On 14th October during the Synod of Bishops on young people, the assassinated Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero will be proclaimed a saint.
Romero was shot dead on March 24th 1980 as he was saying Mass in El Salvador. In his three years as archbishop, he had become an outspoken voice for the poorest people of his country, caught up in a conflict between the military government and guerilla groups that claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. Today, Romero is widely acclaimed as a saint and martyr across the Christian world and beyond. But it was not always so.
There are countless examples of saintliness in Óscar Romero’s life, many of which were highlighted as part of the case for his canonisation.
- He travelled great distances along narrow and dangerous roads to say Mass and offer villagers the sacraments in remote parts of El Salvador;
- He arranged medical care for people who lacked the resources to get it themselves, especially the elderly;
- When he learned that migrant coffee harvesters often did not have places to sleep, and were spending nights on the ground in the public square. Romero housed them in church buildings.
Elevated to archbishop of San Salvador in late February 1977, Romero strove to maintain an apolitical approach to El Salvador’s worsening violence. To address the situation, the country’s bishops met on March 5, 1977 and wrote a letter denouncing the government’s human rights abuses, to be read at all Masses a week later. The document stated: “even at the risk of being misunderstood or persecuted, the church must lift its voice when injustice possesses society.”
Romero approved of the letter, but as Sunday drew near he began having doubts. The letter called out those living “an opulent life” while many others “live in habitual unemployment with a hunger that debases them to the direst levels of malnourishment.” Romero worried that reading these criticisms would offend the wealthy parishioners at San José de la Montaña, where he was scheduled to say a Mass on March 13th.
Then, on March 12, 1977, security forces murdered Romero’s friend, Jesuit, Father Rutilio Grande. Grande did not share Romero’s caution and respect for authority. Learning of Grande’s murder, Romero drove to Grande’s parish in Aguilares, about 30 miles from San Salvador, to mourn his friend and say Mass. The next morning back home in San Salvador, Romero said two Masses, one at the cathedral and one at San José de la Montaña. He read the bishops’ letter to both congregations and broadcast it on national radio. After that, there was no turning back.
For the remaining three years of his life, Romero pursued the truth wherever it led him, and it led him to embrace a church of and for the poor, in a way he never had before. His homilies detailed their struggles, each week giving a summary of the murders, disappearances, and attacks on workers and organisers, and reporting on how eyewitness accounts differed from official accounts. Explaining the reason for this seemingly grim practice Romero explained: “My sermons are not political. Naturally, they touch on politics and they touch on the reality of the people, but their aim is to shed light and to tell you what it is God wants.”
In a 1978 homily Romero told his countrymen:
“There will be no true reconciliation between our people and God, as long as there is no just distribution, as the goods of our Salvadoran land do not bring benefits and happiness to all Salvadorans.”
A stunning statement from a man who fewer than two years earlier fretted about the church being too political and susceptible to Marxism.
Conversion often marks a dramatic turning point in a saint’s life e.g. St. Paul on the road to Damascus. A perfectly reasonable reaction in the wake of Grande’s murder would have been for Romero to continue his pastoral work, while pursuing even more vigorously his instinct for caution and respect for authority. Instead, in the face of terror and fear, Romero changed.
Changing to better understand reality, changing to seek the truth, changing no matter how terrifying or dangerous the path may be, the struggle of change is the model of saintliness Óscar Romero offers us.
The people of El Salvador canonised Oscar Romero in their hearts, soon after his assassination. In 2015, the local Church celebrated Romero’s beatification in San Salvador: “one of the highest profile non-papal beatifications in history, with well over half a million people present”.
Romero was a man “who said what he thought and meant what he said, he talked the talk and walked the walk”. He didn’t just love the poor, he adds, since “that’s relatively easy”, but he also defended the poor with “apostolic courage” and became a model for bishops, priests and all Christians.
Canonisation is one step further: “recognising him as a saint of the Universal Church, not just a saint for Salvadorans or Latin Americans”.
Note: the title of this piece is taken from a quote by the Venerable Óscar Romero: “It is not enough to be good. It is not enough to not do evil. My Christianity is something more positive; it is not a negative. There are many who say, ‘But I don’t kill, I don’t steal, I don’t do anything bad to anyone.’ That’s not enough. You are still lacking a great deal. It is not enough to be good.”