In October of 2018, Pope Francis canonized the seven newest Saints in the Church. Among them was Bishop and martyr, St. Oscar Romero, whose first feast day we celebrate today. This day has been anxiously awaited by many, but maybe nowhere more enthusiastically than in Central America where he served as the Archbishop of San Salvador. This appointment feels particularly appropriate paired with Pope Francis’ call for clergy to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”
If Oscar Romero is a familiar name to you, you’re likely familiar with his iconic black-framed glasses and his powerful words spoken on behalf of those on the margins. If not, here is a quick glimpse at the man we celebrate today. Either way, let us sit together with the challenge he lays before us:
God is not satisfied with appearance. God wants the garment of justice. God wants Christians dressed in love. -Saint Oscar Romero
Romero was and continues to be a figurehead of what the Gospel looks like when it is lived out, particularly in the face of social sin. This speaks to both the beauty and risk that Christians in positions of authority face while taking up the cause of the people they represent. Like all saints, Oscar Romero’s life was a witness to love made manifest by Jesus Christ.
Smelling Like the Sheep
Oscar Romero was among the most unlikely to be chosen for his assignment as Archbishop of El Salvador. Due to the tumultuous and violent time in the country’s history, his appointment was expected to be a non-event by local government. It was feared to be a non-event by local clergy who had seen the outright abuse of the Salvadoran people and their need for a voice.
However, Romero’s heart along with his leadership were transformed by the people whom he shepherded. These people were at the mercy of a corrupt government.
Rather than being elected as one who might maintain the status quo in times of political unrest—keeping clear distinct lines between Church and state—Romero became a champion of the poor. In doing so, he invited tremendous controversy in his local community and beyond.
When we speak for the poor, please note that we do not take sides with one social class. What we do is invite all social classes, rich and poor, without distinction, saying to everyone let us take seriously the cause of the poor as though it were our own. -Saint Oscar Romero
In the midst of the Salvadoran Civil War, after the attacks and murders of many priests and nuns, Romero had the gumption to call out soldiers who were not living out their Baptismal call by their persecution of the poor. He also called upon the countries who were providing assistance to the party in power. Romero was assassinated while saying Mass on this day in 1980.
The Legacy of St. Oscar Romero
Today is the first opportunity we have had to celebrate the sainthood of Oscar Romero.
Many Saints have long-celebrated histories of celebrations unique to them. But Romero’s feast day is an invitation for reflection on the holy life of this new Saint and to incorporate traditions that fit with his life and values.
I can easily think of ways we’ve celebrated familiar feast days. Photos of deceased loved ones on All Saints, green milk on Saint Patrick’s Day, King Cake on Mardi Gras, red, glittery hearts for St. Valentine’s Day.
How to Celebrate to Feast of St. Oscar Romero
Admittedly I don’t have much practice with imagining ways to commemorate the life of an inspirational figure. But here are a few possibilities that come to mind, following his lead:
- Reflect honestly: Where do I notice social sin and speak out against it? Where might I? Do I stay with the story beyond the headline? How might I hold those who are being unjustly persecuted in prayer? How can I help them in more tangible ways during Lent and every day?
- Enjoy empanadas or tamales in celebration with Romero’s native San Salvador.
- Purchase and brew fair trade coffee or chocolate in reverence for the coffee growers and migrant workers Romero was supporting in his community. They reminded him of the image of God.
- Learn about the organization and people that grows and harvests one product you use.
We Need Romero's Brand of Holiness
Romero offers a rare and vital witness to a life that is uncompromising in Gospel values in the life of Church and state.
For many, his witness is uncomfortable. It pushes past where we might prefer our comfort zone to stretch. This is exactly why we need him.
His faithfulness is remembered today. In a special way, we celebrate his commitment to accompanying—even to death—those whom the world had forgotten and exploited.
By contrast, whoever out of love for God gives oneself to the service of others will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently…Only in undoing itself does it produce the harvest. -Saint Oscar Romero
In the same way that we depend upon the truth-speakers in our lives that will tell us when we have the proverbial “spinach” in our teeth, or when we have stepped completely (or even partially) out of line, we have a distinct need for Saints that challenge us to step outside of ourselves in faith on behalf of others.
These treasures are few and far between. When we find them, we know in our bones the treasure they are.
So it is with those not-so-quiet, holy companions who model for us and direct us toward a life of Gospel living.
Saint Oscar Romero, pray for us!