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Cover story

Romero: Presente!

San Salvador, El Salvador

Twenty-four uninterrupted hours of prayer and celebration began Friday, March 24, with 7 a.m. Mass at the hospitalito of the Divine Providence sisters, where Romero was saying Mass when shot. After a three-hour ceremony that included testimonies from many who had worked with Romero, the several thousand participants marched with banners, posters, palm branches and portraits of Romero three miles to the cathedral for the noon Mass celebrated by Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle of San Salvador.

The tension between Sáenz and the Romero enthusiasts was visible at the Mass, as at Sáenz’s other appearances during the week. He praised Romero’s holiness and his dedication to the people, but with carefully measured words. “It was never his intention,” Sáenz said in his homily, “to stir up the people to hate and violence, but his messages were frequently fiery [fogosos].” His listeners understood, giving the archbishop a polite round of applause, whereas every appearance of the “Romero” bishops, Pedro Casaldáliga of Brazil and Samuel Ruiz García of Mexico, was met with thunderous applause.

Next it was the turn of Mayor Hector Silva to rename a major street Avenida Oscar Arnulfo Romero, then at a ceremony at the Jesuit University, to present a resolution of the City Council declaring Romero posthumously “a most worthy son of San Salvador.” Here again the tensions were visible. Silva and Sáenz sat side by side on the dais flanked by two others on each side. Having read the document, Silva presented it, not to the archbishop, but to Msgr. Ricardo Urioste.

Formerly Romero’s vicar general, Urioste was given by Sáenz the title of administrator in the chancery but without clearly defined functions. The Romero Foundation, a nongovernmental organization independent of the archdiocese, which Urioste formed and which he heads, played the leading part in organizing the anniversary commemorations nationwide. Urioste accepted the document to tumultuous applause, and then handed it to the archbishop saying it was appropriate that Romero’s successor should be the custodian. As Sáenz stood to accept, the audience clapped politely.

At 6 p.m. yet another Mass, this one presided over by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, in the plaza -- newly renamed Plaza Romero -- at the Monument to the Savior (El Salvador). Again the ceremony lasted over two hours, with scores of eucharistic ministers going through the vast crowds to distribute Holy Communion. Shortly before 9 p.m., the people began to form in procession to walk more than two miles to the cathedral. The atmosphere was joyous yet tense. Many of the banners carried slogans that reflected the dialectical relationship between the people and the institutional church. One read: “A church that is not liberating is on the side of the oppressor class.” Slogans with which the crowd was obviously familiar were shouted as they walked. “They took our bishop away, but now we have a saint.” “Romero: Presente!” “Give me an R... Give me an O... What does that spell? ROMERO!”

“Romero: Presente!” is more than an idea in San Salvador. The morning after my arrival in San Salvador I went for the 11:30 Mass at the cathedral crypt where Romero is buried. As I waited, a man in his 40s, obviously not a Salvadoran, approached me and addressed me in perfect Spanish. I learned he is Doug Cassel from Chicago, a lawyer and an expert in international human rights law. He first came to El Salvador in 1992 as a consultant to the Peace Commission.

For 18 years, he said, he had been an agnostic. The notion of resurrection was high on his list of things he could not believe, as was also the Christian command to forgive your enemies. As he listened to one testimony after another that clarified for him not only who Romero had been in life but what he continued to be for his people, he began to find meaning in resurrection. Then on one visit he was met at the airport by a Jesuit seminarian. As they drove, he asked if the Jesuits had a lot of difficulty finding replacements for the six who were killed. “Actually we had,” his driver said. “We had more that 150 applicants from all over the world for only six vacancies. It was not easy to choose.”

Doug was convinced. His remaining problem was to determine what denomination to join. “If the Catholic church was good enough for Romero, it’s good enough for me,” he decided. Today his wife and he are active in the life of their parish in Chicago.

Estimates of the numbers at the Romero celebration varied wildly. The right-wing Diario de Hoy, put it at several hundred. La Prensa Grafica, also right wing, settled for the more cautious “a multitudinous gathering.” The guesses of enthusiasts ran all the way to a hundred thousand. I took a stand close to the starting point and at intervals during the 50 minutes the procession took to pass, I counted off how many ranks passed in a minute. The average was thirty, with 12 to 14 marchers in each rank. That adds up to about 20,000. The 2-mile route was lined with masses of spectators, many of whom joined the procession as it passed, swelling the numbers to perhaps 25,000 or 30,000 as it arrived at the plaza for an all-night vigil.

On a stage with the cathedral as background the event that a participant described to me as “a joyful party celebrating our saint” began. Dramatic readings, some from Romero’s homilies, others describing events in which he took a leading part, were offered. They were interspersed with songs, folk dances and theatrical enactments. Then came an ecumenical service, with leaders of the major Protestant churches asked to choose a scriptural text and comment on it in the light of the event. One who was wildly applauded was Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez, who took on Romero’s role as a champion of the people. Massive applause also greeted a Baptist pastor who said: “Permit me to speak to my colleagues, bishops, priests and pastors. The people are asking us to lead as Romero did.”

And so it went on all night. Many thousands remained to the end. They included a group of 15 from the United States, a group organized by the Church of the Brethren, who had followed the entire program from 7 a.m. Friday. They left the plaza at 5 a.m. Saturday for the airport and their return flight home.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000