‘If there was ever a time when the feast of the Holy Spirit takes on urgency, I think it is now when we see so much confusion, so many false values of redemption, so much militarism and selfishness, so much hatred and violence. This is a precious moment when we feel a great desire for justice, for truth, for what is absolute and transcendent. This corresponds to humankind’s deepest longings, which cannot be satisfied by anyone except the very Spirit of God comes to take possession of us and to fill the vast emptiness we feel. Like St Augustine, we seek solutions in the world but never find them, and we say with him, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” ’
These words could easily be preached in any sermon in any part of the world today. Violence, hatred, selfishness, falsehood: these appal us and help us realise how much we need the Holy Spirit in our hearts, in the Church, in the world. Good words for today, Whitsunday, Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Spirit, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Our Lady and the apostles, captured above by El Greco.
But these words are not from today but from a Pentecost sermon preached exactly 38 years ago in El Salvador by Blessed Oscar Romero, less than a year before his martyrdom. It is to be found in a new complete collection in English (in six volumes) of his homilies as archbishop. In 1979, as for the whole of the brief three years he was Archbishop of San Salvador, the country was ravaged by violence and fear – systematic oppression of the poor and widespread campaigns of killings. It was at this time that death squads put up posters with the words ’Be a Patriot! Kill a priest!’ The real manifestations of evil which Blessed Oscar encountered – often undermined by his fellow bishops – made stark the need to pray for a deeper indwelling of the Spirit, to give believers strength and courage; but although we are not living in the El Salvador of the late 70s we do see some of the same signs of evil made real in violence, hatred and selfishness, as we explored in our Lent programme.
For Archbishop Romero awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit was central to his spiritual life. It was particularly evident in his deep love for the Church, something we have been trying to deepen throughout the season of Eastertide, and a good aim in a General Election campaign. Blessed Oscar’s Spanish motto as bishop was Sentir con la iglesia, ’To be of one mind with the Church.’ Throughout his teachings, expressed in his monumental homilies – they were very long and most of those preached on Sundays were broadcast live on the Catholic radio station (except for the times when it had been bombed) – and in his pastoral letters his deep knowledge of the Bible is enriched by his close knowledge of the Church’s teachings, throughout history and in his own day. Attacks against the Church – real, physical attacks perpetrated through terrible violence – were attacks against Our Lord since we see the Church as the Body of Christ, the continuation of his life and ministry on earth.
Being ‘of one mind with the Church’, being faithful and loyal to all her teachings, trying to share the truth of these teachings with others, are signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the guarantee of the Church’s infallibility. The killings of so many Catholics, including dozens of priests and nuns, and the martyrdom of Blessed Oscar himself in March 1980, show that being open to the Holy Spirit doesn’t give us comfort and prosperity: it will always be costly; putting Jesus Christ and his Church first in our lives will always be demanding.