'St Oscar Romero of the Americas, pray for us'

By Steve Atherton, Justice and Peace fieldworker

Our diocese is justly proud to be a Romero hot-spot and on 24 March we celebrated once again the annual Romero Mass – the first since his canonisation but 39th overall. It was a double celebration, taking place at St John’s, Wigan as part of their 200th anniversary celebrations, and this extract from the Romero Trust newsletter for January 2019 is a reminder of why we give thanks each year for this life and ultimate sacrifice.

Born on 15 August 1917, Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was sent to study for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained in 1942. He embraced a simple lifestyle; he was a popular preacher who responded with real compassion to the plight of the poor.

He was ordained Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador in 1970. Seemingly unsympathetic to the new social justice thrust of the Latin American Church, he was suspicious of the clergy and the Base Christian Communities of the archdiocese working alongside the exploited rural poor, promoting social organisations and land reform.

A brief spell back in the countryside opened Romero’s eyes as he reconnected to the misery and hardship of the ‘campesinos’ and witnessed the murderous repression being suffered at the hands of the security forces. In February 1977 he was the surprising choice to be the new Archbishop of San Salvador.

Over the next three years, the social and political conflict intensified with electoral fraud blocking change, and peaceful protest being met with massacres and death-squad killings. From his pulpit Archbishop Romero became the voice of the voiceless poor. There he spoke the truth of what was happening: he denounced the killings, the torture and the disappearances of community leaders; he demanded justice and recompense for the atrocities committed by the army and police; and he set up legal-aid projects and pastoral programmes to support the victims of the violence.

Romero, rejecting the violence perpetrated by the left as well as the right, strained every nerve to promote peaceful solutions to his nation’s crisis. He was vilified in the press, harassed by the security forces and publicly opposed by several episcopal colleagues. The death threats multiplied; Romero realised he was going to be killed. And he came to accept it. At 6.26pm on 24 March 1980, with a single marksman’s bullet, he fell at the foot of a huge crucifix while celebrating Mass. Thirty-five years later, he was declared a martyr of the Church. Killed out of hatred of the faith, he was beatified on 23 May 2015 and canonised on 14 October 2018.

At the end of the 2nd Romero Mass, Julian Filochowski concluded his homily with the words ‘Saint Oscar Romero of the Americas, pray for us’. Archbishop Derek Worlock was heard to mutter, ‘Steady on.’ We’ve always known that Julian’s assessment was right. Romero is a contemporary Christian martyr-witness, who shows us that the preferential option for the poor is not just possible and do-able. It is essential to our life as a Church.