TROY, N.Y. — How many people can say they lived and worked among a saint? Literally.
The Rev. John Spain, a Troy native and Maryknoll priest in El Salvador, may soon be one who can.
With Tuesday’s anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980, as he said Mass, and last week’s Vatican announcement that Romero will be beatified on May 23, Spain reflected on his time with the martyred human rights hero.
Beatification is the final step before sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
“He’s long been revered as a saint by the people of El Salvador and those who knew him,” said Spain, who has spent more than two decades serving in Catholic parishes in El Salvador since 1971, the year after his ordination. He is a 1961 graduate of La Salle Institute in Troy.
“Bishop Romero’s life was one of great service to the Gospel,” Spain said. “He had a deep faith, came from a poor family, and understood the suffering of the poor in his country. He was a man of the Church, a man of faith and prayer. Above all, he was a servant of the poor.”
Spain first met Romero, an auxiliary bishop at the time, at a meeting in 1971. He attended Romero’s installation Mass as archbishop of San Salvador on Feb. 22, 1977, and met him several times during meetings with Church officials.
“He was mild-mannered and somewhat shy,” Spain recalled. “He was maybe 5-foot-7 and had a slight build. I thought of him as a small man with a huge presence.”
Romero was so unassuming that when a British reporter for the BBC came to interview Romero — Spain had agreed to serve as the reporter’s Spanish translator — the reporter walked right past his interview subject without realizing it.
“He was sitting quietly by himself in the corner of a room, dressed as a priest, without his bishop’s cross,” Spain said. “He was not one to draw attention to himself. But if you heard him preach in the cathedral on Sunday, he was transformed. People would stand and applaud and he was a larger-than-life presence in those moments.”
Spain shared additional reminiscences of Romero in an article he wrote for the Maryknoll magazine’s March edition.
Romero was a populist cleric and an icon in the progressive liberation theology movement in Catholicism. After he witnessed numerous violations of human rights against Salvadorans, he began to stand up for the victims of oppression, to advocate for the country’s landless poor, and to denounce a corrupt military regime in public speeches and sermons from the pulpit.
He criticized US military support for the government of El Salvador and pleaded with soldiers to defy orders to fire on innocent civilians. His impassioned defense of the poor and oppressed made him wildly popular among ordinary citizens and champions of social justice, but a controversial figure within the Catholic Church and a target for violent right-wing operatives who sought to silence his crusade.
On March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass in a small church, the Chapel of Divine Providence Hospital, an assassin shot and killed Romero. He had agreed to say an anniversary Mass for the widow of a publisher of an independent newspaper that had been firebombed for publishing investigative stories critical of the government.
“He had spoken about the importance of journalists and a free press and the need to alleviate the suffering of the poor,” Spain said. Romero was killed by a single shot from a rifle fired through the open chapel doors by a sniper in the back seat of a Volkswagen parked out front.
“I’ve listened to the audiotape of the Mass and you can hear Archbishop Romero say, ‘Let us pray for…’ and then you hear the crack of the sniper’s shot, followed by screams,” Spain said.
At the time of the murder, Spain was got word of the shooting and immediately drove to the chapel. Romero had been taken to a nearby hospital, where Spain learned that Romero had died. Spain joined a large crowd of the faithful who mourned the martyr. “We all talked about how he was faithful to the end and he remained true to his beliefs,” Spain said.
The day he was murdered, Romero wrote several letters, including a note to Spain thanking him for his efforts in raising money to help poor parishioners in a rural parish, Ciudad Barrios, where Romero was born.
“I later learned he typed the letter just before he said Mass, along with a stack of correspondence he finished that day,” Spain said. “He was kind and thoughtful. It was a warm message saying he hoped my work was going well.”
Romero was aware he faced a serious threat of assassination and he confronted it publicly. He said he was willing to be a martyr if his death advanced the cause of the poor and helped combat the nation’s deep-seated social inequities.
“As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection,” he said. “If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”
Romero’s killer was never caught. The beloved archbishop was the best-known victim of an estimated 75,000 people believed to have been killed in El Salvador’s bloody civil war, which continued between 1980 and 1992. No one was ever prosecuted for his assassination, but right-wing death squads have long been suspected.
Spain, 71, is the third of eight siblings who grew up in Troy. While a college student at Holy Cross, Spain left behind his pre-med courses and plans of becoming a medical doctor to join the Maryknoll order. Growing up, he read the Maryknoll magazine his parents subscribed to and was drawn in by articles about missionary work in China, Peru, and other exotic locales. He also met a Maryknoll nun, Sister Joyce Quinn, a friend of his parents, who told wonderful stories about her missionary assignments.
Tens of thousands of Salvadorans are expected at Romero’s beatification Mass on May 23. The anniversary of his martyrdom on Tuesday will also draw large crowds to commemorative events.
Spain, the Maryknoll father from Troy, will participate in both.
“The people who remember Bishop Romero are overjoyed,” Spain said.
He said a fellow priest summed it up best: “These are times of intense emotions. For myself and for the people of El Salvador.”