On Sunday, 19 March at St Albans Cathedral, Bishop Nicholas Hudson preached at Evensong for Romero Week.
Bishop Nick (pictured in the centre of the picture, right, alongside the Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev. Jo Kelly-Moore) is an Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Westminster and a Trustee of the Romero Trust. Below is the transcript of his sermon.
Romero was afraid. He knew the hour had come. But he also knew that, if he should pass through the waters, God would still be alongside him. As he wrote, in his last retreat, just weeks before death, “It is not easy to accept a violent death (but) if it comes to this, I (know I) shall feel God very close to me as I draw my last breath.”
He knew that, if this grain of wheat should die, it would still yield a rich harvest. This text of John’s happened to be the very text of his final Mass. Just before he was shot, Romero had said, “Whoever, out of love for Christ, gives himself to the service of others will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only seems to die.” He’d told a Mexican news reporter, “If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadorean people. I offer God my blood for the redemption and resurrection of the people of El Salvador.”
Yes, he knew the hour was coming. “In El Salvador, the sky has turned red,” he’d said. “Putting ourselves on the side of the poor is going to mean a lot of bloodshed.” The seed of his own sacrifice had been sown when, as Bishop of Santiago de Maria, he saw Salvadorian National Guardsmen gun down six campesinos in a neighbouring diocese; and hack to death five peasants in his own. He denounced the killings; but didn’t protest further. It was when he became Archbishop of San Salvador and witnessed the assassination of his own friend and priest, Rutilio Grande, that the seed began to germinate within him.
He’d already told his friend Fr Cesar Jerez, “When I saw Rutilio dead, I thought, if they killed him for what he was doing, it’s my job to go down that same road.” Cesar was Jesuit Provincial; he and Romero were visiting Rome together, just months after Rutilio’s death. “Monsenor, you’ve changed,” Jerez told him as they walked along. “Everything about you has changed. What’s happened?” The Archbishop halted and was silent: “I ask myself that same question when I’m in prayer,” he said. “It’s just that we all have our roots, you know,’ he went on. “I was born into a poor family, I’ve suffered hunger … When I went to seminary (in Rome) … I started to forget where I came from. I started creating another world … they made me bishop’s Secretary in San Miguel … then they sent me to Santiago de Maria, and I ran into extreme poverty again. Those children were dying just because of the water they were drinking, those campesinos killing themselves in the harvests … And what happened to Fr Grande … You know how much I admired him. When I saw Rutilio dead, I thought, if they killed him for what he was doing, it’s my job to go down the same road … So, yes, I changed. But I also came back home again.”
The figure lying dead on the floor of the Hospitalito chapel with blood pouring from his ears and eyes and mouth is indeed the figure of a man who has come home. He’s already being received into the place prepared for him by Christ since before the beginning of time; a man of the poor who had allowed himself to be transfigured by the cry of the poorest for justice. No longer the frightened conformer, he has been transfigured by justice.
The transfiguration that had taken place in him the world had witnessed on the last Sunday of his life, when he begged the men of the army and the national guard: “Brothers, you are part of our own people. You are killing your own brothers and sisters. No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the law of God. Nobody has to fulfil an immoral law … In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to heaven each day more despairingly, I beg, I plead with you, I order you in the name of God: cease the oppression.”
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” wrote St Irenaeus centuries earlier. A “bishop fully alive” was what the people of El Salvador witnessed in their pastor that last weekend in March 1980. Like Christ going up to Jerusalem to meet his passion, Romero too was going up to meet his destiny. He’d found the freedom to say, just a few weeks earlier, “I offer God my blood for the redemption of the people of El Salvador … for the liberation of my people. As a pastor, I am obligated … to give my life for those I love … even for those who would assassinate me.” Yes, he was afraid; but he also trusted. He trusted that he would rise again in the Salvadorean people.
SEED OF CHURCH
St Irenaeus had also said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” We see in this story how the blood of those campesinos, the blood of Rutilio and countless other witnesses, was the seed of martyrdom in Romero. Because of his witness, the voice of mercy for God’s poor rang out and continues to ring down the decades. The drama of his ministry and death points up the full meaning of Jesus’s promise that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but, if it dies, it yields a rich, rich harvest, welling up to eternal life.
POSSESSED BY GOD
A simple postscript. Before he ever embarked on this journey, Romero had written, while writing his dissertation, “In recent days … the Lord has inspired in me a great desire for holiness. I’ve been thinking of how far a soul can ascend if it lets itself be possessed entirely by God.” Pursuing that desire was going to be a long road. It was only when he became Archbishop that it began to dawn on him the full meaning of what it would mean to “be possessed entirely by God”. It would mean that he too must take the same road as all those others who had been gunned down because they sided with the poor; allow himself to be transfigured by justice.
It is an extraordinary story; a wonderful story in so many ways; but an awful one too. Like every significant tale of radical witness, it should make us ask what it says to us about our own lives. Doesn’t it make us wonder what I might be, become, if I allowed myself to be possessed by God too? What work, what witness might he be waiting to achieve in me? Romero said it was in prayer that he began to ask himself how he had changed. It was in prayer that he began to hear the call to make the supreme sacrifice and give glorious witness to his Lord and Master. It’s surely in prayer that we should begin to ask the Lord what he might be waiting and wanting to achieve in us too.