At the invitation of Christian Aid, David and I were invited to Choral Evensong at Westminster Abbey. The service was commemorating the centenary of the birth of Oscar Romero.
Oscar Romero was born in a small town in El Salvador and went to a seminary at the age of thirteen and was ordained in Rome in 1942. He became a much-loved pastor living a simple lifestyle alongside the poor. In 1970 he was made a bishop and in 1977, to the shock of many, he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador.
El Salvador in Central America was a small country but deeply divided between a tiny land-owning community and the mass of the landless poor. There was much social deprivation and malnourishment on the coffee estates and sugar plantations and wholesale repression. There were killings, torture and imprisonments by the military regime. The Church put itself alongside the poor in their struggle for basic human rights.
Archbishop Oscar Romero preached a message of social justice, human rights and peace. Week by week he confronted the political violence, the corrupt system of justice and the suffering of El Salvador’s poor. His sermons were legendary and he became the ‘voice of the voiceless’. He pleaded continually for an end to violence. The Church became a target. Stickers on cars appeared: `Be a Patriot – Kill a Priest’. Six priests were killed before Romero. Romero was shot dead as he celebrated Mass on 24th March 1980. Even at his funeral, the Requiem Mass was never finished as smoke bombs were thrown into the mass crowds and some forty people were killed.
On entering the Abbey we showed our invitation cards and then were given a service booklet and a small painted wooden cross, we were then taken to our seats. I couldn’t believe it; they were just at the start of the altar steps with a wonderful view of the whole proceedings.
The Ambassador of El Salvador, the Deputy Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London, the Lord Mayor of Westminster followed the procession of priests in their colourful copes. Most of the service was sung by the choir but there were two hymns for the congregation.
We listened to the homily given by Archbishop Romero on the Sunday he was shot (we had a transcript) and it finished “I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God, stop the repression”.
The two lessons were read by Loretta Minghella of Christian Aid and Julie Etchingham, CAFOD Ambassador. The sermon was given by Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster conducted the prayers. As we raised our Salvadoran crosses there was an Act of Rededication.
The main organisations who supported this service were the Archbishop Romero Trust, Churches Together in England, CAFOD and Christian Aid. It was a truly memorable afternoon.