Twenty-seven years ago, a small group of middle-class Christians sat around a kitchen table in the west end of Toronto. They had talked for hours in search of a name for their new project of welcoming refugees as good neighbours. Finally, in desperation, someone said, “Let’s name it after a person.” Several names were mentioned to no avail. Then someone, no one can remember exactly who, said: “Oscar Romero.” We all fell silent and sure. An immense sense of peace and purpose descended upon us then and remains with us now.
On Sunday, Oct. 14, Oscar Romero will be canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. For the people of El Salvador and for many around the world, he had long ago been recognized as a martyr, and a holy one. Romero House in Toronto is but one small example of how he inspired bold and courageous efforts on behalf of justice. The first refugees we welcomed were mostly Muslims from the Horn of Africa – a reflection of his recognition of the priority that should be given to those who suffer.
Many have found hope in the fact that he had been profoundly changed by the reality of suffering in El Salvador. He had been a modest, quiet, temperamentally conservative church leader. Indeed, he had been chosen as archbishop because no one thought he would rock the leaky boat of the church’s relationship with the military and the ruling elites.
Gradually, he began to see the brutal reality of his country. His insight became even more incisive after the killing of a good friend, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who had been working with the poor. Archbishop Romero began to listen to the people who came to him with stories of massacres and rape. He recognized the authority of those who suffer. “What do you want me to do?” he would ask them.
He began to speak about oppression and injustice, naming those who had been killed or tortured. His sermons were broadcast on the radio in every town and village of El Salvador and throughout Central America. Canadian missionaries returning from that part of the world brought tapes of his homilies. Even those who could not understand Spanish heard the authority with which he spoke. A shy and quiet man, bookish and careful, he became the voice of the voiceless. He became regarded as a saint in the crucible of his time and place.
Archbishop Romero lived in a situation in which the middle ground had disappeared. Those who remained silent in the face of great injustice were choosing the side of the oppressors. He made his choices and they were threatening to the powers that be: the elites and many authorities in the church.
Eventually, inevitably, he was killed. On March 24, 1980, his killer came for him as he said mass in the small chapel of a hospital, where he lived in a small room. His life and his death gave weight to his words.
How remarkable that the life and death of an archbishop of a very small country has inspired so many efforts at true justice throughout the world. On Oct. 14, thousands of people from all over the world, from many different religious traditions, will bear witness to his enduring inspiration. Romero House will be sending eight people as pilgrims to Rome to participate in this event. They are refugees from Colombia, Venezuela and Congo.
The Roman Catholic Church has often suffered from poor leadership and from the sins of the clergy and lay people. Yet, mysteriously, it continues to summon people of courage and grace who bear witness to the many and varied ways of holiness.
Every day, we answer the phone at our little office on Bloor Street. “Good morning, this is Romero House. How may we help you?” He lives among us.
Mary Jo Leddy is one of the founders of Romero House in Toronto.