My home away from home when I am in Rome (as now, covering the Synod) is Santa Maria in Portico in Campitelli, a stone’s throw from the Jewish Synagogue and the Theater of Marcellus built by Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar and which served as the model for the Coliseum. The church boasts one of the most venerated Marian icons in the Eternal City and the tomb of Saint John Leonard (whose feast is October 9), founder of the Clerics Regular of the Mother of God and likewise the founder of the Propagation for the Faith in the sixteenth century, whose confessor was Saint Philip Neri, the Second Apostle of Rome.
This was the site of the Prayer Vigil for Blessed Oscar Romero on the evening of Saturday, October 13, 2018. Many priests, religious and laity were present for the event, mainly from Romero’s homeland of El Salvador.
A few days before the Prayer Vigil, the church’s facade was decorated with a copy of the image of Archbishop Romero which hung at St. Peter’s Basilica, along with the images of the six other saints canonized with him, most notably Pope Paul VI, whose image took center stage as it was placed over the loggia of the papal benediction “Urbi et Orbi,” where the new Pope first stood after his election to the Chair of Peter in 1963.
Cardinal José Gregorio Rosa Chavez, auxiliary bishop of El Salvador and close friend of the new saint, presided at the Prayer Vigil which culminated in his brief reflections and Eucharistic Adoration. The Vigil was well-organized and well-executed; the people who packed the church assisted in respectful and prayerful silence when they were not offering their heartfelt responses and robust singing in their native Spanish.
The over-arching theme of the Vigil was “Sentir con la Iglesia” (“to feel with the Church,” from the Latin “sentire cum Ecclesia“). It was structured around themes of Romero’s life: his role as a pastor of souls, a champion of the poor, a prophet who announced the Gospel message with fearless courage, so much so that he was able to declare on various occasions and eerily up to the day before he was martyred that he was prepared to die for love of Christ, the Church, and the oppressed peoples of El Salvador.
Each time a new theme was introduced, a man or woman carried a sign stating the theme in Spanish while other lay persons carried in symbols expressing those particular themes. So, for example, the lay faithful brought in the pastoral staff symbolizing Romero’s role as spiritual shepherd and a plate of food symbolizing the hunger of the poor.
For the Mass of Canonization, Pope Francis wore an even more powerful symbol of Romero’s life, the bloodied cincture that this humble man of God wore during his last Mass at which he was assassinated – offering up his life as the ultimate sacrifice in union with that of Christ Jesus, the martyr of God par excellence. This was Romero’s final farewell, far surpassing all his impassioned preaching and teaching, a veritable testament to his fervent and orthodox Catholic faith formed with the help of his Opus Dei spiritual director; his ever-verdant hope which the Archbishop always adamantly denied was rooted in any radical Marxist or Communist ideology; and his ardent charity motivated not by an earth-bound “Liberation Theology,” but by a social justice focused on the lasting peace of the heavenly Kingdom where he now reigns with Christ and his beloved Mother Mary in the communion of saints.
One aspect of the Prayer Vigil that I found particularly moving were the live recordings of excerpts from Romero’s homilies. His powerful preaching voice resounded loud and clear inside the grand interior of the church. It gave me goose bumps and caused many in attendance, including the lady sitting next to me, to weep.
Each reflection began with a reading from Sacred Scripture and included both questions for an Examination of Conscience and a prayer of petition for the needs of the Church and the world. While most of the prayers in the program were recited by the organizers of the service, certain prayers were recited by all in attendance. Each reflection concluded with a hymn based on the writings of Saint Romero.
At the end, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed as many people, young and old, myself included, knelt on the Church’s unforgiving hard marble floors.
After Benediction, red votive candles with the Archbishop’s image were distributed, which attendees were encouraged to place on trays at the foot of the altar. As each person approached, holding his or her votive candle, two young people held out a basket full of images of Romero surrounded by leaves from an olive tree, symbolizing the peace of Christ. I asked if I could take a second image and by mistake picked up two extra ones instead, as the red wax fell several times on my right hand, the burning sensations a simple reminder of the much greater pain endured by the Salvadoran Saint and by the poor people he so wholeheartedly loved, even to the point of shedding his blood.
Once all the votive candles had been placed at the foot of the altar, the Cardinal, vested in a red cope, invited his fellow bishops to join him in praying the Lord’s Prayer and in imparting their episcopal blessing. The Christo-centric nature of the service must have gladdened the heart of the new saint.