Pentecost Sunday Beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero Pro-Cathedral 24th May 2015
Homily from Fr. Richard Sheehy
“In St. Luke’s account of that first Pentecost Sunday, there is a wonderful sense of excitement at the effect of the Holy Spirit coming down on the apostles. The people in Jerusalem, who have come from many different parts of the Roman Empire to celebrate the Jewish festival, are in awe at what they witness: ‘we hear them preaching in our own language about the marvels of God’.
There is a similar sense of exuberance and joy about this annual Festival of Peoples, where we celebrate the richness and diversity of our catholic faith. Whatever about ‘Parthians, Medes and Elamites’, over the past 20 years people have come to live and work in Ireland from many eastern European countries, India, the Philippines, China, Africa and Latin America. We are blessed by the gifts, culture and vitality which they bring to our country and to our faith communities.
Much as Irish emigrants in the past have contributed greatly to building up the Catholic communities in Liverpool and London, Boston and Butte, so today immigrants from many parts of the world are renewing the faith life of the Irish Church. They are also helping to create a new and culturally diverse Ireland, expanding our understanding of what it means to be Irish.
Today the Church universal honours a son of Central America. Yesterday, in San Salvador Mass was celebrated to mark the beatification of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel on 24th March 1980.
When he was appointed Archbishop three years earlier, Romero did not seem a likely candidate for martyrdom. By nature conservative, his instinct, like that of his fellow bishops, would have been to seek to influence those in political power through quiet diplomacy.
However, just as the arrest and death of John the Baptist was a turning point in the life of Jesus, so too Romero was shocked and radicalised by the brutal killing of his friend and Jesuit, Rutilio Grande.
El Salvador was, and remains today, one of the poorest countries in the world. Fr. Rutilio Grande championed the rights of the poor ‘campesinos’ or farmers for better conditions. The military dictatorship of El Salvador and its supporters viewed as a threat to the State those priests, sisters and lay pastoral leaders, who were seeking to empower the poor by encouraging them to view their social and economic situation through the lens of the Gospel. Along with two others Fr. Grande was gunned down by forces sympathetic to the landowners.
This was a moment of truth for the new Archbishop, who realised that there is a point where silence becomes complicity with evil and corruption, and where the call to speak out prophetically on behalf of the powerless becomes compelling. He called for a full investigation into Grande’s death, vowing not to attend future state ceremonies until such an investigation was carried out. The more the Archbishop witnessed the injustice suffered by the poor, the more keenly he felt the call to become ‘the voice of the voiceless’ on behalf of those who had already been silenced by torture or a bullet, or who were afraid to speak out for fear of the consequences for themselves or their families.
Contrary to the claims of his critics, Romero was neither a Marxist revolutionary nor a naïve bishop manipulated by a few radical priests. His inspiration was at all times the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Catholic social teaching and the commitment expressed by the Catholic Bishops of Latin America at their assemblies in Medellin and Puebla to the ‘option for the poor’.
If he criticised the actions of the military in crushing legitimate opposition, Romero also condemned those who sought to oppose violence with violence. In a sermon in 1977 he said, ‘We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross’. A week later, he said, ‘I cry out against injustice, but only to say to the unjust: be converted!’ In words which are pertinent to our own painful history, he declared, ‘Liberation, that means revolutions of hate and violence, and takes the lives of others or abases human dignity, cannot be true liberty’.
If in speaking out, Romero sensed that his days were numbered, it also brought him to a place of inner freedom and hope. In an interview two weeks before his assassination he said: ‘If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.’
In a sermon delivered on 23rd March 1980, Romero implored the military to stop the repression and to refrain from killing their own people. The next day: the Archbishop was shot dead while celebrating Christ’s great act of ‘love and reconciliation’: the Eucharist.
Further atrocities followed. Soldiers opened fire on the mourners at Romero’s funeral, killing dozens. In December of that same year three US Maryknoll sisters and an Irish-American lay missionary were raped and murdered as they drove from the airport to their mission station late at night. In 1989, 6 Jesuit priests, who taught at the Central American university, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, were dragged from their beds and slain in a further attempt to muzzle those who criticized the government’s human rights abuses.
I know that when you visited El Salvador in 2013, President Higgins, you spent some moments at the tomb of Archbishop Romero and at the Wall of Remembrance, which honours those who died or were ‘disappeared’ during El Salvador’s civil war. You remarked on that occasion that ‘to be forgotten is to die twice’. Archbishop Romero has never been forgotten by the people of El Salvador. He represents the solidarity of the Church of Jesus Christ with them in their darkest hour. His beatification is a vindication of the best insights of liberation theology, and an honouring of those who gave their lives in the struggle for justice, and in witness to their faith in the One, from whom the country takes its name.
In February this year Pope Francis declared Archbishop Romero a martyr for the faith, and the Vatican has also opened the cause of Fr. Rutilio Grande. Sharing the same intuition as Romero, the Pope has made a clear theme of his Pontificate that the Church must not only serve the poor but become poor herself.
Blessed Oscar Romero challenges us all to speak out on behalf of the poor and vulnerable today, whether they be asylum seekers in Ireland caught in the legal limbo of ‘direct provision’, refugees driven from their homelands by conflict, or Christian and other religious minorities experiencing persecution in the Middle East. The increasingly desperate attempts by thousands of refugees to cross the Mediterranean is a challenge to ‘Christian’ Europe, which demands a coordinated and compassionate response. The commitment by the government that Ireland will accept 300 refugees marks, I hope, just the beginning of our response.
As the Church celebrates with joy the witness of Blessed Oscar Romero, may it be, as Pope Francis put it in a letter to the Archbishop of San Salvador, ‘a favourable moment for a true national reconciliation’, and may it inspire other people, not to take life but, to give their lives in the hope of building a better tomorrow for all. As Prince Charles put it in a different context earlier this week, ‘let us endeavour to become the subjects of our history and not its victims’. On the eve of his death, Romero wrote the following words: ‘All that surrounds us proclaims the cross. But those who have Christian faith and hope, know that behind this Calvary of El Salvador lies our Easter, our resurrection. That is the Christian people’s hope’.