Last May the Holy Father beatified Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. In the picture above, he is shown with St John Paul II.
Oscar Romero was shot while saying Mass on 24 March 1980, so this month is the first time we can mark this anniversary and feast day (which this year falls on Maundy Thursday) since the beatification. This has been the culmination of a long process, not without its problems: we should not forget that Romero was a divisive and controversial figure during his lifetime so no one would expect these divisions to vanish after his death.
Pope Emeritus Benedict was sympathetic to the cause for his beatification, and what made the crucial difference to the process was the point when Pope Francis declared that Romero had been killed because of ‘hatred of the faith’ (odium fidei). This paved the way to his beatification on account of martyrdom.
Of course particularly among the poor of Latin America popular devotion to him as a saint had grown up as soon as he was killed, but the official declaration of beatification by the Church emphasises that he is a gift to the whole Church.
The narrative of his martyrdom is central to Romero’s importance.
His witness against violence and on behalf of the poor in the short time he was Metropolitan very quickly made him a hate object on the part of those whom he challenged.
The intensity of the violence against the people, and of hostility towards the Church, is a disturbing aspect of these years, visible in the biographies and in portrayals such as the 1989 video Romero, starring Raúl Julia.
But to complement his martyrdom, we should also recognise his significance as a teacher of the faith, which made him a major figure apart from his martyrdom.
During his short ministry as archbishop, for example, he issued four long pastoral letters which are profound in their theology of the Church. The task of translating into English his massive collection of homilies reached a landmark last year with the publication of the first volume (of six), translated by Fr Joseph Owens SJ (A Prophetic Bishop speaks to His People [Miami: Convivium Press 2015]).
This Lent let the martyred archbishop speak for himself in this extract from a Lent homily from 1977; he is preaching about the readings we have heard this year for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Joshua 5:9ff., and Luke 15):
‘The people who have been delivered from slavery in Egypt arrived in the Promised Land and celebrated the Passover. That is what the Mass is: an encounter with the Promised Land, a breath of hope, or better still, the prodigal son in the gospel that was just read.
The prodigal son is each one of us; he is the people; he is the one who often goes astray in search of false freedoms. He is the one searching for happiness- because God has created us for happiness- but not finding it, he leaves his father’s house like a foolish child and seeks it in the world, living in luxury, vanity, disorder, and debauchery. And in the end he finds only emptiness.
What a great image of someone who seeks happiness apart from God! The only work he can find is that of caring for pigs. There are so many people like that, caring for pigs, worshipping false idols, unable to satisfy their hearts with the things of this world. I hope that this Mass…sets people thinking.’