The Salvadorian archbishop brought good news to the poor. No wonder he had so many enemies

This month, a flood of pilgrims will make their way to the small town of Ciudad Barrios in El Salvador. They will be celebrating the centenary of Blessed Oscar Romero, who was born there on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1917. There will be thanksgiving for Romero’s life and prophetic ministry, and fervent prayers for genuine lasting peace in that violence-stricken country. They will also be praying for Romero’s prompt canonisation, which could be as soon as next year. He was shot dead on March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass at the cancer hospital where he lived, and in 2015 he was beatified as a martyr killed “out of hatred of the faith”.

Romero never forgot his origins: the second of eight children, he came from a family of modest means. Throughout his life he lived simply – but he was no simpleton; he was intelligent and far from naïve. He showed great humility but he was not a doormat. He was open but shrewd; he was well read and cultured; he knew the great spiritual writers and he studied assiduously all the teaching documents that came from the Vatican. After ordination in Rome in 1942 he began a doctorate in ascetical theology – but World War II made it impossible for him to continue.

Blessed Oscar Romero was a phenomenal evangeliser. He was a self-effacing man with a special gift from God – his spectacular talent as a preacher. I have sat through hour-long sermons in his cathedral. He unpacked the Gospel and presented it as truly Good News to his people, to his poor. Then, through pastoral programmes, he set about making that Good News a reality in their lives.

He reflected on the Word of God, he absorbed and he inhabited the Word of God; simultaneously he listened, he sensed and he put himself alongside the poor. If it’s not too fanciful, one might describe Romero’s homiletic style as the Word of God seeping into his people’s ongoing history. There are few who more authentically represent “the shepherd who smells of the sheep”, in Pope Francis’s oft-quoted phrase.

Romero’s episcopal ministry, and his very way of being and living, were a beautiful blend of orthodoxy and orthopraxis, of right teaching and right action. Benedict XVI once said that orthodoxy without orthopraxis is empty and void; whilst orthopraxis without orthodoxy is blind. Romero was the man of the synthesis. His rich prayer life, when he put everything before God, was intrinsically linked with action to support and defend the poor through social projects and the legal aid office. Witnessing to faith and promoting justice were intimately fused in Romero’s life. He was a contemplative in action – a special mix of Ignatian discernment and Carmelite spirituality.

Romero was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. For three dramatic years he was in the spotlight in San Salvador – a parallel to Jesus’s three-year public ministry. We can look to Romero’s preaching and teaching, like Jesus, speaking truth, bringing and being good news to his poor. The crowds who followed Jesus were akin to Salvadorans who eagerly listened on transistor radios to Romero’s every sermon and his inspirational advocacy for human rights, for community organising and for non-violence.

We learn that early in Jesus’s ministry the Pharisees began to plot against him. Likewise, we know that members of the landed oligarchy, and even some fellow bishops, sought Romero’s removal from office. Romero had his John the Baptist in the person of Fr Rutilio Grande, assassinated immediately after Romero became archbishop. At that juncture Romero wrote: ‘‘My new post seems to have put me on the road to Calvary.’’ Like Jesus, it ended for Romero in a public execution.

There is still much speculation about who exactly carried out the assassination – and the identity of the gunman that day is unknown. But as with the Crucifixion, there were many culprits. The lead conspirator, ‘‘Caiaphas’’ perhaps, was retired Major Roberto D’Aubuisson. He moved with the knowledge and support of the military top-brass and those wealthy Salvadorans who financed his death squad – the Sanhedrin, if you like. And the crowd yelling “crucify him” were the newspapers, their owners and editors who published lies and vile insults – falsely accusing Romero of being a traitor to the country and preaching fratricidal hatred.

Romero had the overwhelming support of the clergy and Christian communities. Yet, as a constant thorn in the side of the military and legal establishment and an embarrassment to many wealthy Catholic families, he was constantly portrayed as the black sheep, out of step with the hierarchical Church. It’s not difficult to imagine them shouting in unison: “Who will rid us of this turbulent priest?” Certainly, champagne corks popped and fireworks went off when the news of Romero’s assassination came through.

But in the end, they have given to the whole universal Church a glorious martyr. Thanks be to God.

This article first appeared in the August 11 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here