Celebrating the Beatification of Archbishop Romero

POST BY JGraffius

Young man raises fist along with many people in a square in El Salvador
Jan Graffius recalls being in El Salvador for the Beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero

The celebrations for the Beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero lasted three days, officially, although the people of San Salvador are still celebrating.

On Friday 22nd May, I spent a long day preparing the bloodstained shirt which Romero was wearing when he was murdered (see below), and then placed it in the newly made reliquary. This was a lengthy and complicated piece of conservation, as the shirt is fragile and the bloodstains have made the fabric brittle. I made a cushion out of conservation textiles, and carefully attached the shirt to it, then placed both in the reliquary, which was to be carried shoulder-high by eight seminarians. As the reliquary weighs some 400lbs, they were chosen for their strength and stamina.

On Friday evening, there was an open air mass and all-night Vigil, with fireworks and giant projections of videos of Romero onto nearby buildings in the city centre. The weather was dreadful- torrential tropical rain and violent thunderstorms- but nothing dampened the spirits of the hundreds of thousands who turned out, despite the fact that we were all drenched to the bone within seconds.

Jan rides amidst the praying Sisters on the bus

On Saturday 23rd May, the day began well before dawn. I was staying with the Carmelite Sisters at the Hospital of Divine Providence, where Romero spent the last three years of his life, and where he was murdered. After a sustaining breakfast of maize pancakes, pickled cabbage, scrambled eggs, fried plantain, papaya, pineapple, cake and coffee, I got into a minibus designed to carry eight, but into which some twenty nuns were crammed. No seat belts, just lots of prayer. The roads around the Plaza del Salvador del Mundo where the ceremony was taking place had been closed, and we joined the vast, good-natured crowds on foot. I was privileged to have a special pass, allowing me into the enclosure for guests, right beside the altar. Behind me an estimated 300,000 people cheered and danced in the streets, shading themselves from the scorching sun with brightly coloured umbrellas. The ceremony and mass took nearly four hours, and was accompanied by stirring Salvadoran music. Just after the words of Beatification were pronounced, a rare solar halo ringed the sun with a circular rainbow. There were a couple of hundred Bishops and Archbishops, seven Cardinals, numerous Vatican officials and 1,400 priests on the altar, all wearing specially designed scarlet vestments embroidered with Archbishop Romero’s name. After the ceremony, the unofficial street party took over and continued for the rest of the day and into the night.

On Sunday, mass was celebrated in the Cathedral, first upstairs in the main church, and then downstairs in the massive crypt, where Romero’s tomb lies. Both were crammed with people, bringing flowers and handwritten prayers and intercessions, and the air rang with Salvadoran folk songs.

I have never known an experience like this. The intensity of emotion over the last week has been deeply moving. The love of the poor for Romero is as powerful now, thirty-five years after his death, as it was during his life. They cannot forget the sacrifice he made on their behalf, his tireless efforts to seek peace in his war-torn country, and the fearless way he championed their human rights, living and preaching the Gospel of the Beatitudes. As one Salvadorena said to me ‘He belonged to us, and now he belongs to the whole world.’ It has been a great and rare privilege to play a small part in these celebrations, and I am certain that the newly beatified Oscar Romero will continue to inspire and bring hope to the poor and oppressed of the world. Eviva Romero!

Jan Graffius