St. Oscar Romero’s Holy Sacrifice
The Register interviews Bishop John Barres of Rockville Centre, author of a new pastoral letter on St. Oscar Romero, in advance of the martyr’s canonization.
More than 38 years after an assassin’s bullet spilled his blood on the altar of the Divina Providencia hospital chapel in San Salvador, St. Oscar Romero is being raised to the altars in Rome as a saint for the veneration of the universal Church.
In advance of the Oct. 14 canonization, Bishop John Barres of Rockville Centre, New York, released a pastoral letter on St. Romero, calling upon Catholics to reflect upon and imitate him as a model of holy Catholic witness and evangelization.
In this interview with the Register, Bishop Barres discusses why Catholics should discover in the real St. Oscar Romero an authentic Catholic martyr who “made the Holy Sacrifice of his life while celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
Archbishop Romero's canonization is coinciding with the current youth synod underway now in Rome. What practical steps do you believe need to be done for the Church to present the holy life and witness of Archbishop Romero to a new Catholic generation?
I think in general, when young people with the guidance of the Holy Spirit are providentially led to a saint or attracted to a saint, and they go deeper into the life, the biography, the writings, the history of the particular saint, it’s amazing how the Holy Spirit uses that and attracts a young person to real depth of holiness. I know it worked that way in my own life when I was a junior in high school. I studied the life of St. John Neumann. The first male American canonized saint, and that was, it was that term paper and that intense study that first raised the question of a vocation to the priesthood.
So I think it’s a parallel point with Romero. There are so many qualities Romero has that if young people are able to lift the hood and go deeply, they’re going to have some real life guidance and they’re going to really have that desire for authenticity which all young people seek — authentic holiness in a very powerful way.
What are some of Romero’s qualities that stand out to you?
When you see all the pictures including the cover of our pastoral letter, there was an infectious joy, a deep joy that radiates his courage, his fidelity to truth and human rights, his complete dedication to the poor. I think one of the key things is that this man could not have taken these principled stands, and put his life on the line, without a rich interior life that he was very consistent with.
A lot of people may think of holiness as something that's unattainable for them, or for the superhuman. As Catholics look at Romero, how are we to understand his life as it relates to us going about our daily lives?
You know, it’s a bit of St. Therese’s understanding of holiness in the present moment: holiness in the little things, realizing all of our weaknesses. As you go through some of Archbishop Romero’s retreat notes, he acknowledges his sinfulness, his fears, his struggles with mediocrity — the same struggles all of us have. And yet there is this fundamental love for the will of God. He’s going deeper and deeper interiorly. He’s going deeper in his human rights witness at his particular moment in history. And, so I think there’s an extraordinary ordinariness to him. In that way, you know, people can identify.
Are there some stories about Archbishop Romero that jump out at you?
I can tell you a story from writing the pastoral letter. We have two Salvadoran seminarians and a number of young Salvadorian priests. And so I asked them, “What do I need to write? What is key to Romero’s life?”
They said independently [Romero’s] episcopal motto, “sentire cum ecclesia” and then its Spanish equivalent “sentir con la Iglesia,” and that has a double meaning. One, and this was very attractive, I think to our young Salvadorian seminarians and young priests: It is “to feel with the Church,” “to feel with the people of God,” to be in tune with them. Oscar Romero, he walked with them. He was in the center of them. He lived the paschal mystery with them. So sentir is to feel with the people of God, which is the Church.
But also to think authentically and faithfully with the Church. To have that beautiful fidelity to the splendor of Catholic truth.
In your pastoral letter you quote Archbishop Romero saying “the most profound social revolution is the serious, supernatural, interior reform of a Christian.” So why does Archbishop Romero see these two things as linked? What does this mean for the Catholic who is conscious of social injustice towards the unborn, the migrants and the poor?
What is a little bit overlooked is this man was an incredible pastor, and as we were mentioning before, he had a commitment to ongoing formation and frequent use of the sacrament of penance in his own life. And he understood the wisdom that when a priest or archbishop is a consistently humble penitent, he is a much more compassionate and effective confessor. So he was completely dedicated and understood the conversions, both in his own life and in his pastoral life ministering to people, through the sacrament of penance. So anytime we go into a confessional and we kneel down, and with great sincerity, courage and humility we confess our sins, we rise, and our eyes are open. There are good Samaritan conversions that help us to more effectively address the social change issues of our time.
The sacrament of penance has a connection to social change, and it has a connection to Church reform. And the best investment we can each make in Church reform is our own interior reform. That’s the insight of Romero.
Archbishop Romero gave his life just as he was starting the offertory of the Mass, right between the liturgy of the Word, and the liturgy of the Eucharist. What connection do you think Catholics can draw here between the Eucharist, Romero’s martyrdom and what it means for their own lives?
I think there are great possibilities. Pope Benedict in The Word of the Lord talks about that the lives of saints are streaming light off of different biblical texts. So for instance, Teresa of Calcutta, Galatians 2:20: “It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me.” I would propose a parallel point: that the lives of the saints, and the life of St. Oscar Romero, who died while celebrating the Mass, that there are lights that stream from the Eucharistic prayer that articulate their life as well. So I think it’s both. And the fact that he lived the rhythm of the Mass in his daily life so faithfully, it prepared him to make the holy sacrifice of his Mass of his life while celebrating the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
Oscar Romero while celebrating that Mass, was exemplifying that beautiful phrase [by J.R.R. Tolkien], “the true way of all” as he was connecting with “the true way of all of his loves upon earth.” First of all, his love for Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and his intimacy with them expressed in the mission and mercy of the Catholic Church, and his solidarity with the poor, and his openness to serving everyone, every single person who was part of his life.
So there is a richness of our Catholic Mass liturgical theology that we need to leverage though the life of St. Oscar Romero.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.