Archbishop Romero and the Spirit of Palm Sunday

Categories: Guest Views


St. John Paul II prays before the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the San Salvador cathedral during his 1983 visit to the city. Palm Sunday 1980 is remembered as the day of the assassinated Archbishop Romero’s funeral, celebrated on the steps of Holy Savior Cathedral in El Salvador’s capital city. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

By David Gibson
Catholic News Service

Palm Sunday 1980 still is remembered as the day of the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero’s funeral, celebrated on the steps of Holy Savior Cathedral in El Salvador’s capital city of San Salvador.

Six days earlier, Archbishop Romero had been shot and killed while celebrating Mass at the altar of a hospital chapel. The many threats against him meant he was acutely aware that the moment of death was near.

Now, with an immense crowd gathered at the funeral of a leader known for bearing his people’s burdens and sacrificing himself for them, violence erupted again. Forty people died in the plaza that day.

Archbishop John Quinn, at that time president of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, traveled to a troubled El Salvador for Archbishop Romero’s funeral. In 1990, this former archbishop of San Francisco described the funeral scene.

During the homily “a small bomb exploded, and after a shot toward the back of the crowd the shooting began in earnest,” Archbishop Quinn recalled. He said, “The frightened people broke ranks and poured frantically and uncontrollably through the open main doors into the cathedral.”

With a second act of violence within one week, forces opposed to Archbishop Romero’s ministry and legacy hoped to communicate a plain message, namely that the church must “stop speaking about justice and human rights,” said Archbishop Quinn.

On Palm Sunday 2015, the church again reflects on the life of San Salvador’s slain archbishop. On Feb. 3, a few weeks before Palm Sunday, Pope Francis declared Archbishop Romero a martyr, killed “in hatred of the faith.”

With the pope’s declaration, the notion that Archbishop Romero was merely a political figure assassinated for social and political reasons was rejected, according to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, chief postulator of the archbishop’s cause and president of the Pontifical Council for the Family.

“It is an extraordinary gift for all of the church … to see rise to the altar a pastor who gave his life for his people,” Archbishop Paglia commented during a Vatican press conference one day after the pope’s declaration.

Archbishop Paglia insisted that Archbishop Romero’s killing, “as the detailed documentary examination clearly showed, was not only politically motivated but due also to hatred for a faith that, combined with charity, would not stay silent when faced with the injustices that implacably and cruelly afflicted the poor and their defenders.”

In El Salvador at that time, “the climate of persecution was palpable,” Archbishop Paglia remarked. Yet, he added, Archbishop Romero “clearly became the defender of the poor in the face of cruel repression.”

For me, Archbishop Romero reflects the spirit of Palm Sunday and the Holy Week days that follow. The great themes of Holy Week reverberate in his life and death.
He experienced a Christ-like passion and death. Moreover, his violent death, like Christ’s death on a cross, would not become the final word on his life, despite the wishes of those who plotted against him.

“The world has changed greatly since 1980, but that pastor from a small Central American country speaks powerfully,” said Archbishop Paglia.

A sense pervades every Palm Sunday celebration that events of great consequence are getting under way. Indeed, Holy Week’s journey leads directly to Christianity’s heart, where suffering inexorably is linked to new life.

That in no way suggests, however, that genuine suffering is easy to bear or can be rendered painless.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mt 26:39). And Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, a Rome-based historian and biographer of Archbishop Romero, notes that the archbishop, realizing he would be killed, “experienced a long internal travail.”

Pope Francis might well say that Archbishop Romero and others like him live by the “logic of the Gospel.” For Pope Francis, this logic intertwines with a logic of the cross.
Some might consider the logic of the Gospel highly illogical, but Pope Francis does not. What make this logic compelling, he suggests, are love and “the gift of self that brings life.”

During his first Holy Week as pope in 2013, briefly highlighting this curious logic, he said:
“Living Holy Week means entering ever more deeply into the logic of God, into the logic of the cross, which is not primarily that of suffering and death, but rather that of love and of the gift of self that brings life. It means entering into the logic of the Gospel.”

One year later during Holy Week, Pope Francis spoke again of the link that binds suffering, death and new life together. The resurrection of Jesus, the pope said, isn’t “the happy ending of a beautiful fairytale, it isn’t the happy ending of a film,” but “it is God the Father’s intervention there where human hope is shattered,” he observed. Then he added:
“The moment of suffering, when many people feel the need to get down from the cross, it is the moment closest to the resurrection. Night becomes darkest just before morning dawns.”

Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.