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‘Inspirational’ Archbishop Romero remembered on anniversary of his murder

People look at a painting of murdered Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero at the cathedral in San Salvador (CNS)

Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was fatally shot 35 years ago today, was remembered at a Mass celebrated on Sunday in the US by a priest who has travelled to El Salvador on numerous occasions to carry on the slain archbishop’s advocacy for the poor and the oppressed.

Fr William Brisotti, pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish in Diocese of Rockville Centre, in Long Island, New York, celebrated a Spanish-language liturgy on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, marking the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Romero.

The prelate was killed on March 24 1980, as he celebrated Mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital where he resided in San Salvador.

Latino worshippers, the majority of whom F r Brisotti identified as immigrants from El Salvador, filled the pews and vestibule of the tiny church for the anniversary Mass. A Salvadoran folk group strummed guitars and sang “peasant” songs passed down from previous generations.

“People here care for (Archbishop Romero) very much,” said Fr Brisotti.

Located in one of the poorest communities on Long Island, Miraculous Medal Parish is multicultural, with two-thirds of its parishioners coming from 15 Latin American countries, Fr Brisotti said. Of that group, immigrants from El Salvador and the Dominican Republic outnumber the others.

“There’s a spirit here,” Fr Brisotti said. “People feel at home here. Everyone is welcome.”

A dedicated social justice and anti-war advocate, the 72-year-old priest maintains a strong devotion to Archbishop Romero, who defended the rights of the poor during a bloody civil war that tore apart El Salvador.

Fr Brisotti frequently incorporates passages from the Archbishop Romero’s homilies into his own preaching, as he did during the anniversary Mass.

Quoting a sermon that Archbishop Romero had preached two weeks before his death, Fr Brisotti proclaimed: “The great need today is for Christians who are active and critical, who don’t accept situations without analyzing them inwardly and deeply. We no longer want masses of people like those who have been trifled with for so long.

“We want persons like fruitful fig trees, who say ‘yes’ to justice and no to ‘injustice’ and can make use of the precious gift of life, despite the circumstances.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero in an undated photo working in an improvised radio studio in San Salvador (CNS)
Archbishop Oscar Romero in an undated photo working in an improvised radio studio in San Salvador (CNS)

It was words such as these, Fr Brisotti told Catholic News Service in an interview after the Mass, that “inspired the people of El Salvador to believe in themselves.”

“It’s a tiny country that was under the influence of militarism for decades,” he added. “(Archbishop) Romero was a person who impacted people’s lives. He taught them to believe in themselves, to believe in what they can do to build a better society.”

Fr Brisotti, who did mission work in Chile and Peru for three summers in the 1960s while studying for the priesthood, said he started following Archbishop Romero’s growing legacy in the 1970s. A Salvadoran priest who served in Fr Brisotti’s parish on Long Island and had previously worked with Archbishop Romero in San Miguel, El Salvador, and shared stories about the archbishop’s activism.

“I was really getting imbued with (Archbishop) Romero and his work for justice in El Salvador, never thinking I would be going there,” Father Brisotti said.

The priest, who never met Archbishop Romero but was greatly inspired by his work, travelled to El Salvador more than a dozen times between 1982 and 2001. Upset by the archbishop’s assassination in 1980 and the rape and killings of four US churchwomen in that country later that year, Fr Brisotti was determined to go to El Salvador to see for himself “what was going on”.

In February, Pope Francis, the Church’s first Latin American pontiff, signed the decree recognising Archbishop Romero as a martyr, a person killed “in hatred of the faith.” The decree means there is no need to prove a miracle usually required for beatification, which will take place in San Salvador on May 23.

While he thinks it’s “wonderful” that Archbishop Romero’s sainthood cause is accelerating, Fr Brisotti views the canonisation process as a “technicality.”

“The concept of miracles is physical healings,” said Fr Brisotti. “What about the concept of bringing hope to people without hope, inspiring a nation to believe in itself? Isn’t that a miracle? Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb. (Archbishop) Romero called people back to life… The people already knew that Archbishop Romero is a martyr and is already a saint.”

Meanwhile Mgr Fernando Saenz Lacalle, Archbishop Emeritus of San Salvador, has recalled the final day of Archbishop Romero’s life. Speaking to RomeReports, Mgr Lacalle said he saw Archbishop Romero at “an extraordinarily friendly gathering of priests” hours before his friend was killed.

“The group was small because he asked us to postpone the day of the meeting, but we still discussed topics regarding the priesthood. There was a very pleasant environment of fraternity and spirituality. I think the Lord intended this be a preparation for (Archbishop Romero’s) death,” Mgr Lacalle said.

In the UK, Cardinal Vincent Nichols has called on Christians to imitate the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

At an ecumenical service held at St-Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday, the cardinal said: “If we truly want to imitate Oscar Romero and truly follow his example, then we too, every day, must make the cries of the poor in every part of the world central to our prayer. This is the most radical action we can take, the most profound response we can make to poverty in our midst. This call to prayer is the first call of our baptism, a true fulfilling of our vocation to be a holy people, a nation of priests.

“We are to offer to God, entrust to God, all that he has given to us, most especially the poor and the weak, those who are dearest to him. Without this prayer all else that we do will be flat, one-dimensional, without its true roots in love and in faith.”