Romero’s preference for the poor was not ideological but evangelical, participants tell Greg Daly
Hardly had Cardinal Angelo Amato read out the declaration that Archbishop Oscar Romero was to be numbered among the Blessed of the Church that the gathered crowds in San Salvador’s Plaza Salvador del Mundo gazed up at the sun.
“I noticed that the bishops and the politicians on stage lose a bit of their decorum and were looking above at the sky,” says Irish Franciscan Fr Ciaran Ó Nuanain, one of 2,000 priests there to honour their hero and to give communion to a crowd, according to the Salvadoran police, of up to 500,000 people.
Describing how some of the politicians and some of his fellow priests were taking out their cameras, he says he looked up to see “a circular rainbow around the sun”.
“It’s a rare phenomenon and scientists explain that it sometimes happens after a night’s rain”, he says, adding, “it was strange that it appeared at the moment it did.”
The solar halo persisted for the final hour of the three-hour beatification Mass according to Poor Clare Sr Peter Coleman of Dublin’s Romero Centre, who says the atmosphere at the Mass was “electric”.
Sr Peter had flown over a few days ahead of the beatification, and in advance of the ceremony had visited the Catholic university where six Jesuits, including two who had studied in Ireland, were murdered in 1989, and the chapel at the cancer hospital where Archbishop Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980.
Huge crowds gathered the previous evening for the vigil of the beatification, which started at five in the evening and lasted into the early hours of the morning. Sr Peter attended the early part of the vigil, with Newry’s Sr Mark Holywood staying all night despite torrential rain.
Ireland’s Poor Clares have worked in El Salvador since the early 1970s, following in the footsteps of the Irish Franciscans who went there in the late 1960s, so it was fitting that Sr Peter and her provincial, Sr Anne Kelly, were part of the official Irish delegation at the ceremony, sitting by chance beside Julian Filochowski of the Archbishop Romero Trust. During this “warm up period”, according to Fr Ciaran, there was loud applause when “the animator announced the presence of the Irish delegation”.
With the ceremony not due to begin until ten o’clock and people sitting in their places by seven, Mass was preceded, Sr Peter says, by “reflections, prayers, silences, and hymns”, the first of these being “Vamos Todos al Banquete”, a hymn of equality in the eyes of God.
Fr Ciaran says the festive atmosphere at the Mass, “celebrated on a big stage in the centre of the square named after the Saviour of the World”, reminded him of when John Paul II visited Ireland.
“Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Pope’s representative, presided over the Eucharist and to his left were six cardinals and 60 bishops among whom was our own Irish Franciscan bishop Michael Lenihan from Mount Collins, Co. Limerick,” he says, adding that Dr Lenihan is now the first bishop of the diocese of La Ceiba in Honduras.
“To the right,” he adds, “as is customary in Latin-American countries, were present various political dignitaries from El Salvador and other Latin American countries.”
President Michael D. Higgins had been expected to attend but was unable to, while among the more surprising guests present was Roberto D’Aubuisson, a deputy in the National Assembly whose father was identified by the UN Truth Commission as having ordered Romero’s murder.
Mr D’Aubuisson’s aunt was, by chance, the first person to whom Fr Ciaran gave communion that day. A great supporter of the archbishop, despite her brother, she said in a television programme a few days before the beatification that “history has vindicated us”.
Accompanying Fr Ciaran among the 2,000 priests assembled from around the world were his fellow Franciscans Fr Alfred O Lochrainn and Fr Gerry Moore. Fr Gerry, who had been present at requiem Masses celebrated by Archbishop Romero for such murdered priests as Fr Rutilio Grande, Fr Alfonso Navarro, and Fr Octavio Ortiz, and for the archbishop himself, says “to be present at his beatification was a re-vindication of all that he stood for: his prophetic stance, his defence of the poor, his denunciation of social injustice and institutionalised violence”.
Sr Peter found the Mass readings especially affecting, recalling the responsorial psalm’s antiphon, “those who went sowing tears now sing when they reap”, and how the Gospel from John 15 called us to remember that “if the world hates you, remember that it hated me before you”. During the homily, according to Fr Ciaran, Cardinal Amato “reminded us that Romero’s preference for the poor was not ideological but evangelical. His charity extended to his persecutor”.
“As I listened to the words of the Papal Bull proclaiming him blessed I found it hard to keep back the tears,” says Fr Gerry, who says, “I shared the joy of countless Salvadoran men and women who braved the rain during the night vigil and the blazing sun during the beatification ceremony because they wanted to be close to this man who was close to them in their time of need.
“It was also for me a moment of hope as I could feel that the Church is becoming more aware that justice is an integral part of the Gospel message and cannot be ignored at the peril of betraying the good news of the Kingdom,” he adds, noting how we can take courage from the knowledge that “Blessed Oscar Romero will continue to intercede for us and invite us to a more radical Gospel life”.