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Cover story: Analysis

20 years later, Romero stirs love and fear

San Salvador, El Salvador

Oscar Arnulfo Romero is a citizen of the world. “The most universal Salvadoran of all time,” as Msgr. Ricardo Urioste, who was Romero’s vicar general when he was archbishop of San Salvador, told participants in the weeklong commemoration here of the 20th anniversary of Romero’s assassination.

Venerated worldwide, the risen Romero is a more complicated figure in El Salvador itself. What happened with Lazarus still happens today. Not everyone is comfortable with those who rise again. Here many love Romero. But some hate him. And there are those who fear him.

The love is visible and palpable everywhere. Streams of people flow all day into the crypt of the cathedral that holds Romero’s body. And the streams became floods through the night of March 24 as they kept vigil to mark the anniversary of his martyrdom. Most were Salvadorans, but the entire linguistic babel could be heard, all the accents of Latin America and the Caribbean, the English of the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia, French, German, Italian, Irish, Swedish, Finnish, Japanese.

Wherever one goes, there is Romero. The bookstores feature biographies, books of photographs, collections of his homilies, videos, CDs. Young people sport Romero T-shirts and scarves. And, of course, posters and banners everywhere.

It is inescapably obvious that Romero is loved and venerated. But hated? By whom? Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley, author of a Romero biography, was one of the many who, in formal lectures and informal briefings to packed audiences and to scores of visiting groups, offered an explanation. Wealth and power in El Salvador has long been the monopoly of the so-called Fourteen Families who today number about 100. They think of themselves, he said, as belonging to a subspecies different from and superior to the rest of humanity, and specifically to other Salvadorans. To challenge them is to court death. When in 1932 the peasants began to agitate for a few acres of land to feed their families, the oligarchs taught them a lesson. They massacred 30,000 of them.

By the late 1960s and ’70s, as population growth had increased the pressure for land to explosive levels, the oligarchs were ready. They had an army equipped with the most sophisticated weapons and trained and motivated in the arts of torture and murder, thanks to the U.S. School of the Americas, then located in Panama. These professional killers were unleashed in the mid-1970s against the leaders of FECCAS, the major peasant organization that was supported by Archbishop Chavez Gonzalez, Romero’s predecessor, and also against other popular movements. Dead bodies were soon appearing on roads, many marked by torture. People disappeared. Many were arrested.

Then something world-changing happened. Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, found his voice. He was no politician. He was a conservative person in every respect. He was viscerally opposed to violence, including the violence of the growing guerrilla movement. But he listened to people, to everyone. As one peasant woman put it, “I am 70 years old, and this is the only person in my whole life who asked me what I thought.” In his homilies, broadcast every Sunday to the nation and beyond its borders by the diocesan YSAX (repeatedly blown up but never long off the air), he listed with chapter and verse each atrocity committed by the armed forces -- tortures, arbitrary imprisonments, burning of homes and churches, killings of priests, expulsions of priests, massive displacements of communities.

For the oligarchy this was unacceptable. The high command of the armed forces met and issued the orders. Bishop Samuel Ruiz García of San Cristóbal, Mexico, recalled for us in a talk here what happened next. The killer they sent was so professional that a single bullet fired from a distance went through the archbishop’s heart as he stood at the altar.

That evening, Ruiz added, as soon as the news was confirmed, one of the generals held a party in his home to celebrate the death, the disappearance, the voice definitively silenced by that well-aimed bullet. “But they were mistaken. The voice of Oscar Arnulfo Romero grew to a gigantic clamor that reached universal dimensions ... generating a tremendous impact on all humanity,” Ruiz said.

It is important to understand, as Ruiz told us, that Romero was not only a martyr for the faith but also a martyr for justice. Or, as I heard several times this week, the last bishop before him to have been killed at the altar (in 1170) was Thomas à Becket, who died for the pope. Romero, in contrast, died for the people. That is why for the people Romero lives. He continues to give them hope that justice will ultimately prevail. “He has not died,” said Ruiz. “Rather he has transcended history to become our guide and companion through time and space.”

That is why the oligarchy hates him, using its domination of the written and electronic media to recast him as a troublemaker. That they are having some success was established for me by a taxi driver, who told me: “When clerics get themselves involved in foreign ideologies, they end up as martyrs.” He clearly believed they deserved what they got.

The controlled media could not ignore a reality that brought thousands from across El Salvador and from outside to participate in a week of festive commemoration, but they worked hard to minimize it. For El Diario de Hoy the more than 20,000 who thronged the cathedral plaza for a nightlong vigil were “a few hundred.” When the National Assembly was asked to approve a motion that Romero had worked “for justice, freedom and democracy,” several deputies dissented.

So we have those who love Romero and those who hate him. But who fears him? The Catholic church -- as an institution -- does. Let me explain. Here, as in all Latin America, the church no longer enjoys a monopoly. Just over half the people (55 percent) identify themselves as Catholic, with less than a quarter identifying themselves as Protestant (of whom only 1 percent belong to the so-called mainline churches), according to a recent survey here.

The rest, about a quarter, identify themselves as belonging to no religion, which does not mean that they do not believe in God or that they do not believe in the risen Romero. This last group is largely the result of the massive displacements of the population, both inside and outside the country, during the long years of war. People whose religion was more cultural than personal were uprooted, and many also experienced anti-institutional church propaganda in the armed popular movement.

Major steps have been taken to have Romero canonized through a formal church procedure that some say reveals what the institution fears about him. He is the most powerful symbol the church faces of the dynamism of the theology of liberation’s preferential option for the poor and its call to all Christians to feed the hungry and empty the jails. This is a direct challenge to all unjust structures in society and, as such, an ongoing and serious threat to the status quo in El Salvador. The tradition of the Catholic church in El Salvador, dating back to its origins as part of state structures, has been to find ways to live in peace with the state. That has generally been Rome’s policy worldwide for some centuries. It certainly is under the present pope, who told Romero he had to find ways to get along with the government.

In that sense, the policy, it appears, is to domesticate Romero. “Our priest tells us,” a woman told me, “that we must revere Romero because he was prayerful, humble and obedient.” Obedient, yes, but only to the law of God. “The law of God -- Do not kill! -- should prevail over the order to kill another person,” Romero said. “No soldier is obligated to obey an order that goes against the law of God. It is an immoral order.”

Many of Romero’s fellow bishops in El Salvador openly opposed him in his lifetime. Some even urged Rome to replace him. But today, say observers here, they realize that his grassroots support is so strong that they cannot challenge it openly. Instead they would convert him into a Mother Teresa figure suitable for canonization, prayerful, dedicated to the poor, but unthreatening to unjust social structures.

Not all Salvadoran Catholics belong to the grassroots church that finds its expression largely in the Christian base communities. It is probably only a minority, but a minority with critical mass and a dynamic self-identity that is demonstrated in the massive celebrations of this anniversary, not only here in the capital but throughout the entire country. There are many reasons for this polarization of the church. Salvadoran society has been belatedly catching up with the Enlightenment, developing a critical consciousness as a result of the social and military-political crisis of the 1970s and ’80s. The process was accelerated by the pluralism that comes from international travel and the explosion of the mass media, beginning with the transistor radio that already by the 1960s had penetrated the remotest villages and became a powerful communications tool.

The people to whom Romero continues to be meaningful are not formal theologians. The average Salvadoran man has five years of schooling, the average woman only three. But they do have top-level theologians, led by Jesuit Jon Sobrino to synthesize and formulate what they believe. For them Romero has joined the gospel to the reality of their lives. He identified the structural injustices that cried to heaven and revealed the lies that sought to hide those injustices. He restructured his own institutional church as a community, so that it should be a church of the poor, a church that served the poor, a church incarnated in the people. “It would be sad,” he once said, “if priests [the visible symbols of the church] were not being killed when Salvadorans were being killed.”

For him, life came before everything else. The glory of God, he constantly proclaimed, is that the poor may live. His overriding concern was not the person as a member of his flock but a person able to live at a human level. His priority was the same as that of the 16th-century defender of the natives, Bartolomé de Las Casas, who insisted that a live Indian was worth more than a baptized corpse. And he wanted each one to be fully human, able to make his or her decisions. “The church does not need masses but people,” he said. “A mass is an aggregation of individuals who are sound asleep and totally conformist. A people is a community all of whose members aspire to the common good.”

As was clear both from their numbers and their active involvement in the week of commemoration, young Salvadorans -- those who never knew him in person -- resonate to Romero. In the words of Jon Sobrino, he represents a credible love. They know that he gave his life, not for the doctrine of the Trinity, not for the papacy, not for the church, but for them and for the truth.

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000