On Sunday, Oct. 14 Pope Francis declared Archbishop Oscar Romero a saint and a martyr.  While still the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis had told a confidant that, if he became pope, he would make Archbishop Oscar Romero a saint. Popes often are making a statement through those they choose to promote for sainthood.  Archbishop Romero was a man after Pope Francis’ own heart.  Now his life and death are offered to the entire world as examples of the Gospel values Pope Francis cherishes and has so often preached and written about: justice, humility and care for the poor.

When Oscar Romero became archbishop of El Salvador in 1977 he was considered a “safe appointment,” meaning he would maintain the status quo.  The country was ruled by an oligarchy, meaning a number of very wealthy families.  They controlled not only the wealth of the country but also the military.  Archbishop Romero came from that segment of Salvadorian society.  However, soon after he took over his episcopal see, a close friend and fellow priest, Father Rutilio Grande, was brutally murdered.  He had been living with poor, landless peasants, working with them and advocating for them.  Archbishop Romero was shocked and ordered three days of mourning and a funeral Mass in the cathedral.  Others warned him that this would get him in trouble, but he persisted. 

Some priests in El Salvador had begun studying the Gospel and preaching it from the perspective of the poor.  One, Father Gustavo Gutierrez, published a book entitled  “Theology of Liberation.”  It was not well received by many Latin American bishops, fearful of Cuban communism.  This theology was not communistic, but it definitely wanted the Catholic Church to push the option for the poor championed by the Second Vatican Council.  Priests working with the poor began preaching about the justice due to them, and this threatened the way of life of the rich and powerful.  

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The military, supported by the wealthy landowners of El Salvador, began a bloody campaign of suppression against their own people.  Many who opposed the government simply disappeared.  Archbishop Romero was close to his people and felt he had to support them.  He even went to Rome in 1979 to plead their cause to the newly elected then-Pope John Paul II.  As American reporter Danny Hajek wrote for National Public Radio, “(Archbishop) Romero called out bloodshed and defended human rights, becoming known as the voice for the voiceless.”  The archbishop denounced violence by the Salvadorian military and paramilitary against civilians.  He also named the murdered and the disappeared, praying for them publicly, and asked the international community to stop the oppression.  Finally, he pleaded with soldiers to disobey orders to kill civilians, making himself a target.

In 1980, a year after seeking help from the pope, Archbishop Romero was shot while celebrating Mass in a hospital.  His final prayer was, “May God have mercy on the assassin.”  It is ironic that St. John Paul II would later forgive his own would-be assassin who tried to kill him in 2005. 

In 1981 Archbishop Oscar Romero was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Preaching at the canonization ceremony for Archbishop Romero, Pope Francis said that the now saint “left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the Gospel close to the poor and to his people.”  Pope Francis got his wish to be able to declare Archbishop Oscar Romero a saint and martyr. 

And what does St. Oscar Romero have to do with LSU?  Well, in 1983 the Diocese of Baton Rouge received a new bishop, Bishop Stanley J. Ott.  Bishop Ott had spent his happiest years as a priest serving a term as chaplain at LSU.  When he came to Baton Rouge, Bishop Ott, somewhat like Pope Francis, wanted to make a statement in more than words.  The LSU Catholic community was not happy.  Under Bishop Joseph V. Sullivan, Ott’s predecessor, the LSU parish had lost the services of a religious order they really liked, the Claretians.  Before he died, Bishop Sullivan ended up with a pastor from Lafayette, an associate pastor from New Orleans and two priests from the Philippines and one from El Salvador at LSU. 

Bishop Ott wanted his own men there, as much as possible.  He sent Father Donald Blanchard and me to LSU as co-pastors.  We could use the services of only two associate pastors and there were four.  We wanted to keep the New Orleans priest who was popular with the students. But there was really only room for one more, so we interviewed the three other priests.  We did need one Spanish-speaking priest because the Hispanic student population was growing.  We questioned the three about their work the previous years at the student center and chose Father Ramon Vega, the Salvadorian. 

When I told him he was our pick, Father Vega seemed happy but also greatly relieved.  I asked, “If we had not made you this offer, you could go back to El Salvador, couldn’t you?”  “No,” he answered.”  “Why not?” I asked. He said, “Because I was Archbishop  Romero’s secretary.” 

I was flabbergasted.  “Ohhh!” was all I remember saying, but thinking, “He knows who killed him!”

Father Vega was at LSU longer than I.  I was at the student center only four years that time.  I was also vicar general and moved to residence at Our Lady of Mercy  Church in Baton Rouge after some reorganization at the chancery. Father Vega eventually did leave, but I think he went back to Honduras, not El Salvador.  I liked him, and having him at LSU was sort of like having a second-class relic of a saint in the house.      

Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator. He can be reached at johnnycarville@gmail.com.