VATICAN CITY – The upcoming beatification of El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero is doing more than just giving Latin America its long-awaited saint-in-waiting. It has helped redefine the Catholic Church's concept of martyrdom and paved the way for others killed for doing God's work to follow in Romero's saint-making footsteps.
Traditionally, the Catholic Church recognizes martyrs as people who were killed for refusing to renounce their faith, often during bouts of anti-Christian persecution. It assumes that the killer intended to kill out of hatred for the person's belief in Christ, such as the many Christian martyrs being killed today in the Mideast at the hands of Islamic extremists.
A martyrdom declaration exempts the saintly candidate from the beatification requirement that the Vatican confirm a miracle attributed to his or her intercession. A second miracle is usually needed to be canonized.
Romero was killed by right-wing death squads — presumably baptized Catholics from the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic El Salvador — who vehemently opposed his preaching against the repression of the poor by the army at the start of the country's 1980-1992 civil war. Romero was gunned down on March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel in San Salvador.
Romero's sainthood case had been held up for years by the Vatican, primarily due to opposition from conservative Latin American churchmen who feared his perceived association with liberation theology would embolden the movement that holds that Jesus' teachings require followers to fight for social and economic justice.
It was also delayed over related questions about whether Romero was killed out of hatred for his faith or his politics. If killed for his politics, it was argued, he couldn't be declared a martyr of the faith.
In the end, Pope Francis decreed that Romero was killed as a martyr out of hatred for the faith — or "in odium fidei." But the decree confirmed the acceptance of a new understanding that martyrs can be killed, even by church-going Catholics, out of hatred for their Gospel-inspired work in favor of the poor and disenfranchised, said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator or main proponent of Romero's cause.
"If in the past the term 'in odium fidei' was strictly linked to the faith ... today it is filled with the great themes of charity, justice and peace," Paglia told reporters last week.
Behind that new understanding is the exhortation from the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the church into the 20th century, for pastors to get out of the sacristy and work for social justice causes, particularly for the neediest, he said.
The bishops of Latin America took that message to heart and in the years after Vatican II developed an entire spiritual and pastoral program — crystalized in liberation theology — that focused on the church's "preferential option for the poor," he said.
"The Latin American church is the church that first — and more than any other — understood this perspective of Vatican II," Paglia said. "It's impossible to understand Romero without Vatican II."
That said, Romero isn't the first to be declared a martyr under this new understanding of the word.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who traded his life for that of a married man at Auschwitz in 1941, was beatified under normal procedures in 1971. But when St. John Paul II canonized him in 1982, he announced that he would be venerated as a martyr.
More recently, an Italian priest, the Rev. Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi, was beatified as a martyr in 2013 after being gunned down by mobsters in a bid to silence his anti-Mafia preaching.
In both cases, a more expansive definition of martyrdom was used: Kolbe presented himself to his killers to spare the life of a young father, an act of immense charity. Puglisi was gunned down because of his preaching about justice.
"They wanted to kill an incarnate faith, a faith informed by charity, a faith informed by justice," Paglia said. "And in Romero all of this appears with great clarity and evidence."
Paglia says Romero's beatification has now provided a "fairly robust opening" for similar martyrs, particularly from Latin America.
In fact, around the same time that Romero was declared a martyr, the beatification process began for his friend, the Rev. Rutilio Grande — the inspiration for his ministry in favor of the poor. Grande was a Jesuit similarly gunned down by El Salvador's right-wing death squads, and he is also being considered for beatification as a martyr.
Recently, the Vatican gave the green light for the martyrdom beatification process to begin for a contemporary of Francis' from Argentina, La Rioja Bishop Enrique Angelelli. An avowed leftist, Angelelli was killed Aug. 4, 1976 in a car crash, shortly after Argentina's military seized power and began a crackdown on suspected leftist "subversives."
For decades, officials insisted the death was accidental. But the case was reopened in 2010 after a former priest who had been riding with the bishop said their car had been forced off the road.
Last year, a court sentenced two former military officials to life in prison for the crime, which was one of the most notorious of the country's Dirty War.
The Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology, said 20th century martyrs like Romero and Angelelli "were assassinated by baptized Christians, who called themselves Christian."
He said the Latin American church now considers that martyrs are those who are killed for their love of God, the church and its people.
"This Latin American martyrdom has helped something — for justice, for the love of people," he told a Vatican press conference recently. "I think something has changed."
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield