Each Sunday, indeed at each Mass we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. We celebrate the New Life, the Hope and Inspiration that the Easter Christ is for us. If we are looking only to remember some strange event 2000 years ago – well it might appeal to historians but it couldn’t change lives. But emphatically NO! We believe we are celebrating to power of the Crucified and Risen Christ Jesus Who is alive among us now in 2018 to change lives – our lives today. So I am going to share the story of someones who has long inspired me in my ministry!
WHO INSPIRES ME? In 1978 I was still a young priest. I had been working living and working in Taunton in Somerset – a reasonably well-off county town. Then unexpectedly my bishop asked me to move to Knowle West here in Bristol, a very run-down impoverished community with very high inter-generational unemployment and over-crowded housing – a community with no hope! As I was struggling to adapt to an utterly different kind of environment to one I had been serving, I heard of this courageous bishop in a tiny far-off country in Central America – his name was Oscar Romero and his country, the size of Wales was called El Salvador (name after ‘the Saviour’).
He had been a very tame, timid man, with his own inner psychological problems. He had been promoted to be the country’s Archbishop and had been immediately confronted with the realities of poverty for the vast majority of his people. Worse than simply the poverty, was the repression by the dictatorship that ruled the country for the benefit of 14 fabulously wealthy families. He had not even been installed as Archbishop when his close friend, a Jesuit priest, Fr Rutilio Grande, was murdered on Government orders – because he spoke up for and organised the poor that he served.
As Romero encountered the reality of oppression, squalor, and government brutality, the poor literally converted him to a life of Christ-like courage. He became their voice – their only voice in that repressed land. He would not be silenced, even though they threatened his own life and blew up the Church’s radio station that broadcast his sermons every Sunday. The cries of the poor and his alignment with them also healed him – he no longer needed regular visits to his psychiatrist friend and far from being timid he was a strong prophet crying out for justice, crying out for peace in his land. Indeed the British Parliament nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Finally on Sunday 23rd March 1980, preaching in his Cathedral he ordered ‘in the name of God’ the soldiers to disobey orders and refuse to kill their own people. He knew he was signing his own death warrant but felt ‘in the name of God and humanity’ he had to speak out in this way. Next day while celebrating Mass in a convent chapel, a government assassin shot him dead.
I was in the kitchen of the presbytery in Knowle West having breakfast and getting ready to celebrate Mass when I heard the news on the radio. At that moment, I knew God was calling me to spend my life sharing with and living for the poor – of my city, my country and my world. As a priest, a shepherd of God’s people, Oscar Romero has inspired me and changed the course of my life and my understanding of the message of Jesus. I see in him, this Shepherd of the poor and Prophet of Justice, this Voice of the voiceless, the person of Jesus, risen and alive today – and a model for me and I hope many others of how to be a priest in today’s world.
On October 14th 2018, Pope Francis formally declared him a Saint of the Church – a model pastor to follow – I was there in Rome when Oscar Romero was at last recognised as one of the great inspirations not only for the modern Church but also for our modern world.