e-mail us

Cover story: Commentary

Completing Romero’s unfinished Eucharist

San Salvador, El Salvador

The 20th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero’s martyrdom began with an early morning Mass March 24. As we entered the small parking area on the grounds of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia (el hospitalito, as it is popularly and affectionately known to cancer patients), I immediately sensed the compassionate heart of Romero.

A thin, jaundiced woman was crossing the driveway. She seemed confused and frightened by the hundreds who had gathered that morning for the first of three Masses that were to be celebrated there at the small chapel and at two other places in the city. The woman’s nose had been eaten away, and the flatness of her face was covered with a tight bandage. Romero had decided to live here where the poor, the sick and the dying spent their last days.

Here the archbishop’s heart was shattered by his assassin’s bullet. The Mass that beautiful morning was the most moving of the three Masses celebrated that anniversary day. Bishop Samuel Ruiz García of Chiapas presided. Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, the bishop-poet of Brazil, offered a short homily based mainly on the first reading, which related the story of Joseph, the dreamer with the coat of many colors. “Here comes the dreamer. Let us kill him and throw him in a well. Then we will say a wild animal killed him. We will then see what his dreams amount to” (Genesis 37:20). Casaldáliga made the obvious parallel between Joseph and Romero, referring to Romero’s dreams of a land of peace, justice, love and respect. “The dreams of Romero were the same as God’s dreams,” he concluded.

At the end of the Mass, Ruiz invited others to speak. Most who spoke were women, including a young medical doctor who owed her career to the influence and intercession of Romero. A woman who is part of a group of mothers whose sons and daughters disappeared during the conflict gave her tribute to Romero and the disappeared people. A French father and mother of a slain nurse, Madelaine Lagredelle, said, “We feel the pain of having lost her, but we are also proud of her witness until the end. We want to get to know these people so loved by our daughter.”

A priest from Italy told of a 90-year-old woman who, in front of the crypt of the archbishop, grabbed him by the shirt and shouted, “Please, you priests and religious, do not abandon us, the poor!” Another woman proclaimed in a loud voice that she did not know anything about canon law, but what she did know was, “We, the people, have already canonized Romero. He is San Romero of the Americas!”

From the chapel of the hospital, we marched in procession to the cathedral for the second Mass. This Mass was more formal, attended by 20 bishops, including the present archbishop of El Salvador and the nuncio.

After the third Mass at 6 p.m. with Cardinal Roger Mahony as presider in the newly named Plaza Romero, there was yet another procession, again to the cathedral for the late-night ecumenical service. This crowd was estimated at 40,000 people who sang and prayed litanies in honor of the many martyrs of El Salvador, including the U.S. churchwomen who were killed in December of the year of Romero’s death.

Memorable to me was an afternoon I spent with a group of young Salvadoran professionals who were among those involved in the struggle, and who supported Romero. They were even younger then. Some had suffered imprisonment, torture and exile. They wound up in such places as Sweden, Canada and Brazil. For them, this week of the 20th anniversary was a reunion. Their friend and mentor, Fr. Plazido Erdozain Beroitz returned from Spain for the occasion. His church had been burned by the military, and later he was expelled from El Salvador, probably because of his work with the comunidades de base (the base communities).

Our host for the extended lunch that afternoon was Dr. Francisco Calles, a professor at the National University of El Salvador. We had been part of a panel that morning at the university where people who had known Romero closely did a “re-reading” of the historical events surrounding his assassination. Amid the laughter, there were tears as they each shared their dramatic stories of 20 years ago. They feel the pain but also the pride of having been part of the saga of Romero. Their thinking, their lives committed to justice and peace, their spiritual selves are forever imbued with the spirit of Romero.

This is one indication that Romero has risen in his people as he said he would. And risen he has. There is a very real and profound spirituality that has arisen around the myth of Romero -- myth here understood as an indelible truth and message that comes from a heroic story whose memory is kept alive, which keeps firing the imagination over the years.

Besides the myth, there are the voluminous writings he left behind. Romero was a prolific writer and ardent student. The small library in his modest cottage on the hospital grounds holds books that appear worn by serious study; especially the scriptural commentaries. In addition to his pastoral letters, there are numerous written homilies, diaries written during retreats and at other times, and recorded tapes.

People remember the Sunday morning homilies. These were broadcast over the radio, and it seems everyone, whether friend or foe, tuned in. Most of us bishops are lucky to have the attention of the parishioners that attend our Masses, let alone an entire city of over a million! “To be enraptured is one thing,” said Msgr. Ricardo Urioste, Romero’s vicar general. “We must go beyond the admiration and adulation stage.” At the late-night ecumenical service, which culminated a day full of emotion, prayer, tears and song, Urioste did not let us off easy. He had all of us examine our consciences and admit to ourselves that most needed conversion in our lives. He then asked us to share with our neighbor what we were committing ourselves to do before giving each other the sign of peace.

Indeed, it is our task to contribute to the termination of the Eucharist that Romero was not able to finish. The challenge to those whose imagination has been sparked by the Romero story is to live, to serve and to be present to those who are experiencing the pain of human suffering. Choosing as residence the hospitalito was in keeping with Romero’s lifelong commitment to be with the poor, the voiceless and the forgotten.

Ricardo Ramírez of the Basilian Fathers is bishop of the Las Cruces, N.M., diocese.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000