May 23rd, 2015, over 250,000 Salvadorans flooded the streets surrounding the Divino Salvador del Mundo monument in the capital city to celebrate the beatification of slain Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. The Archdiocese had constructed a temporary stage in front of the monument. Throngs of people lined the streets emanating outward like roots of hope from the tree of life. It was a particularly warm day but uncharacteristically dry. Usually, the rainy season has returned to El Salvador by mid May but there was not a cloud in the sky. The police had cordoned off the streets to vehicles and the Archdiocese had installed huge TV screens at intersections all around the square. Many people had awakened by 4am to take public buses to the square so that they could get as close to the stage as possible. While the stage was reserved for special guests and honored speakers, priests from across the world congregated in the space directly before the stage. Each priest would be called upon at the end of the service to help distribute Communion to the quarter-million people packed shoulder to shoulder in joyous conmemoration.
The following day, priests across the land shared with their local parishioners a thought that clearly was on the minds of countless Salvadorans that day: Thank God and Thank Pope Francis for this day! It had been 35 years since Archbishop Romero was assassinated during a Memorial Mass in a tiny hospital chapel in 1980. But, the day that so many longed for…had finally arrived. In Zaragoza, the pastor reflected, “Romero has been vindicated. He did not die for politics – he died for the Gospel. He died fighting for God’s justice on earth. After so many have spent decades denying his martyrdom – the Pope has declared what I have always said to be true: Romero was murdered for preaching God’s Word. No one can deny it anymore. There are martyrs who have waited centuries for their beatification – we only had to wait 35 years”.
Present at the Beatification was the President of El Salvador, Sanchez Ceren, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Msgr Jose Luis Escobar Alas, and the Vatican Envoy Cardinal Angelo Amato. As the Cardinal read a letter from Pope Francis, there was a GASP among the crowd. High above the crowd, at the moment that the letter was read, a white halo encircled the sun. It had been an unusually dry day for the time of year and yet – out of the blue – a rainbow or halo appeared fleetingly. The crowd swayed as hundreds reached into their pockets to grab their cell phones. Within minutes, Salvadorans were emailing photos of the sun to their relatives around the world. No matter what scientists would later say, to the Salvadoran people – in that instant – there was one interpreation: Oscar Romero was present with them in that square – smiling down in approval!
The Beatification and the Mass lasted over 2 hours. One of the most engaging moments was when the blood stained shirt that Romero was wearing at the time of his assassination was displayed and carried within a glass case. The case, resting upon the shoulders of Church officials, was paraded through the throng of dignitaries, priests, nuns and Church officials standing in front of the stage while a choir sang a moving and inspirational hymn. There were Salvadorans standing shoulder to shoulder in the streets, sidewalks and doorways. There were Salvadorans sitting in the trees that lined the square. There were Salvadorans selling Romero T-shirts and memorabilia – and even during the most holy of moments, there were Salvadorans wandering through the mass of bodies crying out “Water for sale, water here, water for sale”.
It was a day that highlighted the beauty and tradition of the Church, but, it was also a day that did reflect what Romero longed for: Salvadorans united in Peace. While over 70,000 civilians were killed during the Civil War and at a time when EL Salvador is suffering from 19 gang-related murders each day, there was not one incident of violence – political or gang related – during the beatification. During Romero’s funeral, sharp-shooters peppered the crowd with bullets unleashing chaos. But, on that special day, for Romero’s beatification, even the most violent gangs set down their arms for a few moments to honor this inspirational leader: Beato Oscar Arnulfo Romero.