This morning I visited the shrine of a man who is not a saint, though one day he may become one. His shrine is not in his home village, nor even in the country of his birth, but stands over five thousand miles distant, looking out over central London from the facade of Westminster Abbey.
This seems an unlikely site for the memorial to a catholic priest from Latin America, but Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who died on this day in 1980, was a rather unlikely martyr.
Until 1977, Romero had been a minor Bishop, serving in a remote, rural diocese. A man noted only for his piety. The Salvadorian church, challenged at its grass-roots by Marxist liberation theology, plucked the conservative Romero from obscurity to be the nation’s Archbishop, believing him a safe pair of hands.
But, like many great men of faith, Romero was a man on a journey. On becoming Archbishop, he was confronted by the miserable poverty of many of his countrymen and the ruthless repression of any who spoke against it.
A follower of Ignatian spirituality in which prayerful contemplation is to be followed by divinely inspired action, Romero was transformed by what he saw, becoming a voiciferous campaigner for social justice. In weekly radio sermons he denounced the murders carried out by the regime and, in February 1980, petitioned US President, Jimmie Carter, to stop sending arms to the Salvadorian government.
Speaking truth to power is a dangerous occupation which often yields a short career. And so it proved for Oscar. On the evening of 24th March, Romero was saying mass for the nuns in a small hospital chapel when, as he elevated the host at the height of the service, a single professionally aimed shot boomed into the confined space. Romero collapsed on the altar steps, mortally wounded, his blood mingling with the scattered sacrament as the sisters vainly tended him.
Like many martyrs, Romero proved more powerful dead than alive and the assassin’s shot has reverberated around the world, a call to action wherever there is poverty and oppression.
There have been moves to make Romero a saint but the Vatican has prevaricated, reserving the title ‘martyr’ for those who have died for the faith of the Church rather than for their socialist politics. With the accession of Pope Francis that may change.
Meanwhile, The Church of England has had no such qualms. Positioned between Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who plotted to kill Hitler and Dr Martin Luther King, Romero is one of 10 modern martyrs whose effigies were placed in a row above the West Door of Westminster Abbey in 1998.
Like the earlier saints depicted on the monumental walls of this ancient building these 20th Century martyrs ask us the question: “for what would we be prepared to die?”
What made Oscar and his fellows special was not that they died because of what they believed. But that, in the best Ignatian tradition and when so many others did not, they had the courage to act according to their beliefs.
(presented to the congregation of St Andrew’s Box Hill, 23rd March, 2014)