WASHINGTON, D.C. — In life, El Salvador’s St. Oscar Romero had an open line of communication with the church in the United States, whose leaders and laity often supported the archbishop of San Salvador when he objected to military aid or training of the country’s government troops, paid for by U.S. taxpayer money.
Even after his martyrdom March 24, 1980, his example and legacy of solidarity with the poor remained a mission for the U.S. church, whose members long lobbied in the halls of Congress against money that harmed the Salvadoran people.
Romero continues to this day to influence members of the U.S. church — from the laity to U.S. bishops — seeking to model his example of carrying out the church’s defense of the vulnerable and protection of the human rights of the poor.
For one church in Washington, that has taken the shape of following, quite literally, in the footsteps of the Salvadoran saint, canonized in 2018, by helping out an impoverished community often visited by Romero near the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador. As archbishop, he entered the neighborhood of La Chacra in 1979, an appearance captured on video: Children run up to the prelate, dressed in a white cassock. He also visited women with a group of nuns in houses next to railroad tracks; the houses were constructed of cardboard, rope and plastic.
It’s exactly the place where, for more than 20 years, Holy Trinity Church of Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood has had a “sister parish” relationship with a church in the place where Romero cemented his image as a friend of the poor. At Maria de los Pobres church in La Chacra, parishioners from Washington make regular visits throughout the year to “accompany” their fellow Catholics, even though the two parishes couldn’t be situated in more different environments.
The Jesuit-run Holy Trinity Church is surrounded by homes of some members of U.S. Congress, diplomats and other Washington notables. John F. Kennedy occasionally attended Mass there when he was U.S. president.
Maria Madre de los Pobres is in a neighborhood known for gang violence in addition to poverty, where Holy Trinity parishioner Margie Legowski said she has found the Gospel, “to believe in people who happen to be poor, to trust in the Lord with all your heart, and to be a community of faith. They have shown me what it means to live one’s faith,” she said in a March 11 email interview with Catholic News Service. “They have shown me that God is much alive here and now. And they have taught me to love St. Oscar Romero.”
Her only knowledge about the Salvadoran saint, prior to visiting El Salvador, was based on the 1989 movie “Romero,” she said.
“Something about this man captured my soul, and I began to read and watch everything I could find about him. Who was this man who was a saint for my parish way before the Catholic Church made it so? Whose image was captured on parish and community walls, in home and office picture frames, in public statues, university books, Mass songs, striking posters, homemade banners, candlelight processions, special Masses, children’s services, Stations of the Cross? Why was he so special to my friends and to me?”
He began to represent hope, love and leadership, “an incarnation of ‘I am always with you,'” she said.
Parishioners in the Salvadoran parish have shared with her, and others from Holy Trinity, stories of listening to Romero’s homilies on Sunday mornings, attending his funeral only to be scattered by government gunfire and bombs in 1980.
“Romero is their saint, our saint,” she said. “Has been and will always be.”
In times of confusing political rhetoric, Romero “reminds me that there is no greater love than slowly walking with and learning from others, especially those living on the edge. He taught me that social and legal systems can be sinful and that, if we call ourselves Catholic or Christians or human rights advocates, we have a responsibility to change them.”
For U.S. Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso, St. Romero is an example who “has challenged and inspired.”
“I think the story of Oscar Romero is one that showed me how you can move from a deep spirituality and deep relationship with God into social action, that they’re not two separate options but one integral way of living out the Christian life based on the Gospels,” said Seitz in a March 12 telephone interview with CNS.
Seitz quoted St. Romero, along with other martyrs in his pastoral letter “Night Will Be No More,” released in October after a Mass shooting in El Paso in August, where Latinos were targeted. He said he wished that, like the martyrs, “I may speak without fear when it is called for and help to give voice to those who have not been heard.”
The letter looked at the history and the recent present of racism at the U.S.-Mexico border. Seitz has been a strong voice for Latinos as well as immigrants and border communities during tense moment at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In June, he walked and prayed with a group of migrants as he led a small group across the Lerdo International Bridge in El Paso as they sought asylum in the U.S. And along with other bishops, he has called for helping push factors that drive immigration instead of demonizing or punishing migrants.
Seitz said he was moved by the experience of celebrating Mass in the chapel where the Salvadoran saint was martyred in 1980, as he officiated the memorial Mass of a friend’s mother in San Salvador.
“It was a tremendous privilege to celebrate Mass there, but it also was a tremendous challenge. You can’t just celebrate Mass where Oscar Romero was martyred and walk away unmoved. You realized that his blood was mingled with the blood of Christ,” he said.
Romero exemplified accompaniment, central to the life of a priest, he said.
“That’s what any priest does,” he said. “That’s why we’re priests. A bishop is a priest. I’ve always understood that that is my purpose: to be there at those moments when there are no words, but your presence in the name of Christ is still the one thing that can help.”
And Romero was not only an example of accompaniment but an example of how to follow Christ, he said.
“Romero was a person so deeply immersed in faith that he didn’t fear earthly powers,” Seitz said. “He imitated Jesus in a very deep way.”
He recalled how Jesus stood up to King Herod and, in account in the Gospel according to Luke, when Jesus referred to him with contempt as “that fox.”
Though like Jesus, he experienced pain and deep anxiety, Romero imitated the Messiah and “never ran from it, he never was cowed.” Instead, like Jesus, he stood up to power.
“Romero was the same way. He knew he was saying the truth. He was calling for justice without regard to the consequences and he had such trust in God that not even death would end his life,” he said.
As Christian, it was clear for Romero what he had to do, even if it meant martyrdom but in the name of defending the vulnerable.
“Nothing was going to set him off his course, and I hope that I can be a bishop like that,” Seitz said. “God help me that I see that people who are being abused and harmed and even children who are helpless, and I’m unwilling to say anything.”
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