Archbishop John Wilson, of the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark, preached at Evensong in St Alban’s Cathedral Commemorating St Oscar Romero.
St Alban’s Cathedral is home to an image of St Oscar Romero and Archbishop John Wilson was invited to preach by the Cathedral Dean, the Very Rev. Jo Kelly-Moore and Chapter.
In his sermon, delivered on the 4 February 2024, Archbishop John drew on St Oscar Romero’s inspirational life and his anchoring in Christ in all that he did.
He inspires us to follow Christ, trying, as he did, to put the Gospel into practice in the situations we face. He inspires us to believe that Christ offers salvation – a salvation which calls us, in conversion and discipleship, towards holiness and heaven.
But, also, a salvation which must shape how we live, here and now, on earth, and how we put into practice the commandments of God’s kingdom.
Highlighting the continued persecution of Christians around the world, with churches continuing to be destroyed and Christians killed for their faith, Archbishop John urged us all to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in the suffering Church worldwide.
St Oscar Romero’s life is a shining example, Archbishop John Said, that when “Christ taught us to love and serve others, he really did want us to put it into practice". He added:
Dear friends, Romero calls us to faithful discipleship of Christ and the proclamation of his Gospel.
That is why, Archbishop John urged, we should imitate St Oscar’s example, passing it forward to future generations, and asking his heavenly intercession.
Love of Christ and love of neighbour means that defending human life and protecting human dignity, and working for justice and peace, are not optional extras, but integral to our mission. This is not always easy. We may not get it right. But even though we cannot do everything, we must each do that something which is more than nothing.
The full sermon from Archbishop John can be read below.
St George’s Cathedral in Southwark has a national Oscar Romero Shrine, which holds relics belonging to St Oscar.
Evensong in St Alban’s Cathedral Commemorating St Óscar Romero, 4 February 2024
‘Those who reject me,’ wrote Archbishop Oscar Romero, ‘do me a great honour, because I somewhat resemble Jesus Christ, who was also a stumbling block.’
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Forty-four years ago, on the 24 March 1980, Óscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated. He was in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital, standing at the altar celebrating the Eucharist.
I first encountered Romero’s story when I was 17, long before I became a priest, let alone an Archbishop. Ever since, I have been captivated by his witness. It was, therefore, remarkable, almost precisely a year ago, to be in San Salvador in that same hospital chapel. It was so intensely moving to see for myself a place I had known only from photographs and films.
The chapel was smaller than I imagined. On the sanctuary, behind the altar, there is a life-sized outline of Romero’s body showing where he collapsed and died. The inscription beside the crucifix reads: ‘At this altar Mons Oscar Romero offered his life to God for his people.’
I celebrated Mass precisely where Romero celebrated Mass. I stood in exactly the same place he did when he was killed, the silhouette of his bloodied body beneath my feet.
To stand where someone’s life was taken puts their life and our life into relationship and perspective. Memory, loss, sadness, and reality all intertwine as we sense the enormity of living and dying; and, for some, the potency of their Christiform sacrifice.
From behind the altar there was a clear view of the chapel door. Romero would have seen the car arrive and the gunman get out and point the gun towards him. In a split-second movement from Gethsemane to Calvary, Romero saw his death unfold before him. The exploding bullet penetrated his chest, just above the heart. The fatal injury causing massive internal bleeding. Romero died in the arms of the people he loved.
We were just six people in the chapel for Mass that day. The Gospel was from the discourse about the vine in St John, where the Lord Jesus says: ‘cut off from me you can do nothing.’ (Jn 15:5) The moment Romero was ‘cut off’ from the earth, everything that mattered most to him came alive. His entire existence was oriented towards fullness of life with Christ. ‘Christianity’s only true absolute,’ Romero once said, ‘[is] God and his Christ.’ In changing times he preached a changeless truth: God in Christ is with us, ‘a pilgrim accompanying us throughout history.’ How we too need to travel in this truth.
Archbishop Romero was declared a saint by Pope Francis on 14 October 2018. Looking back at his life, we see someone, first and foremost, given over completely to Christ: as a disciple, priest, bishop, and, finally, as a martyr. His impassioned stance for justice, his courageous defence of human rights, his relentless advocacy for the poor, his damning critique of oppression and violence, all stemmed from his faith in Christ. Romero knew that what was happening before his eyes, to the weakest and the poorest, was happening to Christ and to His body. Like the crucified King he served, Romero entered into the suffering of his people. Here was a shepherd who not only smelled of his sheep, but also shed his blood with and for them. ‘God knows how hard it was for me to become archbishop,’ he said in February 1978, ‘how timid I have felt before you, except for the support that you as Church have given me. You have made your bishop a sign of Christianity.’
We cannot understand Romero separated from his faith in Christ and his love for the Church. His episcopal motto was ‘Sentir con la Iglesia’ - to feel, to think, to make sense of life within the Church, united to her faith in Christ. With this spiritual anchor, Romero’s exposure to the devastating oppression of his people provoked his intensifying defence of the poor and outspoken critique of injustice. He was martyred ‘in odium fidei,’ in hatred of the faith. He was not assassinated because he was a soldier or a politician, but because he was a shepherd. In faithfulness to Christ and the Gospel, Romero could not remain silent while his own people were repressed, tortured, and murdered.
During and after Romero’s lifetime, El Salvador was scarred by ruthless conflict. Around 75,000 civilians were killed in the civil war, along with approximately 8000 disappeared persons. Death squads murdered countless innocent people, including priests, religious sisters, and laity. Among them, the names of Fr Rutillio Grande, Manuel Solorzano, Nelson Lemus, Sr Maura Clarke, Sr Ita Ford, Sr Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, Fr Cosme Spessotto, and those massacred at the Central American University, all shape the Salvadoran martyrology.
Humanly, Romero was an anxious man, an introvert who worried and struggled. He drew strength from his deep interior relationship with the Lord Jesus. He inspires us to follow Christ, trying, as he did, to put the Gospel into practice in the situations we face. He inspires us to believe that Christ offers salvation – a salvation which calls us, in conversion and discipleship, towards holiness and heaven. But, also, a salvation which must shape how we live, here and now, on earth, and how we put into practice the commandments of God’s kingdom. ‘Those who do not understand transcendence,’ said Romero, ‘cannot understand us. When we speak of injustice here below and denounce it, they think we are playing politics. It is in the name of God’s just reign that we denounce the injustices of earth.’ With the Gospel as our compass, how are we really acting and speaking against injustice and in defence of the poor?
Romero believed that every person can make a difference for the better, towards others, and towards our world. He took Christ at his word. When he said ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do this to me,’ (Mt 25:40) Romero said ‘Amen’ - I believe it. This truth sculptured his life, so much so that, in imitation of Christ, he could literally lay down his life for his friends. Minutes before he was assassinated Romero preached: ‘God’s reign is already present on our earth in mystery. When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection. That is the hope that inspires Christians. We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.’
Romero’s former residence is now a memorial containing many of his personal effects. The glass fronted wardrobe displays his cassocks and bloodstained alb and vestments. He was shorter in physical height, but a giant in spiritual stature. Christ called him to greatness in the service of others. This is why he remains relevant to the world today. His legacy calls us to witness that selfishness – whether personal, or societal, or national or international – ultimately only ever brings division, and even destruction and death. But self-giving always yields life, even when that self-giving is a sacrificial grain of wheat which dies in the soil to produce a rich harvest.
I thank, most sincerely, the Dean and Chapter for the invitation to share something this evening of the life and significance of St Óscar Romero. There is strong bond between Romero and the Church of England. The former Bishop of St Albans and Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, interrupted his enthronement in Canterbury Cathedral, the day after Romero’s assassination, to pray in remembrance at the site of another murdered archbishop, St Thomas Becket.
This magnificent Cathedral is dedicated to St Alban, the first British Christian killed because of his faith. With him, and five other Christian martyrs, Romero is honoured in the nave screen. Christians have learnt slowly and painfully, at horrific cost, that killing one another achieves nothing. But discrimination against Christians, and the persecution of Christians, continues today. Churches continue to be burned and bombed. Christians continue to be oppressed and imprisoned. Last year over 365 million Christians faced persecution of one form or another, and 4998 Christians were killed for their faith, 90 percent of them in Nigeria. The images and shrines of martyrs beg us to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in the suffering church worldwide.
Dear friends, Romero calls us to faithful discipleship of Christ and the proclamation of his Gospel. We are a people of the Beatitudes. We must announce God’s kingdom and live as kingdom dwellers. When Christ taught us to love and serve others, he really did want us to put it into practice. Love of Christ and love of neighbour means that defending human life and protecting human dignity, and working for justice and peace, are not optional extras, but integral to our mission. This is not always easy. We may not get it right. But even though we cannot do everything, we must each do that something which is more than nothing. In this we look to imitate St Óscar’s example, passing it forward to future generations, and asking his heavenly intercession.