Traditionally, the church recognizes someone as a martyr when he or she refuses to renounce their faith and is killed as a result. The beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed, opens the door to a new, expanded definition of martyrdom.
Romero, who was gunned down while celebrating Mass, was never pressured to renounce his faith. If anything he was pressured to stick with the status quo: a system by which the poor workers were kept poor and the rich (Catholics) families kept their wealth and power. His refusal to accept that situation drew the attention and ire of the government and its military enforcers.
Across Latin America, there are countless other men and women who died under similar circumstances:
Bishop Enrique Angelelli was born in Cordoba, Argentina in 1923 to Italian immigrants. Like many other Italian immigrants, his parents worked the land. He entered the seminary at age 15, was sent to study in Rome and eventually returned to Cordoba as a priest. Angelelli was assigned various roles as a young priest: pastor at small chapel, pastor to the catholic youth movement, hospital chaplain. Visiting and ministering to residents in the Villas Miserias, or slums, was a key part of his work.
Angelelli was eventually named an auxiliary bishop of Cordoba and then removed from his position after getting involved in a labour union dispute on behalf of the workers. After the second Vatican Council, his beliefs and actions were seen as being in line with the teachings of the church and Angelelli was once again named auxiliary bishop of Cordoba. Later, as bishop of La Rioja he continued speaking out against ursury, gambling, and prostitution rings run by the wealthy and stood firmly on the side of workers and farmers.
During the Dirty War the military government had no use for the Church. Priests working in the slums to educate and evangelize the poor began to disappear, never to be seen alive again. In 1974, during his Ad Limina visit to Rome, it was suggested to Angelelli that it was safer for him to stay in Italy. He returned nonetheless.
On August 4, 1974 while returning to the city after celebrating the funeral of two young priests, Angelelli’s car was run off the road. Documents he had been carrying in his briefcase related to the deaths of the young priests, disappeared. Officially his death was labelled a traffic accident. But the priest travelling with him survived the crash and told officials in 1986 that a Peugot 404 had cut them off and maneuvered brusquely in front of them. In 2014 an Argentine court found two former military officials guilty of murder.
A contemporary of Oscar Romero, Jesuit Father Ruitilio Grande was killed March 12, 1977. Fr. Grande was born in 1928 and, shortly after his birth, his parents separated. This pushed his broken family into economic instability. They had a small plot of land they used to grow beans, corn and rice, but it was insufficient to meet their needs, so they rented more land. The amount of produce they gave the landowner was equivalent to one week’s worth of work every month. Needless to say, Fr. Grande entered the priesthood with a keen awareness of the social inequalities in El Salvador.
Unlike some priests who approached the social situation from a political point of view, Grande opted to enter into the reality of the poor through the Word of God. He sought to evangelize and form the laity, especially the poor, so they could fully participate in their mission as laypeople of the Church. This approach upset the status quo and upset the government just as much as any armed uprising. On March 12, 1977, Grande and two companions were driving along a rural road when they were ambushed and killed by military forces.
While El Salvador is not the only Latin American country where priests, religious and committed laypeople were martyred, it was the site of a large number of killings. Italian Friar Cosme Spessotto was one of those. Ordained in Italy, he was sent to El Salvador in the 1950s. As soon as he arrived he got to work connecting with the local community and finding a way to meet their needs as a church. In one of the first communities he worked with he found a way to rebuild a church that had been destroyed by earthquake in the 30s. In another community, he found the means to build their first church and then prevented it from being taken over by armed forces.
Yet this simple friar who walked and worked with the poor upset the social order. Spessotto managed to rally national and international support to build the churches his faithful needed. Even more worrisome for the government, he continuously denounced military abuses and refused to look the other way.
Sepessotto spared no energy ministering to his parishioners, so it came as no surprise that he landed in hospital in 1980. However, during his hospital stay it was discovered that he was suffering from Leukemia. Released from the hospital, he was sent to the minor seminary in San Salvador to recover. It was there, while waiting to celebrate Mass, that he was gunned down by military police. A cause for his sainthood is already open.
These three names are perhaps the most high profile, best known cases that might be considered for sainthood in the future. Every country in Latin America has their own exhaustive list of people who died because they believed in the Gospel and the inherent dignity of each person created in the image of God.
In this week’s edition of Vatican Connections, I reported that Argentine journalists have uncovered documents reportedly linking journalist Horacio Verbitsky to the military between 1978 and 1982. Verbitsky has since denied any ties to the military. He claims the newly discovered documents are false.
Verbitsky has repeatedly reported that Jorge Bergoglio turned in two Jesuits priests, Fr. Franz Jalics and Fr. Orlando Yorio, to the military regime, resulting in their kidnapping and torture. In 2013 Fr. Jalics released a public statement saying although he once believed that Bergoglio was responsible for his kidnapping, he has since had several conversations with his former provincial and seen evidence satisfying him that Bergoglio did not play a role in the kidnapping.
If you’d like to know more, here is a good article by Ines San Martin of Crux
Watch this week’s Vatican Connections below: