By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
BELTON — Only a great teacher can be remembered by children not born until decades after his death.
But brothers Lennyn and Daniel De Leon know all there is to know about Archbishop Oscar Romero.
“He died for us during Mass,” said Lennyn, 11.
“He spoke for other people who couldn’t say anything out loud, for people who had no voice,” said Daniel, 13.
San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. Nearly every March after, Kansas City Catholics, especially those from parishes with sister communities in El Salvador, have gathered to remember.
This year’s Mass, celebrated with the Salvadoran community of southern Jackson and northern Cass counties at St. Sabina Parish, was more festive. On May 23, Archbishop Oscar Romero will become Blessed Oscar Romero, one step away from canonization as a saint — an event for which people in and from El Salvador have prayed for 35 years.
“I am very happy about it for many reasons,” said Lourdes Fisher, a native of El Salvador who came to the March 14 Mass at St. Sabina.
“He fought for the poor. He did everything for the poor,” she said. “He was a martyr. He was killed for his love of all the people.”
The principal celebrant was Father Abel Castaneda, pastor of San Miguel Parish in El Salvador, where he was baptized as an infant in 1964 by his then-pastor, Father Oscar Romero.
Joining him at the altar was St. Sabina’s pastor, Father Jeff Stephan, pastor emeritus Father Chuck Tobin, and Jesuit Father Dick Perl, now serving in Kansas City after 33 years of ministry in Central America.
At the after-Mass fiesta, Father Castaneda said that on Feb. 3, all the church bells throughout El Salvador began ringing. That was the day Pope Francis — Papa Francisco to Spanish-speaking people — formally declared Archbishop Romero to be a martyr, clearing the way for his beatification.
Church bells, he said, are the “social media” of El Salvador.
“Everybody came out of their homes to the church to find out what had happened,” Father Castaneda said. “Then everybody began celebrating.”
San Salvador Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas told all priests to celebrate Masses of thanksgiving and celebration in their parishes at precisely 6 p.m. on Feb. 5.
With less than two days’ notice, every church in El Salvador was full and overflowing, Father Castaneda said.
Then on March 11 came even more good news.
Italian Archbishop Vincezo Paglia, postulator of Archbishop Romero’s sainthood cause, flew to San Salvador to announce that the beatification ceremony will take place in San Salvador on May 23, the vigil of Pentecost Sunday, and that Pope Francis is sending Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to celebrate it.
In his homily, Father Castaneda said that Archbishop Romero lives today in the souls of the people he served because his words were powerful.
And they were powerful because his message was simple — Love.
Father Castaneda did not pull from the more famous speeches and quotes of Archbishop Romero. Instead, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent 2015, he recalled the nearly two-hour homily Archbishop Romero delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Lent 1979 — nearly a year to the day before his murder.
Using the words of the famous Gospel of John, Chapter 3, Archbishop Romero called his people —all of his people — to reject hate and embrace love, the same way that Jesus had done when he suffered, died and rose again to redeem all people.
“The people of El Salvador have not been created to hate, but rather have been created to collaborate and to love,” the archbishop said 36 years ago.
“There are many here in El Salvador who say, ‘There is no remedy. Who can believe in love?’” Archbishop Romero said.
“Thus we are led along paths of violence, abductions, hatred, crime, repression,” he said. “Yet God has made us in the image of his love, and even though the environment has become violent, violence is not what God wants.”
Earlier that year, Archbishop Romero and the bishops of Latin America gathered at Puebla, Mexico, for a conference that carved in the stone of Catholic social teaching the concept of “preferential option for the poor.” The conference was addressed and led by Pope St. John Paul II, who just days before that Fourth Sunday of Lent, had officially approved the documents from Puebla.
Archbishop Romero rejoiced.
“I give thanks to God that my whole priestly life has been characterized by solidarity and fidelity to the Holy Father, the representative of Christ.
My eyes are fixed on him, and I never think of betraying him,” Archbishop Romero said.
That was the message of Archbishop Romero — total, unconditional love, Father Castaneda said.
“God loves every one of you. God loves every man, every woman, everyone,” Father Castaneda said.
And it is our duty and our challenge, as Archbishop Romero taught, to reflect that love totally and completely.
“Hating is easy,” Father Castaneda said. “If you say you love God, and you hate your brother and sister, then you are a liar. You must show love to your brother and sister because God forgives us.
“That is the Good News,” Father Castaneda said.