuing a letter to the Salvadoran Church to provide orientation. For backdrop, the Salvadoran Church had attempted a first draft of the Romero narrative, which many rejected as lukewarm and watered-down: it referred to Romero as a “Martyr for Love,” leading one commentator to write that, the way the Church was telling it, you would think that Romero had been killed by the accidental discharge of a firearm and not in a deliberate assassination. In fairness, the “Martyr for Love” motif was simply an ad campaign, but as with most things Romero, it was subjected to strict scrutiny.
Pope Francis said in his letter that Romero was an “example of the best sons of the Church.” By that phrasing, Francis gently acknowledges the division in the Church and makes his preference clear. Francis compares Romero to Moses, writing that Romero “knew how to lead, defend and protect his flock, remaining faithful to the Gospel and in communion with the entire Church.” As God “chose Moses to lead his people in his name,” Francis wrote, “he continues to raise pastors after his own heart, who feed his flock with knowledge and prudence.” He goes even further in the apostolic bull of beatification, issued on May 14, but only made public at the event. Here, Francis calls Romero a “Father of the Poor,” which the current Archbishop of San Salvador notes is one of the titles of the Holy Spirit; thus, the Pope seems to indicate that Romero was an instrument of the Holy Spirit (he was beatified on the Vigil of Pentecost).
This message appears to be directed to skeptics who might doubt Romero’s saintly bona fides. The message is reinforced by the directives of the spirituality commission of the Salvadoran Bishops, which decreed that a prayer invoking Romero would be added at the end of every mass that is celebrated throughout the country from now on. Additionally, Romero’s relics used in the beatification ceremony, his bloodied shirt, will be sent on a pilgrimage to every parish in the country. The faithful were also encouraged to visit the Cathedral, the church in the little hamlet where Romero was born (Ciudad Barrios) and the chapel where he was killed, to obtain an indulgence from now until Romero’s birthday on August 15. Finally, additional Romero relics will be sent to the other Central American cathedrals.
And then, there is the impression the event made on those who attended, and even those who experienced it remotely or learn about it later on. The grandeur and spectacle of the event will loom large in the popular imagination. It was, as presidential spokesman Eugenio Chicas said, “the event of the century” for El Salvador. Little details, from the 30 minute-long procession of over a thousand priests and bishops entering the altar to the astonishing solar halo that dazzled onlookers by appearing precisely during the rite of beatification, seem to assure that the memory of the event will be seared in the historic memory as an eye-popping spectacle.
In the short term, these feel-good atmospherics will generate positivity and good will. But they will also generate expectations and not all of those expectations will be fulfilled.
For now, there is a sort of truce within the Church, as various factions seem to come together around Romero. It also seems likely that the infusion of fervor and emphasis on spiritual dimensions will increase the likelihood that the faithful will ask for Romero’s intercession, so as to produce the miracle required for his canonization. Just one authenticated medical cure would make Romero a saint, probably within two years, according to Msgr. Rafael Urrutia, the man in charge of the Salvadoran phase of the process. He is also charged with the beatification of Fr. Rutilio Grande, and he says the Pope is sending him signals that he wants Fr. Grande to advance quickly. In turn, those signals make Msgr. Urrutia hopeful that Grande can be beatified and Romero canonized together—and that Francis will come to El Salvador for the celebration.
There is considerably less optimism over whether those who opposed Romero in life will experience conversion now, or whether they will simply conceal their continuing disdain. In an eyebrow-raising turn, Roberto D’Aubuisson, Jr., the son of the man accused of having ordered Romero’s assassination and newly elected mayor of a large Salvadoran town, showed up at the beatification, wearing a straw hat with Romero’s image on it. He was quick to point out that his late father gives him nothing to be ashamed of. Lip service to Romero, but no more.
Almost no one holds out any hope that the good will from the beatification will end the wave of criminal violence that is making El Salvador one of the deadliest countries in the world. Only a miracle from Blessed Romero could accomplish that.