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President Higgins reflects on Saint Óscar Romero

On Sunday 14 October, before a crowd of 60,000 people, including 5,000 Salvadorans, Pope Francis canonised Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, alongside Pope Paul VI and five others. Archbishop Romero was shot through the open door of the chapel where he was saying Mass, on 24 March 1980. He had just stepped to the altar after delivering the homily.

Courtesy of The Sacred Heart Messenger, we publish the reflections of Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, on his own experience in El Salvador and on the ongoing importance of the message of social justice of Oscar Romero, the bishop who walked with the poor.

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I first travelled to El Salvador thirty-six years ago, weeks after elements of the Salvadoran army had murdered over 1,000 people in the village of El Mozote. I joined Irish missionaries – amongst them the Poor Clares, Sacred Heart Sisters, and Franciscans – in bearing witness to the aftermath of the attacks, as we attempted to bring this atrocity to the attention of the world. In October 2013 I had the opportunity to return to El Salvador as President of Ireland. There, I visited the Memorial to Memory and Truth in Cuscatlan Park in San Salvador upon which the names of 30,000 of those who died in the recent war are inscribed.

Among the many thousands of names engraved on the wall is that of Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who served the city of San Salvador as its archbishop before he was assassinated a day after he urged the soldiers of El Salvador to disobey their government and halt their repressive activities. The dedication of Monsignor Romero to the poorest and most marginalised, his passionate defence of human rights in his country and his courage in confronting a regime which frequently tortured and killed its opponents caught the imagination of a generation of Irish people who mourned his loss in 1980.

Monsignor Romero was a remarkable human being. He was not by nature a radical. When the Salvadoran Jesuits first began to implement a ‘preferential option for the poor’ in the early 1970s, enrolling students from the poorest areas into the Universidad Centroamericana and establishing ‘Christian base communities’ in rural villages, Monsignor Romero was initially critical of what was sometimes referred to as ‘political theology’, and he sought to maintain ‘neutrality’ in the face of the political and social injustices of El Salvadoran society.

When he was installed as Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 he was considered a ‘safe pair of hands’ by the establishment. Yet, only weeks later, on the 12 March 1977, his good friend Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest, was murdered by the security forces. Archbishop Romero presided over a memorial mass at which he advocated for solidarity with the poorest and for justice for all Salvadorans. From that day he became ‘el Obispo que anda con los pobres’, the Bishop who walks with the poor, condemning what he labelled as the ‘structure of sin’ that produced economic, social and political oppression.

For three years, Monsignor Romero preached a gospel of peace and liberation, even as the shadows gathered and the government of El Salvador, and the international forces which supported it, intensified their campaign of repression. On the 23 March 1980, he appealed to the ordinary soldiers of his country to disobey their officers and bring an end to the violence. ‘Brothers,’ Archbishop Romero said, ‘you are from the same people, you kill your fellow peasants … No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God’.

The next day the Archbishop was shot dead by a sniper as he celebrated Mass in the Chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia. During his funeral mass, bombs and smoke grenades were set off outside the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador. The mourners were fired upon with rifles and machine guns, leaving over thirty people dead and several hundred wounded.

I was deeply honoured to visit the tomb of Archbishop Romero in October 2013 to recall that terrible moment and to pay tribute to his life and legacy. Through his thoughts and actions, he inspired and continues to inspire a generation of advocates for human rights and for social justice.

This inspiration is needed now more than ever as we seek to respond to the structural injustices of our own times: the urgency of mitigating climate change; the moral imperative of welcoming those fleeing injustice, war, famine and natural disaster; and the necessity of challenging great inequalities in income, wealth, opportunity and power which persist within and between nations. The canonisation of the Archbishop will, I hope, remind us once again of his extraordinary example, and bring a renewed vigour to all those of us who, in our own circumstances, seek to meet those challenges and to overcome those still persistent injustices.