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St Oscar Romero

Feast day: 24 March

Oscar Romero was born on 15 August 1917. He went to a public school until grade three and then, because the school offered no more grades, he was privately tutored until he was thirteen. His father trained him in carpentry for which he showed exceptional skill. However, though he could have become an apprentice to his father, he began to consider the priesthood. He entered the minor seminary of San Miguel at the age of thirteen but soon returned home for three months as his mother became ill with the birth of her eighth child. During this time he worked with his brothers in a gold mine. After graduation he enrolled in the National Seminary in El Salvador. He completed his studies at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he received a Licenciate cum laude, but had to wait a year before he was ordained. His family was unable to travel to Italy for the ceremony in 1942 because of World War II. He then went on to study for a doctorate in theology, specialising in ascetical theology and Christian perfection according to Luis de la Puente. Before he completed this, however, he was summoned home by his bishop. He and his friend Father Valladares, who was also doing doctoral work in Rome, made stops in Spain and Cuba. They were arrested in Cuba, having come from fascist Italy. They were interned and Father Valladores became ill. The Redemptorists helped the pair to get to hospital and eventually they were released.

Romero was first assigned to a parish in Anamóros, but then moved to San Miguel where he worked for over twenty years. He promoted various apostolic groups, started Alcoholics Anonymous, helped in the construction of San Miguel cathedral and supported devotion to Our Lady of Peace. He was then appointed rector of the inter–diocesan seminary in San Salvador. He was exhausted by his work in San Miguel, and after a retreat was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

In 1966 he was chosen to be secretary of the Bishops Conference for El Salvador. He also became director of the archdiocesan newspaper, which became quite conservative while he was editor, defending the Magisterium of the Church.

In 1970 Romero was appointed an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Salvador and then in 1974 became Bishop of Santiago de Maria, a poor, rural region. In 1977 he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. This pleased the government but not the progressive priests who saw his conservatism standing in the way of their work for the poor. However Romero began to think differently. When Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who had been creating self reliance groups among the poor and who was a friend of Romero, was assassinated, he said: “If they killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.” He urged the government to investigate but they ignored his request and the censored press remained silent. Romero began to speak out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture.

In 1979, the Revolutionary Government Junta came to power and there were widespread human rights abuses by paramilitary right-wing groups and the government. Oscar Romero criticized the United States for giving military aid to the government and wrote to the President Jimmy Carter, protesting that this action would hinder the struggle for basic human rights. The President did not reply directly and the answer eventually given did not make any commitment to stop the aid. In fact it continued covertly through other administrations. He also got very little help from the Vatican in his appeal to condemn the government of El Salvador for its abuse of human rights and its support of death squads. Instead Pope Paul VI, who was uneasy about the liberation movement, urged Romero to maintain Episcopal unity. However his work was being noticed worldwide and he was given an honorary doctorate by the Catholic University of Louvain.

Oscar Romero continued to denounce the persecution of the church. He claimed that 56 priests had been attacked or vilified and six had been murdered, Nuns had also been singled out, church property had been damaged and ordinary lay workers had suffered even worse fates. He went on to point out that those who had been targeted were people who sided with the poor. Oscar Romero gave weekly sermons on the church radio, where he listed the atrocities that had been committed. This was the main source of information in El Salvador and was widely listened to. On the following day there was an hour-long speech. The diocesan paper Observacíon had articles on the same topic. Oscar Romero believed in liberation theology but agreed with Paul VI in seeing it as far more than material liberation. Presumably he wanted to distance himself from Marxist ideology. He condemned violence and did not subscribe to two churches, one for the rich and one for the poor: “There is only one Church, the Church that Christ preached and the Church to which we should give our whole hearts. There is only one Church, a Church that adores the living God and knows how to give relative value to the goods of this earth.”

In 1943 he had written in his diary that the Lord had inspired him with a desire for holiness and that he thought about how far a soul can ascend if it lets itself be possessed entirely by God. This seems to have been the philosophy of his life. He also practised the Ignatian ideal of being “of one mind with the Church.” (Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola) He was also inspired by the spiritual charism of Opus Dei and received weekly spiritual direction from one of its priests.

On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero preached a sermon in which he called on the soldiers of El Salvador, as Christians, to obey God and stop the government’s repression and violation of human rights. He spent the day in a recollection organised by Opus Dei, a monthly gathering of priest friends. That evening Romero celebrated mass at a small chapel at the Hospital de la Divina Providencia, a church-run hospital specialising in oncology and care for the terminally ill. He finished his sermon and stepped away from the lectern to take his place before the altar. As he finished speaking a red car stopped in the street in front of the chapel and fired one or two shots. Romero was struck in the heart and died in the chapel. The funeral mass on 30 March 1980 was attended by 250,000 mourners from all over the world. The Jesuit priest John Dear said: “Romero’s funeral was the largest demonstration in Salvadoran history, some say in the history of Latin America.” The personal delegate of Pope Paul VI described Oscar Romero as “a beloved, peace-making man of God,” and said that “ ...his blood will give fruit to brotherhood, love and peace.” During the ceremony smoke bombs exploded and rifle shots sounded. Many people died. Meanwhile the Archbishop was buried in a crypt beneath the sanctuary of the cathedral of San Salvador. There was widespread condemnation of his murder.

The process of canonization began in 1993. There was some dispute as to whether Oscar Romero had been killed for his faith or for political reasons. Eventually he was canonised by Pope Francis on 14 October 2018. He was the first Salvadoran to be canonised and the first martyred archbishop of America.

St Oscar Romero, pray for us.