While on a lecture tour of El Salvador about a year ago, I asked my hosts if it were possible to visit the church where Oscar Romero celebrated his last Mass in 1980.
The Salvadorian archbishop was assassinated by a government hit squad at the point in the Mass known as the Offertory.
Here, the priest slightly raises first the host and then the chalice in a re-enactment of Christ’s institution of the Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be the self-offering of Christ for the salvation of the world.
The moment chosen to direct a a single shot into Romero’s chest was perhaps not accidental.
Since that time, Romero came to be seen as an icon of liberation theology, a largely Latin American movement that sought to effectively baptize Karl Marx by integrating Marxist social analysis into Catholic social teaching.
It should come as no surprise that when the Vatican announced that the cause for canonization of Romero would proceed and that his assassination constituted his martyrdom, a debate would emerge about the meaning of Romero’s death.
The vigor of this contemporary discussion bespeaks an underlining confusion on the extent to which the church’s teaching is bound up with the ideology of socialism or the complete condemnation of business and markets to ameliorate poverty.
We see the same hermeneutic applied to Pope Francis as to Romero (and to Jesus): that they love the poor means they hate private property; that they decry injustice means they see free markets as intrinsically evil; that they denounce materialism means they see business, banking, and industry as forms of idolatry; that they hold to a preferential option for the poor means they hold to a preferential option for the state as the primary actor.
Despite the murals and posters coupling Romero with Che Guevara or the dialectical insights neo-Marxist professors cherry-pick from the writings and speeches of Archbishop Romero, the people who heard his radio broadcasts and homilies, and even the priests who served under him, know a different Romero.
Archbishop Romero was a man of deep prayer and spirituality, faithful to the church and non-ideological. When he preached against materialism and economic exploitation and resisted the brutal and unjust military regime that ruled El Salvador at the time, those caught up in the political struggles that pervaded Central America in the 1960s-80s hijacked Romero as a proponent of liberation theology.
As I stood in the simple hospital chapel in El Salvador, on the very spot where Archbishop Romero breathed his last breath, it became very obvious to me that a priest could exhibit no clearer witness to the faith than to be doing in that moment the supreme action for which he was ordained — and that there could be no stronger manifestation of hatred for that faith than to martyr such a priest during the Mass.
This article originally appeared in The Detroit News.