The Church’s decision to beatify Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez as a martyr shows just how relevant it can keep itself by investing ancient words and concepts with new meanings. True to the popular understanding of martyrdom, the Salvadoran archbishop died a violent death. On March 24, 1980, an assassin belonging to a right-wing death squad shot Romero dead as he was celebrating Mass – revenge for his three-year pastoral campaign against the death squads’ kidnappings and murders.
But, historically, the Church reserved the martyr’s palm for those who had been killed in odium fidei – “in hatred of the [Christian] faith.” The elite Salvadorans who financed Romero’s killing were Catholic Christians in more than the nominal sense. As Carlos Dada writes in The New Yorker, “Some of them, still alive, are active members of church communities, give lots of money to Catholic conservative organizations, send their kids to Catholic schools, and never miss a Sunday Mass.”
This past January, a panel of Vatican theologians decided that hatred of the faith had driven Romero’s assassins all the same. Cold statistics support this conclusion. During El Salvador’s civil war, which lasted from 1979 through 1992, right-wing paramilitaries killed 18 priests and five nuns, and raked the crowds at Romero’s funeral with gunfire – acts that would have impressed any 17th-century Iroquois (or, for that matter, any 20th-century Bolshevik). Still, the notion that people can act out of hatred of their own faith is positively radical.
It finds precedent in the actions of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI – two popes generally thought to be anything but radical. In 1982, John Paul determined that Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan who volunteered to take a married man’s place in an Auschwitz starvation bunker, would be canonized as a martyr – not, as the Congregation had originally decided, a confessor. Even the title “martyr of charity,” proposed as a compromise, looked to the pope like an asterisk. To John Paul, it mattered nothing that the Nazis had imprisoned Kolbe for being Polish, not for being Christian. Finding in Kolbe’s death “particular fulfillment of the words of Christ, who said, ‘No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,'” the pope declared Kolbe a martyr without adding a qualifier.
In a set of instructions to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints’ 2006 synod, Benedict spelled out the justification for recognizing new forms of odium fidei. “What has changed,” Benedict wrote, “are the cultural contexts of martyrdom and the strategies ‘ex parte persecutoris’ that more and more seldom explicitly show their aversion to the Christian faith…but simulate different reasons, for example, of a political or social nature.” In Benedict’s view, if Christ were to multiply loaves and fishes today, the Pharisees would arrest him for threatening local agriculture and industry.Let’s pause for a second to consider this. When Benedict wrote those words, the Soviet Union – which had hated the faith in very conventional terms – had been defunct for a scant 15 years. Meanwhile, the government of the People’s Republic of China had been putting the screws to its own Christian population since 1949. Radical Islam – which may not hate Christianity but certainly regards it as an intolerably bastardized version of itself – was just getting down to cases. (In the year Benedict’s instructions were published, Sr. Leonella Sgorbati, an Italian nun stationed in Somalia, would be murdered in reprisal for a perceived slur on the Prophet Muhammad quoted by Benedict in his Regensburg speech.) Surely all these enemies created a backlog to gum up even the best-run “saint machine.” For a pope to envision new circumstances for martyrdom was nothing if not forward-thinking.
The question is what, exactly, Benedict was thinking forward to. He also wrote of the need to re-evangelize Europe and transform nominal or cultural Christians into practicing ones. (To that mission, given the latest Pew numbers, we could add the re-evangelization of a good part of America.) Tertullian famously said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. It seems to me that Benedict, anticipating that some of the re-evangelizers would make mortal enemies in their own backyards, thought to update the Church’s vocabulary to help posterity recognize them – and their persecutors.
When the late Cardinal George predicted that his successor’s successor would die “a martyr in the public square,” he was clearly thinking with the Church. I hope he – and it – were both being melodramatic. But there are some events for which it’s better to overprepare than underprepare.
Not everyone in El Salvador is thrilled by the thought of Romero’s eventual elevation to the altars. Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, postulator for Romero’s cause, reports that three Salvadoran ambassadors pressured the Vatican to delay or derail his canonization. According to Carlos Dada, they argued that Romero was “a politically divisive figure…and that his elevation to the altars could be manipulated by the leftist groups.” Tomorrow, in becoming official, Romero’s beatification should send a dread message: You never know when you or your faction could end up as the heavies in a martyrology. So watch your step.