On the last day of Óscar Romero’s life, his driver took him to
celebrate a confirmation Mass.As Romero
went into the ceremony, the driver “watched
that transformation in his bearing as he approached his church and donned his
episcopal attire.”BROCKMAN, pp. 242-243.Archbishop Romero’s liturgical style married
contrasting elements of traditional Catholic devotion with rudiments of popular
piety. The resulting fusion reflected the liturgical innovations of the Second
Vatican Council and the guidelines adopted by the Latin American Bishops’
Conference, which called for inculturation, so that the distinct spirituality
of the Latin American peoples would be incorporated into the liturgical life of
the Church in the Continent.
As a child growing up in El Salvador, I had the singular grace of witnessing Archbishop Romero’s liturgies first hand and what I would say to those who were not there is that they put me in the mind of the deep, resonant spirituality of the Black Church in America, in the way the elements of the liturgy tapped into a pulsating nerve of raw fervor and holiness. At the same time, there was no mistaking the Roman Catholic character of the celebrations, based on the utterly reverent attitude exhibited toward the altar, which was most obvious in the action of Romero as the “the high priest of his flock,” in the words of «SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM,» the Vatican II constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.Sometimes, the dichotomy of popular piety and traditional reverence was striking.During the Eucharistic Prayers, for example, one could hear “Holy, Holy, Holy,” sung in the most clamorous style, with strumming guitars and crashing tambourines.(Scroll to bottom of post for samples of the music that characterized a typical Romero liturgy.)Then a great hush would suddenly sweep through the Cathedral as the entire flock would fall to its knees to hear Romero proclaim, “You are indeed Holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness…”That sense of drama—of theater, almost—provided a grandeur that I have seldom seen approximated in other liturgical celebrations.
The first thing to note about liturgy in Latin America is the recognition by the hierarchy of the peculiarity of folk religiosity.The Latin American Bishops gathered in Medellín, Colombia, together with Pope Paul VI in 1968 and with Blessed John Paul II in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, recognized that folk piety had a role to play in the evangelizing mission of the Church in the continent.Devotions to the Blessed Virgin (e.g., Our Lady of Guadalupe), to the saints, and to the suffering Jesus, reveal deep-seated wisdom.Recognizing it is consistent with another value enshrined in the Second Vatican Council—inculturation, the idea that Catholic dogma should find expression in the distinct cultural language of peoples.“Christ lives!,” Romero proclaimed to his flock.And he is incarnated in every imaginable human reality: “Christ lives in El Salvador. Christ lives in Guatemala. Christ lives in Africa. The historical Christ, the Christ who became man lives in every age of history and in all the people of the earth.”Such a revelation must be manifest in the Liturgy, because, “The liturgy is not simply a remembrance of some past event—weare not here remembering what Jesus did twenty centuries ago. The liturgy is all about presence and present realities. The reality is that today, March 19th, 1978 … Jesus is entering here, entering the reality of El Salvador.”
Romero accepted the triumph of the Liturgical Movement at the Second Vatican Council.Attending a beatification ceremony presided by John Paul II in 1979, Romero was struck by the simplified papal liturgy: “There is no doubt,” he wrote in his diary, “that the new liturgy has noticeably changed from the triumphalism of other days, and we now have a true atmosphere for prayer, for reflection.”In public, Romero urged others to follow the lead of the Popes in simplifying the public liturgy.“We can no longer judge things the way we used to,” he urged on the day before his assassination.“My dear friends,” he said, appealing to those of his generation, who grew up “in other eras and in other systems, we need to ask God for the grace that will enable us to embrace these changes in a way that will allow us to understand the present reality without betraying our faith.”Liturgical renewal need not betray the faith: “Human traditions involve worshiping in a certain way, clothing oneself with specific clothing and praying in a particular manner. To pray in Latin or Spanish, to pray facing the people or with one’s back to the people—these are traditions. Let us look for that which is more pleasing to God, that which is a true religion in the midst of people.”
In looking for what is pleasing to God, Romero was very respectful of tradition.His first significant ministry as a young priest had been as a radio announcer providing commentary to a broadcast of a Pontifical Latin Mass.Accordingly, Romero was well-versed in the «usus antiquior.»He sometimes exhibited a nostalgia for the older Rites.He would recall “the golden era of the liturgy” and the grandeur of the Lenten processions he witnessed as a seminarian in Rome.“The Pope and the clergy led this procession of catechumens, penitents and faithful,” he narrated to a rapt live and radio audience: “Marked with ashes and clothed in vestments that symbolized penance, all walked through the different sections of the city.”Sometimes, Romero would cite the words of the old liturgy, such as during the folkloric celebrations of the Salvadoran “Day of the Cross” in May: “What a beautiful invitation to see in Christ’s cross the Liturgical greeting: Ave Crux, spes unica!” (“Hail O Cross, the only hope!,” citing the Hymn for Vespers on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross); or when he attempted to teach the faithful a prayer for the Pope’s well being: “This is a beautiful liturgical prayer that throughout the centuries has been used to express the communion of the People of God with the one who has been put in place as the visible head of this same people.”
Romero was especially keen on assuring reverent worship during the liturgy.In his first pastoral letter as a bishop, he had referred to the liturgy as “the Church’s priestly function, its sanctifying role” and said he wished to foster “a more fervent life in God’s grace and toward a profound appreciation of our sacramental and liturgical life.”He urged the same reverence as Archbishop, asking the faithful to recognize the presence of Christ at the altar during Mass: “Let us be aware of his presence on the altar and let us worship him in the consecrated host so that with sincerity we can repeat the words of Thomas. Indeed with no doubts in our heart but as true believers let us say: ‘My Lord and my God’!”
An additional source of reverence in Romero’s services was the participation
of the faithful.The popular piety that
the Latin American bishops encouraged itself contains a very reverent flavor,
adopting traditional devotional practices.Among the faithful who filled the pews of Romero’s Cathedral, one would
find peasant women, some of them wearing colorful indigenous garments, but also
wearing mantillas, or lacy head
coverings.At the Communion line, most
of the faithful would receive Communion on the tongue.
Still, some would accuse Romero of liturgical excesses.His Masses, they said, played like political rallies, complete with raucous ovations and applause lines.But Romero knew where to draw the line and he guarded the line jealously.Miguel Cavada recalled an episode during which Romero presided at a funeral for an assassinated priest and activist chants threatened to drown out a hymn to the Virgin.“Then a visibly angry Romero grabs the microphone and says: at least wait until I've been able to conclude this Holy Mass, then out in the street, you can yell out whatever chants you want, but not in here.”In another similar ceremony, Romero offered the vibrant liturgy as an alternative to taking up arms, and invited the young to join the struggle to establish the Kingdom of God rather than any earthly revolution.“In this struggle there is no need for swords or rifles. The only things necessary in this struggle are Church songbooks and guitars,” which can “plant seeds in the hearts of people and reform the world,” he argued.“We experience here this earthly liturgy,” he said, “all of this is a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy.”
As was true of his pastoral style generally, and his entire ministry as a whole, Romero’s liturgical style married a commitment to the sweeping changes of the Second Vatican Council to a broad perspective of commitment to the tradition that presaged the renewal of the Council, allowing the changes to be harmonized with the tradition.“The Mass is light that gives light and illuminates all the different activities of women and men,” he said.The faithful “should submit themselves with reverence and humility to the divine gesture of Christ who wants to multiply the presence of his sacrifice in our midst.”
YouTube Extras—The Music of Romero’s
“Una espiga” (A Wheat Spike)—this
is a Eucharistic song used in Romero’s masses.
“Tú Reinarás” (You Will Reign)—this
a hymn to Christ the King, sung by Honduran choir.