Given at the Mass opening the Novena ahead of the canonisation of Blessed Oscar Romero at St Ignatius Church, Stamford Hill on 5th October 2018
I first heard of Blessed Oscar Romero in 1978/9. I was a student at university but one day bought a booklet of his sermons. As I read the words, the way in which Archbishop Oscar Romero, to be proclaimed a saint next week, spoke of justice, the rights of the poor, the evils of the disappearance of people and the violation of human rights, stirred and resonated in my heart. He spoke words of truth. As I read further, his life and his words helped me to make sense of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, especially the opening words of Jesus’ ministry in St Luke’s gospel: ‘Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee… When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”’
These words made sense in a new way when I heard of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s life. He was a man, a priest, an Archbishop who was ‘filled with the Spirit’, and spoke like Jesus and his truth, and so the crowds began to gather around him.
When Blessed Oscar Romero was appointed as the Archbishop of San Salvador, at the age of 60, people were unsurprised. He was thought to be a safe pair of hands and would not challenge the social order; he wasn’t thought to be a risk-taker or prophet. As you know, in El Salvador, the majority of the people were very poor and suffered at the hands of a few very rich land owners and the military. The clergy complained about the appointment and were not very happy with their new Archbishop!
About a month later, his good friend, Fr Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit, was murdered. Both Romero and Rutilio Grande had poor, humble origins. Fr Rutilio Grande had become a seminary professor and helped his priests to understand the teaching of Vatican II, Medellin, and Pope Paul’s VI’s great letter on evangelisation, Evangelii nuntiandi. (It is appropriate that both Blessed Oscar Romero and Blessed Pope Paul VI will be canonised on the same day, one influenced the other in life and now they share in the communion of saints in heaven.) In the 1970’s he was sent from the seminary to a poor parish where he preached the gospel with energy and zeal. He built up small communities who prayed, he reflected on the gospel, and he spoke out against the exploiter and the powerful who oppressed the poor. He became a target for assassination by the powerful forces at work in El Salvador. He was a priest who was passionate for the good of the poor and worked for change through building peace with justice. He devoted himself to the pastoral care of his people and loved them. His assassins found him in his village. They took his life, along with the lives of an elderly man, Manuel Solarzano, who was his constant companion, and an adolescent, Nelson Lemus. Despite the dangers he lived, Fr Rutilio refused to leave the parish and did not want to abandon his people. His last words were: ‘We must do God’s will.’
Archbishop Romero considered him a ‘man of God’. He grieved the death of his friend by spending a night of a prayer vigil with the bodies of the three victims along with the poor people who filled the church. Romero said, ‘here where Christ is suffering... where Christ is carrying his cross on his shoulders, not in a chapel...but alive in the people; he is Christ with his cross on the way to Calvary. This is Christ made man in this religious brother, this Jesuit follower of Jesus... His martyrdom was a reflection of his life. A priest among his campesinos, walking towards his people, to identify with them, and to live with them, inspired not by revolution, but by love.’ The way in which Archbishop Romero spoke of his life and was touched by his life united him with his clergy and people. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and became a prophetic voice for the poor and those who suffered. More recently, Pope Francis has affirmed that Romero is Rutilio’s ‘great miracle’. He knew that he must preach and live more deeply the violence of love: ‘the violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.’ (Oscar Romero, November 27, 1977)
Each Sunday, after much prayer and reflection, Archbishop Romero preached his Sunday homily and broadcast it by radio. He spoke of injustices suffered, named the people who had disappeared, and condemned the violence of the military and the powerful. His words were magnetic as he preached with power and authority. Each day he also preached at 8am in the morning and the crowds grew and people listened in the heat of the day.
He knew that the poverty of his people resulted from social injustice. He was also generous in terms of individual charity; sending alms to those in need, signing letters of introduction for those seeking work, he lived at the Divine Providence Hospital for poor, terminally ill patients, and visited them every month. He said: ‘The center of my life is to witness to God’s love for humanity and to the love of human beings for one another. This must be manifested through our own lives and conduct as Christians, with a living witness of fidelity to Jesus Christ, of poverty and detachment from material goods, and of freedom from the powers the world. In a word: sanctity.’ (Robert Morozzo Della Rocca, Oscar Romero, Prophet of Hope, DLT, 2015)
Of his mission he said, ‘In my capacity as a pastor, I think that I must carry out the mission of purifying the history of our people, both from the sin of injustice and from the violation of the rights of the poor. Christ is already walking with us on this journey, and he wants us to reach the fullness of history, after having cultivated his love and his peace in the justice of his Gospel.’
His martyrdom occurred whilst celebrating evening Mass in his chapel in the hospital on 24 March 1980. He was shot at the consecration.
In the Mass, Blessed Oscar Romero entered into the offering of Christ and his suffering. He offered the suffering of his people to Christ on the cross. He did so in hope knowing that it was Christ alone who could bring the gift of peace into the lives of the suffering of God’s holy people. In the act of supreme self-sacrifice, he gave his life for the gospel. Canonised next Sunday, he witnesses to martyrdom and is a prophet of hope for people who suffer violence and exploitation.
May his hope enliven the hearts of God’s holy people.