No-one does long term campaigning better than faith groups – the Quakers led the anti-slavery struggle for 50 years in the early 1800s. As for the Catholics, when your institution is a couple of thousand years old, you tend to take the long view.
I thought of this last week, as I cycled past ‘Romero Close’ – site of the old office of my former employer CAFOD, the Catholic aid agency for England and Wales (where I was the token atheist). CAFOD spent several years persuading the council to rename its entrance alleyway after Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador assassinated by right wing ‘death squads’ in 1980. That keeps his name in the public eye (albeit in a small way), for decades (maybe even a century or two).
But now, Julian Filochowski, Clare Dixon other CAFOD stalwarts have a much greater victory. Last week, the Vatican formally declared that Romero died as a martyr, killed ‘out of hatred of the faith’. That puts him definitively on the (very convoluted) road to sainthood (apparently, being declared martyred means you don’t have to have performed miracles to be declared a saint). The formal process has taken 20 years and been blocked at every turn by conservatives within the Church, who feared canonizing Romero would effectively canonise liberation theology, which they had spent their whole lives trying to extinguish. Now they have lost. Here is a reminder (from my book Faces of Latin America) of what all the fuss was about:
‘On the economy
‘The cause of all our ills is the oligarchy – that handful of families who care nothing for the hunger of the people but need that hunger in order to have cheap, abundant labour to raise and export their crops.’
‘Profound religion leads to political commitment, and in a country such as ours where injustice reigns, conflict is inevitable.… Christians have no fear of combat; they know how to fight but they prefer to speak the language of peace. Nevertheless, when a dictatorship violates human rights and attacks the common good of the nation, when it becomes unbearable and closes all channels of dialogue, of understanding, of rationality: when this happens, the Church speaks of the legitimate right of insurrectional violence.’
On 23 March 1980 he signed his death warrant by appealing directly to the soldiers carrying out attacks on innocent civilians:
‘In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression.’
The people of El Salvador didn’t wait for the Pope’s permission to declare Romero a saint – within a few years of his death, I visited his tomb in the Cathedral in San Salvador, and found it festooned with messages from the faithful, thanking him for answering their prayers to be cured of sickness, to find jobs and a hundred other blessings.
Why does all this matter (and not just for Catholics)? Because the conservatives were right – canonizing Romero does recognize the progressive nature of his message as an essential aspect of Catholicism, not just under this Pope, but all those that follow. Symbolism and faith go much deeper into people’s hearts and values than all our clever policy papers (though CAFOD does them too) and will leave a legacy for centuries – kudos to Julian, Clare and the hundreds of other campaigners in El Salvador and around the world. 35 years well spent.
And here’s a pumped up Clare Dixon, in San Salvador on the day of the announcement, reflecting on Romero’s legacy, and CAFOD’s role