Celebrating Archbishop Romero's centenary

By Steve Atherton

A statue of Blessed Oscar Romero will be unveiled at the Metropolitan Cathedral at this month's 37th annual Mass to commemorate the life of a modern-day martyr.

There are only two places in the world that have commemorated the death of Blessed Oscar Romero every year since he was murdered on 24 March 1980. One is El Salvador and the other is rather closer to home – here in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. 

This year's annual Romero Mass, scheduled for Sunday 19 March, will hold extra significance since 2017 brings the centenary of the one-time Archbishop of El Salvador, born in August 1917, whose name became synonymous with the fight for justice for the poor. This struggle led to his death by a single assassin's bullet but his martyrdom became, and remains, an inspiration for so many of us. As Pope Francis said in a message on the occasion of Archbishop Romero's beatification in San Salvador in May 2015: "His ministry was distinguished by a particular attention to the poor and marginalised."

The latest Archdiocesan Mass to commemorate Archbishop Romero will take place at the Metropolitan Cathedral for the first time in a decade, following a ten-year process of staging it across the Archdiocese in order to introduce new people to his life and ministry. Archbishop Malcolm McMahon will be the principal celebrant and Father Jim O'Keefe – an influential voice in propagating Catholic Social Teaching – will deliver the homily. At end of Mass, a new statue of Blessed Oscar Romero, created by sculptor Rory Young, will be blessed and installed in the cathedral.

One hundred years after his birth, it would be wonderful for as many people as possible to join us for this celebration – whether you have a long-standing devotion to Romero or would simply like to learn more. After Mass there will be refreshments in the Gibberd Room and the chance to hear from Sister Martha Zeichmeister who, as a guest of the Romero Trust, is visiting the United Kingdom on a speaking tour from the Jesuit University of San Salvador, where she is professor of systematic theology. 

A life less ordinary
Portraits of Romero's life depict a very devout, conservative Catholic who, for most of his life, spent hours in daily prayer. He was a quiet and shy man, an efficient administrator with a fondness for books, who was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador because he was regarded as a safe pair of hands. The assumption was he could be relied upon to keep well away from politics so that the Church would be protected in the complex, violent socio-political reality of the time.

As it was, Romero's experiences as archbishop brought him into increasing contact with the harsh realities of the lives of the poor. He had been a long-time friend of a radical priest, Father Rutillo Grande, and though appalled by the poverty of his people, he did not initially share Grande's vision that the Church should be actively involved in helping to combat poverty and exclusion. Romero's life-changing moment came when Grande was assassinated at the order of rich landowners. On hearing the news, Romero went straight to the site of the murder. He approached the corpse and, after standing in silence for several moments, said: "If we don't change now, we never will." He was 63 years old.

Romero took the unusual step of cancelling all parish Masses across the diocese the following Sunday and calling everyone to attend at the cathedral. From then on, Romero became a relentless critic of the government albeit while still maintaining his commitment to non-violence. He was in a difficult situation. He knew injustice was rife. He knew the government was serving the interests of a tiny minority. He realised the Gospel had implications. "The Church would betray its own love for God and its fidelity to the Gospel if it stopped being a defender of the rights of the poor," he said. But he was accused of taking sides and was even reported to the Vatican by his fellow bishops.

Romero positioned himself in a very narrow space where he could speak truth publicly and privately, based on the stories he heard and the reality he witnessed day after day – where he could plead for an end to all the violence, for a peace that was not, in his words, "the silence of cemeteries". Once, when asked what he did as an archbishop, he replied: "I bury people."

Every Sunday in his homily he would name all those who had been killed or had gone missing that week. His sermons were broadcast across the country to a massive audience. In his last sermon he said, "No soldier is obliged to follow an order contrary to the law of God," and then issued the following call to the soldiers in his country: "In the name of God then, in the name of the suffering people, I ask you, I beg you, I command you: stop the repression." With these words he uttered his own death sentence. The following morning he was shot through the heart as he celebrated Mass at the chapel attached to the hospital where he lived.

Romero believed each person's life, each one's history, is his or her meeting place with God. And this is one of the things he can teach us: God is active in our lives. Archbishop Romero's deep spirituality and powerful witness make him an exceptional model for would-be disciples of Jesus. He is like a brother to Pope Francis who has warned us recently about losing the Gospel in "an ocean of words".

Liverpool's Justice and Peace Commission is rightly proud of its association with Blessed Oscar Romero. We have held a commemorative Mass every year since his assassination, starting in the Cathedral in 1980 when Father Kevin Kelly gave the first homily. The next year, when Julian Filochowski concluded his remarks with the words, "Saint Oscar Romero of the Americas, Pray for us", Archbishop Derek Worlock was heard to mutter, "Steady on". Yet a personal view is that Julian's assessment was right. Romero is a contemporary Christian martyr-witness, who shows us the preferential option for the poor is quite possible.