Monday, August 17, 2015

Romero birthday a chance to take stock


Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador: pilgrims overrun the town where Blessed Oscar Romero was born.  More pictures here.
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If there was such a thing as a follow-up on how well a beatification was taking after a holy person was formally raised to the altars by the Church, this past weekend’s commemoration of the 98th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Oscar Romero of El Salvador, beatified this past May, could be the model.  For Blessed Romero, the diagnosis is excellent, with numerous indicators all pointing to a widespread recognition and acceptance, albeit not with entirely universal acclaim (though this is no surprise, as even St. John Paul II has his detractors).

Three things stand out about the way Archbishop Romero was recalled for his 98th birthday.  First, his beatification is being quickly incorporated into the popular devotional practices of his native El Salvador.  Second, his memory is also being easily assimilated into the calendar of the universal church.  And third, this past weekend’s 98th birthday celebrations indicate that the upcoming centennial of his birth in 2017 is likely to shape up as a significant Catholic event.

Recapping commemorative events this week, although commemorations were widespread, the events organized in three particular cities stand out: (1) in Ciudad Barrios, where Blessed Romero was born on August 15, 1917; (2) in San Salvador, where he served as Archbishop from 1977-1980 and where he died a martyr on March 24, 1980; and (3) finally and, perhaps, unexpectedly, in London, England, where he has acquired a following in no small part due to the work of the Romero Trust.
San Salvador: faithful pack the San Salvador Cathedral for a Saturday noon Mass.  More pictures here.

In chronological order, things started off in London, where a commemorative/thanksgiving Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor.  The cardinal donned the special vestments used at the May 23th, 2015 beatification ceremony in San Salvador to celebrate Mass at St. George’s Cathedral/Southwark.  Following the Mass, the faithful venerated Romero relics kept at the Cathedral since 2013.  A reception, complete with a birthday cake, followed the service, and was attended, among others, by Bishop John Rawsthorne (Retired), Romero Trust Chairman Julian Filochowski, and Curator Jan Graffius of Stonybrook College, who preserved Romero’s relics, including the ones used in his beatification.

The largest celebrations, not surprisingly, were in San Salvador, where Archbishop Romero was feted with a morning serenade at his graveside in the Cathedral Crypt on Saturday, August 15.  This was followed by a packed noon Mass at the Cathedral, and by a concert and ecumenical service at a central San Salvador plaza.  The Salvadoran Church also announced the promulgation of a new directive, requiring Blessed Romero to be invoked during the Eucharistic Prayers during the Canon of the Mass.  The government human rights onbudsman issued a decree certifying Blessed Romero as the “Premier Human Right Champion in El Salvador” (he explained in a Tweet that “Archbishop Oscar Romero has been the most important defender of human rights in the history of El Salvador”).  Additionally, Romero’s relics continued to tour the country, while two San Salvador parishes unveiled Romero mosaics.  On Sunday, there was another Mass, in Romero’s Crypt, which included another cake-cutting.

In Ciudad Barrios, in eastern San Salvador, where Romero was born 98 years ago, there were droves of pilgrims, exhibits, and another commemorative Mass, led by the Papal Nuncio to El Salvador, Archbishop Leon Kalenga of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Surviving Romero brother Tiberio appeared at an event at the Romero Museum there, while younger brother Gaspar appeared in a San Salvador church.

Finally, on the Twittersphere, numerous messages were published observing the anniversary of Romero’s birthday, including countless retweets.  Among the most significant, were those by the President of El Salvador: “Archbishop Romero unites Salvadoran society; he always fought for peace, he is a light, he is a hope to work for tranquility in our country.”  The immediate past president tweeted: “Today we mark 98 years from the birth of Archbishop Romero.  I join the celebration the people make in honor of his memory.”  Countless Catholic tweets correlated Romero’s milestone to the Bicentenary of St. John Bosco, to the anniversary of the immolation of St. Maximilian Kolbe and, of course, to the Feast of the Assumption.
London, England: Thanksgiving Mass at St. George's Cathedral.  More pictures here.

The incorporation of Romero’s beatification into popular Salvadoran practices continues apace. The San Salvador Archdiocese directive to invoke Blessed Romero during the Canon of the Mass is being welcome by the faithful, and the nationwide tours of Blessed Romero’s relic is continually exposing the faithful to the spirituality of Blessed Romero, and every indication seems to be that they are reacting with profound fervor.  That devotion was seen when Romero’s relics were incorporated into the national celebration of the Transfiguration of the Lord earlier in the month, and with the reverence with which the relics are being received around the country.

The accommodation of Romero’s birthday in the global church calendar also has been striking.  Romero’s birthday had already been a prominent feature of Romero commemorations in his native El Salvador—especially in Ciudad Barrios, the town in which he was born.  It was here that Romero’s birth was first commemorated, quite apart from his March death.  However, to see Romero’s birth universally recalled is striking, as is the correlation of his birth with other Catholic commemorations, such as Don Bosco, the Assumption and Maximillian Kolbe.

Finally, the 98th birthday celebrations point up the importance of the upcoming centennial celebrations in 2017.  In El Salvador, a countdown to the centennial began in 2014, kicking off a three-year Triennium to the 100 anniversary of his birth: 2014-2015 commemorated “Romero, Man of God;” 2015-2016 commemorates “Romero, Man of the Church;” and 2016-2017 will commemorate “Romero, Man of the Poor.”  The centennial, once thought to present an opportunity to revive the then-floundering beatification cause will, post-beatification, present the next great opportunity to take stock of Romero, the man, the saint, and the legend of his sainthood.

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