I confess that I’ve always been a bit dubious about honouring saints. And not just on the kind of theological grounds that made such an impact at the Reformation. I suppose I’ve been rather suspicious of cults of personality too.
I object to the way that women have been honoured for virginity while men have been honoured more for being great teachers and theologians. And then there are all those saints like Valentine, whose stories get turned to all sorts of strange commercial ends. I’ve often insisted that ‘saints’ in the New Testament are always in the plural, that we are all saints (and sinners too) and that there’s no place in the Church for special titles and honours.
But, despite all that, on 23 May, I will be marking the day that Oscar Romero is honoured. I shall be cheering because here was someone who was not a great heroic self, but was someone who really did come to represent his people, and whose memory and inspiration still live in El Salvador.
I went to El Salvador, last year, and as I sat on the plane I remembered how Romero had inspired me as I was growing up. I remembered how we all mourned his death in 1980, when he was shot while presiding at Mass in the chapel of the modest hospital where he lived. I remembered the story of how we had been appointed as Archbishop because the government thought he would be ‘a safe pair of hands’, but that he proved to be a thorn in their side because he never stopped speaking up for the poor. He was a figure of the past.
But as I arrived in El Salvador I saw ‘Romero vive’ painted on countless walls. I saw his portrait, with his distinctive spectacles, represented in windows and wall paintings, his sayings turned into graffiti and his strength of conviction and hope embodied in priests and people. I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that here was a man whose legacy lives on.
I met Victor, he works for a community group in one of the poorest urban areas of San Salvador. He was wearing a T-shirt with Oscar Romero’s picture on it. He was a gentle soul, facing enormous challenges, and he needed a hero. He said: “You may have forgotten the story of Oscar Romero, but for me, and for many of us here, his story is ours. …He suffered with the poor and left a legacy to his people. His struggle is our struggle.”
Victor had just written a letter to the Municipal Authority to protest about the way in which creation is being destroyed and degraded. And in this letter he quoted from a sermon that Romero preached way back in 1979.
He said, in words that seem strangely contemporary; “You know that the air and water are being polluted, as is everything we touch and live with, and we go on corrupting the nature that we need. We don’t realize we have a commitment to God to take care of nature. To cut down a tree, to waste water when there is so much lack of it, to let buses poison our atmosphere with those noxious fumes from their exhausts, to burn rubbish haphazardly – all that concerns our partnership with God.”
Romero was ahead of his time in recovering again the significance of texts like Genesis 2:15, that points to our God-given vocation to care for the earth, not only to ‘till it’ but also to ‘keep it’.
Successive governments in El Salvador, and those in church authority too, did their best to wipe out Romero’s memory. Children in school were not taught about him for years afterwards, but now, he is being recognised at last as a prophetic voice, a martyr, a servant of the poor.
In a world like ours, where so many look only at the short term and think only of themselves or their own, when many ignore what is happening to those in poverty and to the beautiful creation of God, we should look to the example of those who point to a different way of being a human being, a profoundly Christian way.
Listen to Romero’s own words: “I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.” Oscar A. Romero, The Violence of Love
Romero was a passionate and committed visionary and trusted in the power and love of God to save the world. Let’s do the same.
Susan Durber is theology co-ordinator for Christian Aid and a United Reformed Church minister.
On 17 June a day of climate action will see an expected 10,000 Christians gather in London to worship and to meet with MPs, urging the Government to focus on creation care over the next Parliament.