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The Catholic Church's center of gravity shifts south

The move to canonize Oscar Romero is the latest sign of a church revival from Latin America

February 11, 2015 2:00AM ET

Since Peter and Paul moved from Jerusalem to Rome, the heart of the Catholic Church has been in Europe. With the election of Pope Francis almost two years ago, the center of the church shifted south of the equator. Now Francis has cleared the way for the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, further signaling this shift. The move goes beyond mere symbolism and demographics; it spells a welcome transformation of church practice.

Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, was assassinated March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass for nuns in the hospital chapel across the street from his small apartment. It was the Monday after he preached a sermon from the San Salvador Cathedral that was broadcast nationwide, imploring soldiers in El Salvador’s civil war not to use their weapons against fellow citizens. That sermon signed his death warrant. It was also the culmination of his personal conversion from bookish parish priest to outspoken archbishop.

Romero was elected archbishop of San Salvador as a compromise candidate, because he was considered a safe pick who wouldn’t challenge the social order. He was more conservative than those pushing for liberation theology, with its commitment to the poor. But his pastoral care of the campesinos — peasants struggling in harsh conditions under the military dictatorship — led to his political and spiritual conversion. He became an outspoken advocate for the oppressed in El Salvador and started to question the power structure of his country and the oligarchy that ran it.

Although Romero’s cause for canonization was accepted by the Vatican in 1993, it was kept on hold by Vatican insiders who regarded his activity on behalf of the poor as too leftist.

Now, two decades later, that impasse has lifted, thanks to activity and theology strikingly similar to Romero’s by another Spanish-speaking archbishop, Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now Pope Francis — who went through a similar conversion during his years as a Jesuit student and priest. His ministry to the poor led him to question the economic injustices that kept them destitute.

In fact, the Catholic weekly America magazine has reported that the current vicar general of the Archdiocese of El Salvador, Monsignor Jesús Delgado, has said that then-Cardinal Bergoglio told to him in 2007 that if he ever became pope, high on his agenda would be the canonization of Romero. And so it was: Just one month after his election, Francis met with Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator, or official advocate, leading the case for Romero’s sainthood. Paglia emerged from the meeting and announced that Romero’s way to canonization was “unblocked.” 

It used to be that 70 percent of Catholics were in the Northern Hemisphere and 30 percent were in the Southern. Now the reverse is true, and Latin America is the most Catholic region on earth.

So Catholic leadership, in the person of Francis, has finally ratified what the rest of the world knows. In the hearts of his fellow Salvadorans and people around the world, Romero is already San Romero — St. Romero. The Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church in America and United Nations have all honored him as a martyr for justice. Now Francis has officially recognized him as a martyr too. That will speed things along, because in the Catholic Church, martyrs, unlike other candidates for canonization, do not need to have a miracle attributed to their intercession to become saints.

Yes, change comes slowly. For millennia, it has been called the Roman Catholic Church for a reason. Historically, popes have come from Western Europe and most famously from Italian aristocracy. The dominant vocabulary of the church, its cultural references and biases, its way of thinking and organizing itself, its devotions and theology all come out of the European context.

With an Argentinian pope, the center of the church is moving to where its center of gravity has already moved, along with the growth in its population. In the last century, the ratio of Catholics has shifted from north to south. It used to be that 70 percent of Catholics were in the Northern Hemisphere and 30 percent were in the Southern. Now the reverse is true, and Latin America is the most Catholic region on earth.

Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI talked of a smaller, purer church in constant battle with the secular culture. But for Francis, the goal of the church is not to wage and win the culture wars. Rather than blame the secular culture for the erosion of the church, he believes the church should undergo internal reform so it’s an attractive alternative to secularism. He has called for a truce, opening the doors of the church wide to invite everybody in.

This is another way he is different from his predecessor, who was a university theologian and guardian of church doctrine. For Benedict, reform involved eliminating unorthodox ideas. Under Francis, Catholics can expect to see less emphasis on academic theology and a greater focus on popular piety, the faith of the common people. It’s in devotions to favorite saints or regional devotions to the blessed Virgin Mary that people express their faith. In these expressions of faith, Francis believes, you can find what is important to people and connect with them. And in that connection, you can share their love of God, find out what they need and start to work for reform.

Francis was heavily influenced by the theology of Yves Congar, who influenced the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Francis, like Congar, believes that reform in the church will come from working with the people on the periphery. As a student, he served the poor, and as a seminary rector, he insisted the seminarians do the same. As archbishop, he expected his priests, like him, to walk the streets of the shantytowns and talk with the people about their lives and problems. He wants to know where the people meet God, and he wants to be right there himself. Francis wants to first have a common faith connection, then start a conversation about inner conversion and true reform.

For him, such true reform will come from embracing those at the margins of the church. In solidarity with the poor, both insight and strength can be found to work for reform, not just in the church but in the world at large. It’s a big goal, one embraced by Romero too.

Frank Desiderio, a member of the Paulist Fathers, is a Roman Catholic priest and former president of Paulist Productions, which produced the feature film “Romero,” starring Raúl Juliá.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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