“As a pastor I am obliged by divine mandate, to give my life for those whom I love, and they are the Salvadorans, even for those who would assassinate me,” St. Oscar Romero told a journalist.
“If they kill me I will rise again in the Salvadoran people,” he said.
The words of then-Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero proved prophetic. He shared these thoughts with a journalist in March 1980, shortly before he was shot and killed while celebrating Mass in San Salvador, where he was archbishop.
St. Oscar Romero was one of seven new saints canonized by Pope Francis in Rome on Oct. 14.
The Diocese of Cleveland has had a relationship with El Salvador for more than 50 years since the establishment of a diocesan mission there. Because of that ongoing relationship, the diocesan Parish Life Office, Mission Office and the Community of Oscar Arnulfo Romero, also called COAR Peace Mission and named in his honor, arranged for a special Mass at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 14 in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Bishop Nelson Perez was the celebrant. There were more than a dozen concelebrants, including diocesan priests who have served at the El Salvador mission and those who are pastors of Hispanic/Latino parishes.
Father Paul Schindler, a longtime member of the diocesan mission staff and pastor in El Salvador, came to Cleveland for the event.
As part of the opening procession, young people carried flowers and a large portrait of the new saint to a place of honor near the altar. Bishop Perez and the concelebrants wore red vestments in honor of St. Oscar Romero’s martyrdom.
“The people of El Salvador gave a great gift — St. Oscar Romero, the first saint from El Salvador,” the bishop said as Mass began. He said the liturgy would be offered for him on this special day and our petitions and prayers would be presented to him. “This is a great moment in the life of the Church,” Bishop Perez added.
Fredy Robles, chief program officer for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Cleveland, did the second reading. The bishop noted the significance of this because Robles’ mother knew St. Oscar Romero in his youth – before he entered the seminary.
In his homily, Bishop Perez reminded the congregation that nothing is impossible for God. In fact, he said for a time it seemed unlikely this canonization day would ever happen.
“For a while, Archbishop Romero was ostracized, even by his brother bishops,” he said, because of what he said. It was not unusual for Archbishop Romero to speak for an hour on Sunday. And he would broadcast his remarks on the radio so Salvadorans everywhere could listen. This annoyed some people and scared others, the bishop said. Over time, he said people’s views of him changed and even St. John Paul II went to Archbishop Romero’s tomb to pray.
“Remember – for God, all things are possible and God will do what God will do – despite us,” Bishop Perez said.
Because of the strong diocesan connection to the new saint and his country, a contingent from our diocese including Father Rob Reidy, pastor of Sagrada Familia Parish on Cleveland’s West Side; Father John Ostrowski, who is in his second stint with the diocesan mission in San Salvador; Sister Rose Elizabeth, a former mission team member; Mary Stevenson, COAR executive director; and about 30 pilgrims from Sagrada Familia travelled to Rome for the historic occasion.
El Salvador Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez, who visited the diocese last spring and was honored by COAR, also attended the canonization in Rome.
Bishop Perez said he was unable to watch the canonization, but did see some of the televised replay. Salvadoran flags waving in the crowd were unmistakable. “Watching it moved me to tears,” he added.
“St. Oscar Romero was more powerful in death than in life,” the bishop said. Although he never met him, he said the new saint was very humble. “I think he would be uncomfortable with all of this. He saw the suffering of his people and was their voice. What a blessing for the Church of Cleveland that we have had deep ties with El Salvador for more than 50 years.”
The bishop introduced Father Schindler, who also is serving his second stint in El Salvador. He asked to return and intends to live there the rest of his life. “He knew Archbishop Romero. He’s like a second class relic – something that has touched the body of a saint,” the bishop said. He also recalled the four churchwomen who were murdered just months after the archbishop, including Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan, from Cleveland who worked at the diocesan mission. “Maybe someday we’ll be doing this for them.”
Bishop Perez said Father Schindler was among the estimated 250,000 people who attended Archbishop Romero’s funeral, along with then-Cleveland Bishop James Hickey and others. He reportedly shoved Bishop Hickey and another diocesan priest into a confessional so they wouldn’t be hurt when violence erupted.
Father Schindler recalled that 19 priests were murdered in El Salvador during its bloody civil war.
“(Father) Denny St. Marie (the first diocesan missionary) said ‘You’re not here to save but to be saved.’” Father Schindler recalled. He said the Salvadoran people were an inspiration and they listened intently as Archbishop Romero spoke on the radio. Next to the church was a national guard post staffed by soldiers who were implicated in numerous murders, including the four churchwomen. “We would turn the speakers toward the post so they would hear what the archbishop was saying. He was a gentle soul. He worked with everyone. He was there to teach the rich and the poor and to serve,” Father Schindler said.
He recalled that it was easy to get to know Archbishop Romero, noting that if he needed something he could stop by his office and his secretary would tell him to go in. “He was always ready to serve and to teach people to serve.”
Father Schindler said he thought he might want to return to Cleveland when St. Oscar Romero first was named bishop of San Salvador. “But I decided to stay and I’m glad I did.”
After Mass, Father Steve Vellenga, head of the diocesan Mission Office, made brief remarks. Priests and religious sisters who served in El Salvador were asked to stand, as well as other missionaries, anyone from El Salvador and anyone who has visited the country. All told, about one-third of those in the cathedral stood.
“What a relationship this has been,” Father Vellenga said, noting that El Salvador is about one-third the size of Ohio. He said Cleveland’s relationship with El Salvador is very strong and very important to that country.
“We are thrilled with the turnout,” he said, thanking all who assisted with the liturgy.
After Mass, all were invited to a reception featuring pupusas, a popular Salvadoran food, and cake. There also was a display of photos and memorabilia from the diocesan mission and St. Oscar Romero.