WHEN I received my invitation to the celebration of the centenary of the birth of Óscar Romero, I had to double-check the venue. The service tomorrow does not take place in the Roman Catholic cathedral in Westminster, as might perhaps be expected, but in Westminster Abbey, where the preacher will be the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams.
It is, of course, singularly apt; for, although the martyred archbishop from El Salvador was eventually beatified by the Vatican in 2015 — and is due to be canonised soon, provided Rome’s doctors are persuaded that he has performed a miracle — Romero has long been a distinctly Anglican saint.
The Central American prelate was murdered in 1980 by a factotum of the right-wing government of El Salvador after he spoke out against poverty, social injustice, and political assassinations. By doing that, he signed his own death warrant. He was martyred by a death-squad gunman while saying mass.
But, despite Romero’s transparent holiness, and his repeated insistence that he was acting in accordance with the gospel rather than any political creed, the Vatican, under the last two conservative popes, for decades refused to honour him for fear that it might look like an endorsement of Liberation Theology.
It fell to the Anglicans to make universal the sainthood which had long ago been conferred upon him by the acclamation of the people of Latin America. The late Robert Runcie, when he was Bishop of St Albans, was one of the first to speak in his support in the House of Lords, at a time when the British Government was selling crowd-suppressing equipment to the repressive Salvadoran regime.
On the very day that Romero was murdered at the altar, Dr Runcie was installed as Archbishop of Canterbury — and insisted that the ceremony was modified so that he might go to the spot where Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in a political murder 800 years before, and there offer a special prayer for the unburied Archbishop from San Salvador.
Then, in 1998, Westminster Abbey decided to place ten statues of modern martyrs over its great west door; one of them was of Romero. All the Lambeth Primates attended its unveiling. The Anglican Communion effectively canonised Romero, regardless of the unseemly political paralysis inside the Vatican.
Tomorrow, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, will lead the prayers in the Abbey. There will be a new anthem by the Roman Catholic composer James MacMillan, which sets some of Romero’s final words. Yet we still await the official Roman canonisation of one of the great Catholic figures of the 20th century.
No doubt, Lord Williams will be too discreet to say publicly what he once said privately. Romero’s secretary, the late Mgr Ricardo Urioste, had visited Lambeth Palace to thank the Anglican Communion for the wonderful recognition of Romero as a martyr of the Church when there was no sign of Rome’s doing so. The Archbishop answered with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, saying: “Just occasionally, you know, we Anglicans get it right before the Catholics!” We can all say Amen to that.