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In Washington, former sacristan remembers life with Oscar Romero

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By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Marcelo Perdomo didn’t think an earthly brush with holiness would take place in his native El Salvador next to the parish priest.

As a young man in the early 1960s, Perdomo worked in his native city of San Miguel, El Salvador, organizing the sacristy and decorating the altar among his duties as a sacristan at the local parish of El Rosario. That’s where he worked with the meticulous “Father Romero,” a detail-oriented priest who was particular about how things should be done and look, and Perdomo did everything he could to meet his standards.

Perdomo, now 71, soon will be decorating an altar to mark a milestone for his former priest, this time at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a predominantly Salvadoran parish in Washington, as the local community anticipates the last leg of Blessed Oscar Arnulfo Romero’s official journey toward sainthood. The Salvadoran martyr, assassinated during the country’s civil war in 1980, is set to become El Salvador’s first saint Oct. 14.

Did Perdomo ever get the sense he was working with a saint back then?

“Never,” he said in a July 26 interview with Catholic News Service in Washington. “Never. He was normal. It never occurred to me … but he was a man of goodness.”

Though their relationship was formal and never delved into the personal, Perdomo said that as a sacristan, working by his side, he witnessed Blessed Romero’s immense kindness toward prisoners and the poor, and his deep life of prayer.

In Perdomo’s native San Miguel, Blessed Romero began his pastoral life in 1944, a place where he would stay for more than two decades. Youth like Perdomo were greatly influenced by the pastor.

Perdomo was 12 or 13 when he first met the future saint and saw how he revived popular devotions to the country’s patroness, Our Lady Queen of Peace, and the reconstruction of the cathedral in San Miguel that would ultimately become her home. When Perdomo fled El Salvador because of the civil war and went to live in Washington in 1981, he continued in his new U.S. parish the devotions to the Salvadoran Madonna that Romero had championed.

But in Washington, Perdomo came to hear falsehoods spread about Blessed Romero, including in church circles, about how he was aligned with the rebels, and other lies spread by the archbishop’s enemies, painful calumnies that had traveled from his native country.

None of what was said matched the reality Perdomo had witnessed at the side of then-Father Romero, that of a man who always saw necessity, poverty, pain, and tried to alleviate it. When the pastor became archbishop of the country’s Archdiocese of San Salvador, Perdomo began to think about the episcopal motto he chose: “sentir con la iglesia,” to “feel with the church.” Perdomo said he traveled from San Miguel when he could to the capital of San Salvador to hear Archbishop Romero’s homilies in person at the country’s main cathedral and kept track of what he was doing as archbishop.

“I saw him ‘feel’ with the poor,” Perdomo said, “He ‘felt’ our poverty, that poverty that we the poor felt and lived. They were words chosen well and I continue to study them.”

It naturally hurt to hear others in his new home in Washington call Blessed Romero a “guerillero,” a rebel, when Perdomo had seen firsthand that he “lived a life of sanctity.”

Perdomo said he still remembers the day Archbishop Romero was killed, and that profound sadness that fell on those who knew him in San Miguel.

“It was difficult to hear because he was a man of goodness, not a man who did bad things … he didn’t deserve it. Yes, he was hated by some, but he also was loved by many.”

Those who loved him largely were the poor Blessed Romero defended — a majority in El Salvador. But even the rich had no reason to hate him. He didn’t align himself with one political group of another, but he was simply unwilling to watch the innocent be killed without peacefully defending them, Perdomo said. And in that sense, with his death, Blessed Romero, too, “felt” the lack of safety the poor felt during the war, which led to more than 70,000 civilian deaths.

Most folks from San Miguel couldn’t go to Blessed Romero’s funeral because it was far and because the local priest warned about the masses of people at the funeral who made it impossible to enter the cathedral, Perdomo said.

Instead, Perdomo and others in San Miguel watched it unfold via television, only to see the funeral Mass descend into chaos as a bomb went off inside the cathedral and shots were fired into the crowd outside.

Perdomo doesn’t like to dwell on Blessed Romero’s death, why and how he was killed, and also says miracles attributed to him to attain his canonization are not the proof he needed to know of his holiness.

“What I say is that he lived life in sanctity. … The church says he’s a saint because of a miracle (after his death) but his sainthood was rooted in the way he lived and my joy is in having watched that sanctity in life,” he said.

These days, Perdomo looks at a larger-than-life-sized framed portrait that will be displayed during a Mass at Washington’s Sacred Heart shrine to mark Blessed Romero’s canonization. Though Perdomo plans to be at St. Peter’s Basilica when he is proclaimed a saint, he plans to leave the altar decorated at his parish before leaving for Rome. He looks at the portrait of Blessed Romero that towers over him and says he plans to put a red cloth underneath to symbolize Blessed Romero’s martyrdom.

“Since I arrived (to the United States), my goal was to keep his memory alive in the church,” Perdomo said. “Not as a saint, but I wanted to keep his memory alive as someone who gave his life for us and for others.”

Through the Washington-based Comite Catolico de El Salvador del Mundo, a group of Salvadoran Catholics that each year marks El Salvador’s patron feast in Washington, the feast of the Transfiguration, with a Mass and cultural events, Perdomo found kindred spirits, including Father Moises Villalta, Sacred Heart’s pastor, who began little by little also incorporating Romero into the feast. They hoped that children born to Salvadorans in the Washington area would come to know, not the falsehoods that were spread about Blessed Romero, but the reality of his good works and sacrifice.

Ultimately, the Vatican agreed with those like Perdomo, who said they had always known of Blessed Romero’s holiness, and announced earlier this year that he would become an official saint. Even so, it’s still daunting, Perdomo said, to think that the very “normal” human being he knew and respected will become an official saint of the Catholic Church.

“It’s one of those things that is strange and I still don’t understand it,” Perdomo said.

Perdomo said only God knows whether he’ll be able to be a witness to Blessed Romero’s canonization, but if it happens, “it will be a dream,” he said. In 2015, he had wanted to go to the slain archbishop’s beatification, one of the last steps before sainthood, in El Salvador, but health problems prevented him from traveling.

But attending the ceremony is not what’s important, he said.

“I feel happy to have a known in life a person who will now be on the highest of altars,” he said. “I ask him (Blessed Romero) to please intercede for me, to take care of me. My joy is that I saw him live happily a life of sanctity and he enjoyed that life and in the eyes of God, he is a saint.”

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