Tonight in St George´s Cathedral, Southwark an ecumenical service of dedication for the new Archbishop Romero Cross will take place. Archbishop Peter Smith will preside, together with Bishop John Rawsthorne and Monseñor Ricardo Urioste, (Romero´s vicar general) will speak at the service.
The 4 meter high cross was made in El Salvador and has been decorated in bright colours by the renowned Salvadoran artist Fernando Llort. The cross serves not only as a memorial to Archbishop Romero, but also a reliquary, holding his skullcap and an even more precious relic of a fragment of Romero’s alb. This is the alb he wore when he was martyred in 1980.
Romero’s story is that of a shy, bookish man who was elected to the position of Archbishop of El Salvador. He wouldn’t be one to “rock the boat”. He would be a “safe pair of hands”. The government were happy and so were the wealthy landowners who effectively ruled over the millions of peasants who were denied any voice.
Within 3 weeks of his appointment, his friend Fr. Rutilo Grande had been murdered by a death squad and Romero was changed forever. As a protest into the government’s lack of action into investigating Fr. Grande’s death, he stayed away from the Presidential inauguration, denying, for the first time, the Salvadorian Head of State the official sanction and blessing of the Catholic Church. Romero knew what he was doing. He was declaring the election result invalid and was on a collision course with the government.
Romero was the voice of his people, appealing to God, the government and directly to the Army and death squads to stop the killings, the torture, and the disappearances that were part of everyday life in El Salvador in the 1970s. He used all means available to him to spread the message of love and an end to conflict. As the TV and newspapers were owned by the wealthy elite, he used the Archdiocese radio station YSAX to broadcast his sermons which included details of every human rights abuse reported in the previous 7 days. His reach was unprecedented, reaching 73% of the rural population and 47% of the urban people. In 4 years, the station was bombed 10 times. CAFOD was one of the organisations that helped to keep it on the air and remain a voice for the voiceless.
In late 1979, Romero wrote to then President Jimmy Carter asking him to stop military aid to the government. He received no reply.
On 24th March 1980, he addressed the military directly. “I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill”. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered you consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order… In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you – in the name of God: stop the repression.”
At 6.25pm in the Chapel of Divine Providence on the outskirts of San Salvador, Romero was celebrating Mass. The door of the chapel opened and Romero behind the altar, must have seen a man with a rifle pointing at him. In that moment he could have ducked or ran for cover, but stayed still, stayed with his congregation not risking bullets flying around his church. The flash from the gun’s muzzle and a fraction of a second later the shepherd was struck down. He fell behind his altar, his blood mixing with the wine from the chalice he was consecrating. His final words were “May God forgive the assassin.”
Following his burial, the sisters of the Congregation of Missionary Carmelites of St. Theresa who run the Divine Providence Hospital preserved the bloodstained vestments and other possessions of Archbishop Romero as best they could. In 2007, Jan Graffius, the curator of the Stonyhurst College collection of relics was asked to help the sisters to save the Romero relics for future generations. In May this year, Pope Francis was presented with a fragment of Romero’s vestment by the President of El Salvador.
The Romero Memorial Cross will remain in St. George’s Cathedral, next to Romero House in London permanently, so will be a “must see” for visitors to CAFOD’s head office.