Students from several schools throughout the Archdiocese of Washington gathered at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C., for a March 20 Mass celebrating St. Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of San Salvador who was canonized on October 14. The Church will celebrate his first feast day on March 24, 39 years to the date after he was martyred.

The readings during the March 20 Mass were the same ones read during that final Mass that then-Archbishop Oscar Romero celebrated. The Gospel included the lines, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:23-26)

During the Mass and the celebration that surrounded it, many members of the community reflected on the fruit of St. Oscar Romero’s ministry in El Salvador and beyond.

“He is an excellent example of someone who followed Christ, even to death,” said Rolando Fuentes, a social worker for Sacred Heart School. ”It is important for our kids to have a model in him.”

Sacred Heart students hold a photo with handprints symbolizing solidarity. (Photo/Kristen Kullberg, Sacred Heart School)

Jocelyn Aquino, a Salvadoran 10th grade student at St. John’s College High School in Washington and alumna of Sacred Heart, said she admires how St. Oscar Romero spoke about what was wrong in society.

“A lot of rich families thought he was on their side,” she said. “But he spoke what was true and what he thought was good for everyone. He sought justice no matter the consequence.”

When St. Romero was chosen as archbishop of San Salvador, leaders in the Church and the government did not think he would be a threat to the status quo, but the more St. Romero learned about the injustice facing the poor farmers in the countryside, the more he spoke out against their oppressors, which included the Salvadoran government at the time. His decision to stand up for the poor is what ultimately led to him being assassinated while celebrating Mass.

“He knew the word of the Lord was for all of us,” said Jessica Sanchez, a ninth grade student at St. John’s. “He didn’t discriminate.”

Franciscan Father Emilio Biosca Agüero, the pastor of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, prays during the March 20 Mass. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

The Sacred Heart community has a special relationship to St. Oscar Romero, as many of the schools’ families are from El Salvador. Two years ago, a group of teachers from Sacred Heart School traveled to El Salvador to learn more about the saint’s life, and this October, five teachers joined a group of about 20 Sacred Heart parishioners in attending the canonization Mass in Rome.

Throughout the year, the students at Sacred Heart School have been learning about the saint in different ways, including by reflecting on different quotes from the saint during morning prayer, by dressing up as St. Romero’s siblings during a catechetical evening with parents, and constructing a replica of Divine Providence Hospital and Chapel, where St. Romero was killed.

Elise Heil, the principal of Sacred Heart School, said before starting that work nine years ago, she did not know much about Archbishop Oscar Romero. But over the past few years, as she traveled with the groups to El Salvador and Rome, read his biography, and talked to many people in the Sacred Heart community who knew him, she has come to find inspiration in the saint’s life.

“He was human…there are people in this community who knew him,” she said. “I’ve never had the opportunity to be this close to a saint and to get to know him in ways that aren’t possible with other saints.”

Especially this year, which as been a difficult one for Sacred Heart and for the entire Church in the midst of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, Heil said St. Romero, who often struggled with the hierarchy of the Church, has inspired her to persevere. Going to his canonization Mass and seeing people from all over the world served as “a reminder of how big our faith is and how bright our future is,” she said.

While greeting everyone before the Mass began, Heil noted that with St. Oscar Romero’s canonization, Pope Francis has invited everyone, no matter where they are from, “to experience the joy of Oscar Romero and his legacy.”

Sacred Heart School students process to the front of the Church dressed in traditional Salvadoran clothing. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

That joy was apparent during the offertory procession, where students dressed in traditional Salvadoran clothes processed forward doing a liturgical dance and carrying a photo of St. Romero. One of those students was Brenda Gomez, a sixth grade student at Sacred Heart, who said her parents lived in El Salvador when Archbishop Oscar Romero was alive.

“He is very important to my family,” she said. “He helped our people.”

When the country was going through a difficult time, “he didn’t just want to be friends with rich people,” she said. “He helped people who are poor.”

In addition to the liturgical dance, students from Sacred Heart processed forward with a variety of gifts, including a painting of students’ hands around a globe to represent solidarity; a palm plant, which is a symbol of the martyrs; rosemary (romero) branches, to honor the saint’s name and because of their healing properties; an image of la Virgen de la Paz, the patroness of El Salvador; origami peace cranes; a poetry book written by middle school students; items from St. Romero’s canonization Mass; and food donations for parish programs for the needy.

A display of some of the gifts brought to the altar by Sacred Heart students during the offertory procession. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

In his homily, Franciscan Father Emilio Biosca Agüero, the pastor of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, said the celebration of St. Romero’s feast day is an opportunity to grow in understanding of the saint’s life and witness. One important element of St. Romero’s life, he said, was his devotion to prayer, which he made time for three times every day – in the morning, in the middle of the day, and at night.

“The saints teach us so much about how to think; how to see the world,” said Father Biosca.

He also told the students about some of the ”details of love” that are a part of St. Oscar Romero’s legacy, such as how after he began receiving frequent death threats, he would ask his chauffeur not to drive him so he would not put his life at risk. When he celebrated Mass, he made sure to stand at the very center of the altar, so if an assassin came inside, he would give them a clear shot and not put anyone else in danger, said Father Biosca.

Students pray during the March 20 Mass. (Photo/Kristen Kullberg, Sacred Heart School)

Mario Fuertes, a parent at the school who lived in El Salvador during the time of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s ministry, recalled attending the saint’s funeral and seeing the streets filled with all of the people who loved him.

“He gave his life like Jesus. He gave his life for the people…He loved everybody. He loved the people in need,” said Fuertes, recalling that as soon as someone asked for his help, he would go running to help them.

At the conclusion of the Mass, Cinnamon Sarver, the director of religious education at Sacred Heart School, quoted St. Romero, saying, “We know that every effort to improve an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God requires of us.”

Addressing the congregation before they went downstairs to celebrate with pupusas and marimba music, Sarver said, “We hope today’s Mass has given you the energy to go forth and better our society in the spirit of Romero.”

Students from Our Lady of Victory School in Washington, D.C., enjoy pupusas after the March 20 Mass. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)