THIS SUNDAY in Rome Pope Francis is canonising two great Catholics of the last century: Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Óscar Romero. You can’t do justice to both men in a single front page so today I will concentrate on the archbishop. The canonisation today is an event of phenomenal importance for the whole Church.
The facts of Romero’s life are well known. Born in 1917 into a large and poor family in rural El Salvador in central America, he showed great promise at school and trained for the priesthood initially in his home country and then in Rome where he was ordained during the Second World War. Returning to his home diocese he spent many years working as a priest, in parishes, in teaching and in communication (editing the diocesan paper) before being transferred to the capital city, San Salvador, in the 60s to become Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference. In 1970 he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop there, and in 1973 became Bishop of the rural diocese of Santiago de Maria: in 1977 he became Archbishop of San Salvador. On 24 March 1980 he was shot dead while saying Mass in the chapel of the cancer hospital where he lived.
After many years’ investigation, in 2015 Pope Francis decreed that he had been martyred out of ‘hatred for the faith’ (the technical phrase is odium fidei) and shortly afterwards he was beatified. In our own diocese there is a shrine to him in St George’s cathedral, comprising a large cross containing one of his relics, and ours is the only diocese in this country where the day of his martyrdom is marked in the liturgical calendar.
Romero’s upbringing as a priest was very traditional, marked by piety and close attention to personal sinfulness. In the years following the Second Vatican Council, inspired by its teachings, the Church in Latin America became very active in the struggle for justice on behalf of poor people throughout the continent. In the face of oppression and violence: this was expressed powerfully in a major conference of bishops which took place at Medellín in Colombia in 1968. While many priests, religious and laypeople in El Salvador were enthusiastic about this, initially Romero was rather cautious and hesitant. This meant that by the mid-70s the ruling élite in the country saw him as an ally against this movement, or at least as a safe pair of hands.
However, from the very beginning of his ministry as archbishop in 1977, Romero defended over and against the power of the State the rights of the poor, and of the Church. The security services and associated ‘death squads’ carried out a terrible campaign of violence, which led to the deaths of a number of priests and religious, alongside countless laypeople. Romero strongly challenged the government to bring the perpetrators to justice. He became, in effect, the principle voice of opposition to the violence and injustice being perpetrated by the State, primarily by means of his weekly Sunday Mass homilies from his cathedral, which were broadcast live by the Catholic radio station (this was bombed more than once – and rebuilt with money raised by Catholics in this country). His opponents were motivated by a deep hatred for the Church.
His opponents were motivated by a deep hatred for the Church. There were a number of examples of the Blessed Sacrament being desecrated (captured vividly in the film Romero, starring Raúl Juliá), and at one stage in San Salvador posters were put up with the slogan ‘Be a patriot! Kill a priest!’ Many showing this hatred for the Church, for the poor and for Romero and others who were defending them were themselves Catholics, which is deeply shocking (Romero was undermined by most of his fellow bishops), and this hatred was not assuaged by his death. Some of you may remember the Holy Cross priest who was for many years Parish Priest of St Patrick’s, Chislehurst, George Webster. He was working elsewhere in Latin America (I think in Colombia) in 1980 – he heard that after the killing became known, girls at a private convent school elsewhere in the city where he was working were encouraged to cheer and celebrate by the nuns who were teaching them….
We know that what prompted the decision to kill him was his call, made in his homily on Sunday 23 March, on soldiers to disobey orders to kill innocent people. This is always the last straw for the military mind – he knew his life was in danger. Since his death Romero has become an inspirational figure for Catholics and other Christians (there are statues of him outside Westminster Abbey and inside the Anglican cathedral in St Alban’s) all over the world – in relation to what we believe about the Church, and in the Church’s witness for the poorest of the world, over and against violence and injustice. The world desperately needs heroes and role models at this time: so we should rejoice this weekend and ask for Óscar Romero’s prayers.