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Cover story

No-nonsense regime of Salvador's Sáenz

NCR Staff
San Salvador, El Salvador

San Salvador Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez popped a cassette into the tape deck as his vehicle headed toward the dusty town of Aguilares. Eyeglasses clenched in his teeth to free his hands, Rosa beamed as he read the lyrics printed on an insert.

"These are all songs about Rutilio," he said, giving the impression that something very profound was hidden in the simple piece of paper.

With a reporter in tow -- the only way to fit another interview into his brimming schedule -- Rosa was on his way to celebrate a Mass commemorating the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande, one of the first modern martyrs of the church of El Salvador. Grande's murder by a death squad caused his friend, Archbishop Oscar Romero, to take a more critical look at El Salvador's political situation. Romero became a powerful advocate for the poor and ultimately was assassinated by a right-wing death squad.

For many Catholics in Aguilares and throughout the country, Rosa -- affectionately known as "Goyo" -- embodies the legacy of the church of the Salvadoran martyrs, of the dozens who died because they made an option for the poor and for justice, because they became, in the words of Romero, the "voice of the voiceless."

It is this tradition that many laity, clergy and religious claim has again come under attack, not by bullets from death squads but from within the church itself as a result of the appointment two years ago of Fernando Sáenz Lacalle to be archbishop of San Salvador. Sáenz is a Spanish-born prelate and member of Opus Dei.

There is little disagreement in El Salvador that Sáenz's model of church diverges sharply from the vision articulated by Romero. Many critics claim that Sáenz, prompted by the papal nuncio, aims to neutralize the memory of Romero and of the slain Jesuits and many others who followed their examples.

Sáenz began his tenure in April 1995 by publicly demeaning liberation theology. Since then he has been strongly criticized by clergy, laity and religious for a string of actions: dismissing key personnel from archdiocesan posts; removing Jesuit Fr. Rodolfo Cardenal and a team of religious women from a barrio parish they had served for 14 years; and replacing the entire formation team of the interdiocesan seminary and eliminating texts on liberation theology from the library. He has also advised provincials against sending their seminarians to theology classes at the Jesuit-run Central American University; changed the nature of the archdiocesan radio station, which had become a legendary voice for justice under Romero; and accepted the title of brigadier general from a military known to have executed thousands of Salvadorans, many of them prominent daughters and sons of the church. (NCR, May 5 and 26 and Dec. 15, 1995, Oct. 18, 1996 and March 7, 1997.)

More recently, Sáenz asked Salvadorans not to publicly demonstrate their loyalty to Romero during March 24 commemorations of his assassination in 1980. Claiming these celebrations might interfere with Romero's canonization process, Sáenz instructed the faithful to "offer private prayers for him."

To all the criticism, Sáenz calmly responds with answers based on church canons and church authority, claiming that any problems are caused by reporters spreading misinformation (see accompanying story).

Maritza de Fernández, 34, a laywoman who has worked for the archdiocese in education for 11 years, sees two traditions coexisting in the Salvadoran church: "They are two very different lines of work. It's not that these are on the left and these are on the right. It's that some are with the people and other ones you have to ask for appointments."

Msgr. Ricardo Urioste was removed as vicar general by Sáenz, who reportedly took over the duties of vicar general. Now called moderator of the archdiocese, Urioste offered a frank analysis: "There is a phenomenon that those people -- clergy and laity -- who do not share all the ideas of the present archbishop are separated from their posts. This is not the attitude of Jesus. When the apostles made mistakes, when they failed Jesus -- and Peter made grave mistakes -- Christ didn't just say, 'I am going to get a new team.' He went to rescue them, to bring them back to continue their tasks. This attitude is not clearly present here."

Urioste continued, "[Sáenz] has every right to put in the people that he sees convenient. But it all gives the impression that what we have is an authority structure that determines things without listening much. This is what is causing the most problems."

Urioste, to whom members of the church look frequently for counsel and advice, said a widespread feeling exists that with Sáenz, "there is less of an accent on the difficult reality people confront in their daily lives."

He said that in El Salvador "the church has always considered the archbishop a beacon of hope. ... It is possible people feel this voice is not very clear anymore."

Sáenz, Urioste said, is hardworking, organized and dedicated to what he defines as priorities. But the direction of the archdiocese reflects "a clear proximity to the structures of economic and political power."

The ecclesial tensions affecting the faithful in El Salvador reflect a broader angst felt among some Catholics worldwide as the papacy of John Paul II continues its long crackdown on theologians and others who raise questions the Vatican considers inappropriate.

Bishop Rosa Chávez, who at one time was expected to head the Salvadoran church, raised the global perspective when queried about the shifting priorities of the Salvadoran church under Sáenz: "There is a tendency throughout the church to close in on herself, to coil up like a snail, to lean toward a disembodied spirituality, to be absent from the immense problems facing the world. This is not only happening in the church of El Salvador."

If the tendency is universal, it takes on an unusual intensity today in El Salvador. It was the embrace of the people of God in this nation that converted Romero and convinced him and scores more to risk and even lose their lives so that others -- especially the impoverished and the persecuted -- might live. The lives and the deaths of those martyrs have left an indelible imprint on the faith universally. The Salvadoran church's struggles provide an important lens for -- and offer important lessons to -- the people of God worldwide.

"They killed 17 priests, five religious women, two bishops in this small church of El Salvador," said Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino, director of the Oscar Romero Pastoral Center. "With this kind of violence, they could have finished off a political party. They could have finished off our church, but they have not been able to get rid of our identity rooted in the gospel.

"Having almost all the powers of the world against us -- neoliberal economics, the armed forces, the U.S. Republicans including Helms, even some members of the church -- there is something in this tradition of the Salvadoran church that persists."

Rosa is undoubtedly one of the most visible signs of that persistence. But pastor that he is -- schooled by Romero and his successor, the late Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas -- Rosa will not allow the people's embrace of him to create divisions within the church.

De Fernández, the laywoman employed by the diocese, said, "The figure of Rosa has become more and more important. He has garnered respect from a lot of people because he never speaks poorly of Archbishop Sáenz." She said when Sáenz sent Rosa to head San Francisco Parish, removing him from the archdiocesan residence where he had lived since Rivera's death in December 1994, "we told him that was great, that we'd go to his Masses, that we'd just consider it the second cathedral of San Salvador."

Rosa quickly squelched the idea. "He called us together and said the worst thing he could possibly do would be to allow such a division in the church ... that his parish would not be a second cathedral." Rosa told the people that if Sáenz scheduled Mass at 8 a.m., he would schedule Mass at 1 p.m. "so people would not have to decide," de Fernández said. "He really takes care of our church."

Despite his ecclesial temperance, Rosa remains an outspoken advocate of the poor in the public arena. He frequently is criticized by the mainstream press for his positions on everything from the dangers of electoral fraud, to economics, to the violence that today makes El Salvador the leader in the Americas for per capita homicides.

Last July, Rosa's name appeared on a hit list of a group calling itself the Roberto D'Abuisson death squad. Jesuit Rodolfo Cardenal as well as journalists and analysts critical of the government were also on the roster. D'Abuisson was one of the architects of the death squads during the 12-year war that officially ended in December 1991.

During the on-the-road interview with NCR, Rosa did not dwell on relations among the hierarchy. To every question about Sáenz, he responded with a reflection on trends in the universal church. In the style of Romero, he preferred to focus on issues affecting the daily lives of the poorest Salvadorans.

Rosa is especially concerned about the lag in implementing the peace process. "The stupendous spirit of the accords has gotten lost bit by bit," he said, lamenting the "stillborn" character of provisions on economic and social justice. This vacuum, Rosa explained, is exacerbated by neoliberal economic schemes that are "intrinsically perverse because [they] work by creating more poor people."

Rosa said many Salvadorans who struggle to create a just society are feeling fatigued. "In these times, it is much more difficult for the church to discover its prophetic voice. During the war, we found a wounded person in the road and the good Samaritan knew what to do. Today the wounded person is the impoverished person who is a victim of the neoliberal model," he said, referring to unrestrained free-market economic policies being adopted throughout the Third World. When asked if the fatigue extended to him, Rosa's eyes lit up. "Me? No. I had good teachers -- Romero, Rivera. I come from a good school."

He emphasized the importance of the church's maintaining a strong voice in a world characterized by economic globalization. "From the pope to the bishops in the Philippines, there are stronger and stronger criticisms coming from the church of the neoliberal model. There are no other alternatives, just small experiences that inspire, but that do not present opposition to that system. In this mono-polar world, the church takes on a very important role in its stance with the weakest," Rosa said. "We must globalize solidarity. This will be a central theme during the Synod of the Americas," a gathering to be held in Rome Nov. 16-Dec.12.

Not all members of the Salvadoran church are managing fatigue and ecclesial disruptions as easily.

"The church has left us unarmed, abandoned," said Mirna Perla, a juvenile court judge and human rights activist. "I feel very defrauded by Sáenz. He is not assuming his role as pastor of a flock that suffers, that needs food and education and housing and a healthy ecosystem and respect for its dignity." Perla works with gangs and with a project to identify children kidnapped and adopted during the war.

"I really lament that the pope chose that man," Perla said. "The basic subsistence of humanity is in danger, and the church cannot close its eyes, close in on itself and speak only of celestial life," she said.

Even archdiocesan moderator Urioste admitted that many people feel "deserted, less protected, less heard."

Nowhere is this feeling more prevalent than in parishes and institutions where Sáenz has made abrupt changes. Last September Sáenz removed Rodolfo Cardenal as pastor and three religious women who served as pastoral associates in Cristo Resucitado Parish in the working class barrio of Quezaltepec. The pastoral team had 14 years of service to the community.

According to parishioners involved for years in church life, the changes brought about by the newly appointed pastor, a young diocesan priest, have brought pain and division to the community.

Joaquín Garcia and Francisca de Sánchez were among the founders of the Cristo Resucitado Church, a parish built by the community under the guidance of Jesuit Segundo Montes, who was slain in the 1989 massacre at the Central American University; Rodolfo Cardenal; and Srs. Juana Martha Saravia, Eva del Carmen Menjiver and Lorena Castro. During 14 years, the community built a parish that was heralded recently by Moderator Urioste as a Vatican II model in a country facing a shortage of priests.

"Cardenal was in charge of the sacraments, Juanita Saravia took care of the pastoral work, and the laity organized everything," García said. "The church was run by the laity with total respect for the authority of [Cardenal]. He exercised authority with an attitude of service -- questioning our errors, correcting our deficiencies. He created an extraordinary ministry among us."

García said all church activities were based on a participative model. The community elected the parish council and all committee members.

"All of the work was done in open spaces. Now they are closed," said de Fernández, whose husband came back to the church because of the dynamism of the parish. Twice when describing changes at Cristo Resucitado, de Fernández wept. "All the work we did has been lost. Very few of those who built the church are still involved. There is a division in the parish."

García echoed her concerns. "They've taken everything away from us, even Sr. Juanita. There is no sense of understanding. They simply put a new system in place where [the priest] is the one that rules. We have been set back 14 years. Our dignity as people, as laity, is not being respected."

But other stories serve as a balance to the discouraged tales of Cristo Resucitado.

In many ways, the laity in El Salvador have made it clear they are committed to the vision of the recent martyrs, and are determined to keep that tradition alive. Sr. Saravia, for one, does not plan to leave the community that has become her family. With several other religious and a group of committed young people in their 20s, she is seeking independent financing for a daycare project in the barrio. The team running the project plans to live in a faith community.

And de Fernández, a powerhouse at the Cristo Resucitado preschool -- named in honor of the slain Fr. Montes and financed in part by donations from his family, said parishioners have not allowed the new priest to take control of this community project. "We haven't allowed him to become the sole decision-maker there. We just tell him there is a meeting with parents, so he gets the first 15 minutes to give a speech, and we get the next 2 hours to work with the people," de Fernández said.

She said she speaks directly to the priest. "I have told him I think he is being unjust, that he is just in transit, that he may leave in a year or so, but that we live here, so why does he think he can just come in and do whatever he wants if he is just here for a while?" she said. "This bothers some people, when I speak, but it brings others hope."

According to Maryknoll Fr. William Boteler, de Fernández's approach illustrates a maturity characteristic of laity throughout El Salvador. "This church has lots of initiative and pride. People don't wait for the priest," Boteler said. "It's easy to find people willing to take risks. During the war, they were without priests and they carried on the lay church. No bishop can ignore for long that this is a church moved by the people."

In some cases, that risk-taking has begotten sophisticated lay-led organizations with enough autonomy to carry on grassroots work despite changes imposed by the hierarchy. One such group is Equipo Maíz (loosely translated, the Harvesters), a grassroots think tank founded in 1983 by a former priest and rooted in the Christian base community movement.

Equipo Maíz began 15 years ago by overseeing Bible and music workshops. Today, it has expanded considerably, and boasts one of the most effective popular education repertoires in Latin America. The team at Equipo Maíz offers workshops on popular and religious culture, sexuality and economic literacy to help people learn how neoliberal economic trends affect their lives and what to do about them. A line of high-quality publications and promotional posters complement the seminars offered throughout El Salvador.

Each year Equipo Maíz staff also help organize celebrations honoring the martyrs. Its photography archives contain extensive material on the Salvadoran church, as well as probably the most complete collection of images of Romero.

Until a few years ago, Equipo Maíz depended on archdiocesan funding to survive. But the late Archbishop Rivera convinced the organization to seek resources directly. "Rivera advised us to get direct financing from funders so we could be more independent. He knew that sooner or later, there would be changes in the archdiocese. It's a good thing. I am sure Sáenz would have stopped financing us," said one team member.

Another lay-led initiative keeping the vision of Romero alive is the independent Catholic monthly, Sentir con la Iglesia (Sense of the Church). Founded after Sáenz dismissed Fr. Fabian Amaya as editor of the archdiocesan weekly, Orientación, the new publication has, since 1995, provided critical information on church, economic, political and social trends.

The Jesuit Central American University, meanwhile, maintains a crucial leadership role in the Salvadoran church despite vigilant oversight of its theology programs by Sáenz and the papal nuncio. "The [Central American University] helps keep us alert. It orients us and makes us think," said juvenile court judge Perla.

"The [university] is becoming more and more important. That's why it bugs the nuncio so much," a priest added.

University personnel said despite Sáenz's alleged recommendations to religious provincials to dissuade seminarians from taking theology there, classes "are fuller than ever ... the seminarians keep coming." Also packed with women, men and youth from the barrios and rural areas are Saturday afternoon grassroots theology courses offered by the university's Oscar Romero Pastoral Center. "The theology began by [the slain Jesuit] Ignacio Ellacuría each day embraces more and more students, despite efforts to snuff it out," one theologian commented. "There may be no great big voice right now, but there are a lot of little voices."

Perhaps nowhere do those little voices resonate more powerfully than in the gatherings honoring El Salvador's martyrs. During a Mass commemorating Fr. Rutilio Grande's assassination, held at the Oscar Romero chapel on the university campus, the jovial Jesuit Jose Maria Tojeira reminded the congregation that no one was honoring the men who held the posts of president or head of the supreme court 20 years ago. "No one even remembers [the latters'] name," he said. "But Rutilio, a simple name, a simple priest -- we continue to remember him. This is a sign of the triumph in history of the weak with their capacity to love over the strong who think they hold all the threads of history but who only turn those threads into spiders' webs that hang in dark corners."

University students attending the ceremony provided testimony that young people are aware of the legacy of El Salvador's martyrs. During the offertory petitions, one student said, "May our education in this university mold us so that we never make a decision in our lives without first asking how it will affect those who are most marginalized in our society." Another asked for guidance to "remain conscious of the social decomposition our society faces" and "work to bring our crucified people down from the cross."

And, back in dusty Aguilares, even a 9-year-old girl was aware of the importance of the life of Fr. Rutilio Grande. When asked why there was such a big Mass, she shook her head at the ignorance of the adult asking the question. "Why, because they killed Father Grande, of course."

And why did they kill him?

Another frustrated sigh. "Because he was a priest, and he loved the people a whole lot."

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 1997