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Remembering Romero – and his message

The reception of a relic of Saint Oscar Romero at the Metropolitan Cathedral on 14 October was an opportunity to draw fresh inspiration from his life’s example.

 

By Simon Hart

 

It was a grainy recording of the voice of a saint and it echoed around Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral. It was the voice of St Oscar Romero and the message, in his native Spanish, was clear. ‘No matad’ came his impassioned instruction – in English, ‘Do not kill’. He went on: ‘No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the Law of God.’ This was Romero, speaking on the eve of his death in 1980.

 

The recording was played towards the end of a special ecumenical service at the cathedral on Thursday 14 October to mark the third anniversary of Romero’s canonisation. Leading the service was Archbishop Malcolm McMahon and during it he received a relic of the saint from Julian Filochowski, chair of the Archbishop Romero Trust. It is hoped that this relic will be exhibited at the cathedral in the future.

 

The service had originally been planned for March last year as the trust wished to recognise the efforts of Liverpool Archdiocese which, with the staging of an annual Mass every year since Romero’s murder, has sought to keep alive the memory of a man who gave his life in the struggle for justice against an oppressive regime in his homeland of El Salvador.

 

Archbishop Malcolm said of the relic, a tiny particle of rib bone, that it offered ‘a physical bodily link with a saint who gave his life for his belief in Jesus Christ’. He added that it ‘links us physically with St Oscar but also reminds us most importantly of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.’

 

There was also a deeply thoughtful reflection from Father Stephen Pritchard, parish priest of Our Lady of the Assumption in Gateacre, who visited El Salvador in early 2020 and met people who had known Romero. Fr Stephen recounted the experience of ‘being profoundly moved in presiding at Sunday Mass in San Salvador Cathedral at Romero’s tomb; of being amazed at seeing not in black and white photos but with my own eyes the hospital chapel of his martyrdom; of standing behind that altar celebrating Mass in the very place where shots rang out.’

 

It was in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence, a place of care for cancer patients and the terminally ill, that Romero, then 62 years old, was shot dead while celebrating Mass on the evening of 24 March 1980. Romero had lived next door and Fr Stephen explained how ‘in his tiredness, in his worry, in his fear, in his turmoil, he would minister each night to those who were ill and dying’.

 

Fr Stephen visited that same hospital during his visit to San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city, and anointed a teenage girl dying of cancer. It was an experience, he said, which underlined for him the link between that place and this – our own Archdiocese which should continue to seek inspiration from Romero’s example.

 

‘For a moment I could see why Romero chose to live here,’ he said. ‘Yes, Romero, the man of prayer. Yes, Romero, the advocate of justice. Yes, Romero, the pastor and priest. There is a strong thread that runs from El Salvador to Liverpool and from Liverpool to El Salvador. Can this moment today be an opportunity for this cathedral, for Hope University, where Romero is a hall patron, and for the new parish of St Oscar Romero in Waterloo, for a new conversation to begin and a thread to be strengthened in order that Romero may not be a remarkable saint of the past but a continuing inspiration and uncomfortable nudge to us today to advocate against injustice? The challenge is set before us to continue with Christ’s suffering people today, to share in that suffering in every place of injustice.’

 

Another highlight of the service was the reading of a letter written by Dr Jan Graffius, the curator from Stonyhurst College who has spent 15 years working with the Archbishop Romero Trust on the preservation of the saint’s relics. In her letter, Dr Graffius explained how her initial meeting with Julian Filochowski in 2006 had led to ‘repeated visits to El Salvador to work with some of the most significant and harrowing artefacts I have encountered in my professional life.’

 

She went on: ‘The relics of Oscar Romero are truthful witnesses to a courageous life lived in the light of the gospels and to violent death in the service of Christ and some of the poorest people on earth. They have a vital role in a country where official distortion and lies were commonplace, and in a world which often struggles to understand integrity, courage, and holiness. Curators rarely get to deal with objects that speak as powerfully as these.’

 

Dr Graffius explained in striking detail the mechanics of her work, including her efforts to rescue a piece of Romero’s rib which had been handed to his brother Gaspar on his death. It was subsequently kept for three decades in a Jemima Puddle-Duck coffee jar filled with surgical spirit, on top of which was placed a miniature replica of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Part of that rescued rib is now in the Vatican, the other part in an illuminated reliquary attached to the wall of the altar sanctuary adjacent to the spot where Romero was murdered.

 

Dr Graffius’s testimony included also the arresting example of her examination of what, on initial inspection, had looked like mould on the black woollen trousers worn by Romero on the day of his death which, she attested, ‘provided probably the most moving discovery of my career’.

 

She elaborated: ‘The woollen fabric was covered with a white speckled deposit formed into circular pools which, at first sight, appeared to be some kind of mould. Under deeper magnification it became clear these were salt crystals, the residue of a sudden and exceptionally profuse sweat. According to eye witnesses at his last Mass, Romero suddenly flinched having seen the gunmen at the door of the church. He then stood his ground, awaiting the inevitable bullet. For me, such a revelation was profoundly moving, reminding us that martyrs are also truly human.’

 

Perhaps most moving of all was the playing of Romero’s appeal to those men serving in El Salvador’s army, national guard and police force shortly before his assassination. Afterwards, Steve Atherton of the Liverpool Archdiocese Justice and Peace Commission read out the English translation of the saint’s powerful address: ‘Brothers, you are part of our own people. You are killing your own campesino brothers and sisters and against any order a man may give to kill, God’s Law must prevail. Thou shalt not kill. No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the Law of God.

 

The Church defends the rights of God, the Law of God and the dignity of the human person and therefore cannot remain silent in the face of such great abominations. In the name of God then, and in the name of his suffering people whose laments rise up each day more tumultuously towards heaven, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you, in the name of God stop the repression.’ The next day, we were reminded, Romero was shot dead yet his example lives on.

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