In the Footsteps of Blessed Oscar Romero
El Salvador, a small country in Central America, is named after Christ the Saviour. From 1979 to 1992 civil war tore the country apart: more than 75,000 people were killed and 8,000 “disappeared”; nearly a million people were made homeless. The people were brutally suppressed and their cries for justice ignored by the powerful.
Oscar Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, an appointment welcomed by the military regime as he was seen to be reliably conservative. Later that year, however, Romero had a conversion experience when he prayed beside the body of his murdered friend Rutilio Grande SJ, who had spoken out on behalf of the poor. Romero began to look at his country through the victims’ eyes. He realised that if he followed his friend’s footsteps, it would probably cost his life. He became the voice of the voiceless. In his Sunday homilies, he denounced the previous week’s atrocities – naming those who had been killed, were being tortured and those who had disappeared. In a radio broadcast the day before he was killed, he called on the military to stop killing innocent people. On the 24 March 1980, he was assassinated while celebrating Mass.
Last November, my wife and I joined thirty pilgrims from the UK and around the world on a Romero Trust Pilgrimage to El Salvador. Words fail to describe the impact of those twelve days on me. Beginning with a celebration of the “unfinished Mass” in the chapel where Romero was assassinated and a visit to the Cancer Hospital next door which exuded such love and peace, on several occasions we listened to those who lost loved ones in the Civil War and to those still seeking justice today. We visited the university where six Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, were killed in November 1989. We went to the parish centre of El Despertar where Fr Octavio Ortiz and four young catechists were murdered by the army and where later Fr Michael Campbell-Johnson SJ served as parish priest. We prayed at the place where Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan, were raped and murdered by the military in December 1980.
If this sounds depressing, there were many signs of hope and life. One I shall never forget came at Mass near the tomb of Oscar Romero. Having heard of so much pain and suffering and the ongoing struggle for justice, I was trying to pray for the country and its people, yet there was such joy and gratitude on the faces of the people who came to offer us a sign of peace. Pope Francis has now cleared the way for Romero to be canonised later this year or early next year. May Romero’s message of peace with justice continue to be a source of hope for the people of El Salvador as we all seek to follow in his footsteps.