Cover story -- Romero anniversary
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  April 15, 2005

After 25 years 'St. Romero of the World' still inspires

San Salvador, El Salvador

His name is but one of many engraved in black marble at the edge of San Salvador’s Cuscatlán Park, part of a wall of memory constructed two years ago so as not to forget the violence that tore this land to pieces during the 1970s and ’80s.

Some 25,000 names are engraved here, all civilians murdered or disappeared between 1970 and 1991, arranged by year after terrible year. In the section of those killed in 1980, nestled amid the Rs, he is listed simply as “Oscar Arnulfo Romero.” No auspicious title, no little cross attached to his name to signify he was anything other than an ordinary Salvadoran. In his death se hizo pueblo, as they say here. He made himself part of the people, even if it meant dying alongside the poor who died violently every day.

Yet in the months since the wall was built, the letters of his name have been so rubbed by the curious and the faithful that they’ve taken on a different sheen from others nearby. Small paper notes tucked in a nearby crack carry the prayers of those who still turn to him for help. Twenty-five years after the elite of this Central American country thought they had rid themselves of Archbishop Romero, he’s still around, making his presence felt more than ever.

This year’s 25th anniversary commemoration of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination was clearly the largest remembrance of Romero ever held. More than two weeks of seminars, Masses, concerts and pilgrimages gave tens of thousands of Salvadorans -- and, according to church officials, at least 3,000 foreigners -- an opportunity to reflect on Romero’s words and life, as well as his death on March 24, 1980, victim of a government-sanctioned death squad. Much of this year’s commemoration was delayed a week so as not to conflict with Holy Week, and culminated in an April 2 outdoor Mass. Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodriguez, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, was supposed to give the homily. Instead, in the wake of the death of John Paul II, he took off for Rome, but sent his homily to be read by the papal nuncio.

“I’ve been delighted to observe here in this beloved country as well as in many other places where I’ve visited that young people are particularly responsive to the testimony of this good pastor who gave his life for faith, love and justice. Without a doubt, Monseñor Romero offers youth a profile of holiness and commitment to constructing a more just and humane world,” Rodriguez stated in the homily.

Too young to have known him

Many of the estimated 30,000 people who participated in the Mass and the candlelight procession to the cathedral that followed were too young to have known Romero personally. Yet chanting ¡Se siente, se siente, Romero está presente! -- “We feel it, we feel it, Romero is present!” -- thousands of young people brought unbounded energy to the commemoration. The procession was no somber remembering of a murdered prelate, but the lively festival of a Latin American church that clings to the notion that it can make a difference in society. Laughing nuns bounced down the street like penguins on pogo sticks chanting, “Whoever doesn’t jump is a supporter of the empire!” Gregorio Rosa Chávez, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, was ecstatic as he walked along in the largest demonstration of support for Romero in many years. “This is a tsunami of solidarity with Monseñor Romero,” he told NCR.

Alongside the public events, brisk sales of dozens of new posters and shirts featuring Romero’s image have made the murdered prelate more ubiquitous than Che Guevara. Several new books about Romero, as well as collections of his writings and homilies, were published for the anniversary.

Why Romero -- 25 years after his death -- is growing in popularity here must be understood against a background of deteriorating economic conditions for the country’s poor. Globalization has made some Salvadorans even wealthier than before; the traditional landowning rich have been replaced by new financial sector elites who benefited from extensive privatization and the 2001 “dollarization” of the country’s economy. The 43 percent of the population that lives on less than $2 per day faces difficult times, and the looming approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) promises only to deepen the crisis for the poor. Were it not for the more than $2 billion received every year in family remittances from outside the country, and particularly from the United States, the feeling of hopelessness would be even worse.

“At a time when our reality is deteriorating rather than improving, we need Monseñor Romero’s testimony in defense of human rights and in favor of a consecrated life of service to others. He’s the model, the paradigm for us in these times,” María Julia Hernández, director of the human rights office of the archdiocese of San Salvador, told NCR.

A timid conservative

Romero wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. He was a timid and conservative man when tapped to replace Archbishop Luis Chávez, who retired in 1977 after 38 years as head of the Salvadoran church. The country’s wealthy were tired of Chávez’ support for the rights of workers and peasants and rejoiced when Rome selected Romero, who might have continued his conservative ways were it not for the brutal repression of the church. Just a week after Romero became archbishop, his friend, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit who worked in the dusty parish of Aguilares north of the capital, was assassinated along with two companions as they made their way through the sugar fields to the nearby village of El Paisnal, which was part of the Aguilares parish.

Grande’s sponsoring of Christian base communities, his homilies against oppression and his enthusiastic support for organizing workers in the area’s sugar plantations had provoked local landowners to order his death. Romero decided to protest the killings by canceling Masses throughout the archdiocese in favor of one single Mass in the cathedral. That decision put the new archbishop on a dramatic collision course with the papal nuncio and most of the country’s other bishops, as well as drawing unfavorable attention in the Vatican, yet it drew 100,000 people to the cathedral and the streets around it to hear Romero call for an end to violence.

Rutilio Grande’s nephew, Orlando Erazo, is today the parish priest in El Paisnal. He first met Romero as a boy when he traveled to the capital with his uncle. Grande and Romero are his inspiration, and he claims he needs them more than ever.

“When the war ended, this was a ghost town. The United Nations brought families here from the refugee camps, but I had a hard time organizing them into base communities as Rutilio did. They wanted nothing to do with the church. They told me the gun was their god. If I tried to talk about God as love they would ask me where God was when they were being repressed, when their children were dying, when the soldiers assassinated their parents,” Erazo told NCR.

“Yet Monseñor Romero and Rutilio have opened doors to work with them. Their legacy as martyrs is a conduit, an entry point into the political consciousness of people here. Through Monseñor Romero and Rutilio, we have begun working with them as a church. Things have changed. There are still a few pockets of resistance, though. They can’t stand to even see [current Archbishop Fernando] Sáenz Lecalle. Because of their bad experiences with the archbishop they’ll close the doors of the church if he shows up,” Erazo said.

‘Resistance to forgetting’

The growing celebration of Monseñor Romero and his legacy are part of the Salvadoran people’s “resistance to forgetting,” according to Erazo.

“They love him so much that they can’t conceive of forgetting him. To forget him would be to forget the cause and struggle and hope. You hear the voice of Romero much more on the radio these days. The people refuse to forget the one who defended them. He continues, more than ever, being the voice of those without voice. But he’s not here physically, so we have to recuperate and assume that voice ourselves. When we celebrate Monseñor Romero, we’re celebrating life, we’re celebrating that we’re still here, still struggling for justice, still struggling for the reign of God that Monseñor Romero encouraged us to fight for,” he said.

Some in El Salvador would prefer to remember Romero differently. According to Rosa Chávez, many in the country are putting themselves “in a state of grace with Monseñor Romero” -- getting comfortable with a man who should still make many uncomfortable. In a presentation during a weeklong seminar on Romero at the Jesuit-run Central American University here, Rosa Chávez noted that a daily newspaper that once produced “the worst attacks on the pastor during his tenure as archbishop” recently dedicated a 16-page special supplement for the 25th anniversary, though the fact that a Swedish ecumenical group footed the bill certainly helped trump lingering ideological resentment.

Although a few among the wealthy elite -- who closed their ears to Romero’s condemnation of violence from all sides -- continue to regard Romero as a professional agitator for international communism, Rosa Chávez suggests that some sectors of Salvadoran society have made peace with Romero only by succumbing to one of several “Romero myths” that serve to disguise the historically authentic Romero. These myths also allow some who celebrated the archbishop’s assassination with fireworks and champagne to today support the growing movement to canonize Romero.

One myth, according to Rosa Chávez, is that Romero was a naive man who fell among bad influences, a good guy deceived by evil Jesuits. Supporters of this myth would like nothing better than to recover a truly “spiritual Romero” who deserves to be beatified.

While it’s true that some of Romero’s principal counselors were Jesuits, about whom Romero always harbored just enough critical suspicion to not be easily swayed, Rosa Chávez said Romero’s vicar general, Ricardo Urioste, acknowledged that Romero was indeed manipulated. “When asked if Romero was manipulated by leftist priests or Jesuits, Urioste responded, ‘He was manipulated by God, who did with him what he wanted,’ ” Rosa Chávez said.

Diary shows his doubts

Another myth, according to Rosa Chávez, is that of the “Super Romero,” in which the archbishop was a man with clear ideas who always knew what to think or what decision to make. “Monseñor Romero lived amidst doubts, errors and rectifications. But he was able to push the country in those difficult times, making difficult decisions for himself and for the church. His diary shows that he wasn’t always clear about what was happening in the country nor the best way to respond to the often bloody situations that presented themselves,” Rosa Chávez said.

Although he was the one who made the final decisions, as agonizing as those might be, Romero was well-known for asking advice from all, especially the poor. Rosa Chávez recalled a time when Romero walked out of a particularly difficult meeting with his advisers only to see a beggar on the street, whom Romero proceeded to approach. Observers thought Romero would give the man some money, but instead the archbishop asked the beggar what he should do.

Another of the mythical Romeros, Rosa Chávez said, is offered by those “who want to underline the prophetic nature of his personality, but often understand prophetic in an overly political sense, failing to understand its profound biblical sense.” Arturo Rivera Damas, who succeeded Romero as archbishop, once warned that while it was correct to understand Romero as someone who took the preferential option for the poor to its ultimate consequences, it was important not to err in presenting the poor as synonymous to revolutionary.

Rosa Chávez said followers of Romero “must not fall into the trap of the Romero myth, and instead approach the true Monseñor Romero. He was neither a villain nor a superman, but rather a man and a Christian with defects and virtues who always tried to be open to God and listen to what the spirit was saying to the church.”

Romero’s priestly vocation is a key to remembering correctly. “If we want to look beyond the myths, we must remember that Romero was above all a priest,” Rosa Chávez said. “Shortly before his death, he told an interviewer that if he was born again he would choose once again to be a priest.”

Romero the priest -- rather than the agitator or dupe or superman -- seems to have finally won over some very skeptical Vatican bureaucrats to a process that many hope will eventually lead to his canonization.

John Paul II clearly believed Romero died a martyr for his faith. During a 2000 ceremony commemorating 20th-century martyrs, John Paul was upset not to find Romero’s name in the list prepared by Vatican officials, and wrote in Romero’s name, adding that he was “killed during the celebration of the Holy Mass.”

Conservative senior Latin Americans in the Vatican curia, such as Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, nonetheless believe Romero died for his politics and vehemently oppose canonization. Yet after more than a decade of carefully combing through Romero’s homilies and diaries, Vatican officials are finally ready to admit they could find nothing untoward in the documents.

Case for beatification

The postulator for the cause of Romero’s beatification, Vincenzo Paglia, the bishop of Terni, Italy, came to El Salvador to announce that the Vatican was ready to move forward. With news of the pope’s deteriorating health, Paglia returned early to Rome, but left behind word that the case for Romero’s beatification -- an initial step toward sainthood -- was about to be opened by the Vatican, perhaps as early as May. How the cause fares, obviously, will now depend on who succeeds John Paul, and whether he’s willing to overrule the obstreperous cardinals.

For the thousands who came here to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the archbishop’s murder, though, it’s already a done deal, and no one is waiting for Rome’s approval for the man they call St. Romero of the Americas. Rosa Chávez, noting the huge number of foreigners present for this year’s commemoration, even said it was time to move beyond that title and start calling him “St. Romero of the World.”

Church activists here warn, however, that saintly status could lead the faithful astray, particularly as theological conservatives -- like Archbishop Sáenz Lecalle -- argue for the “spiritual” Romero. Luis Salazar, a priest in the gritty Soyapango neighborhood outside the capital, worried that when Romero’s canonization is someday announced, “some people will be satisfied with traditional devotion, with lighting candles to him, rather than following his message of commitment to the poor, to the Gospel, to changing the historical realities of this people.”

Hernández said she isn’t worried about some people seeing Romero in an incomplete light. In the end, she claimed, they’ll find something they didn’t anticipate. “Each person can approach the canonization as they wish. Monseñor was multifaceted. He was profoundly spiritual. He must be understood that way. But those who immerse themselves in his spirituality are going to discover that for this spirituality to be incarnate, they also have to adopt an active praxis. And for those with an active praxis, they’re going to learn that they’ve also got to pray. No matter how you approach Monseñor Romero, you’re bound to suffer a process of conversion,” she said.

If the ecclesiastical process is moving slowly but steadily forward, the same cannot be said for the cause of bringing to justice those responsible for Romero’s slaying. The wall of impunity has been so solidly built in El Salvador that when the country’s foreign minister, Francisco Laínez, announced on March 31 in Costa Rica that the government would do whatever necessary to clarify who killed Romero, no one paid any attention. Such statements are as devalued here as the old currency, the colón. Indeed, the following day President Antonio Saca said he was unwilling to consider withdrawing the blanket 1993 amnesty that protects Romero’s killers and others responsible for countless human rights violations during the country’s civil war.

The Fresno trial

The amnesty immediately followed a 1993 report by the United Nations Truth Commission that declared that death came to the archbishop at the behest of former Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, who “gave the order to assassinate the archbishop and gave precise instructions to members of his security service, acting as a ‘death squad,’ to organize and supervise the assassination.”

It took a trial last year in Fresno, Calif., where one of the death squad members had been living, to get damning evidence entered into the public record against Romero’s killers. This isn’t Fresno, however, and no one expects the assassins to appear before Salvadoran courts at any time in the foreseeable future.

Church activists aren’t giving up on discovering the truth about El Salvador’s tortured past, however.

Among them is Jon Cortina, a Spanish Jesuit who has lived here for five decades. He teaches seismic engineering at the Central American University. In 1989, when six of his fellow housemates, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, were killed by a military squad, he was away in his parish in the province of Chalatenango. Had he been in his room at the university that night, he would have been killed as well.

“Truth has been persecuted more than anything else in El Salvador. But they couldn’t kill the truth, because it doesn’t walk around. So they killed those who spoke the truth, they killed Monseñor Romero, the Jesuits, so many priests and religious and other people,” he told NCR.

A decade ago, Cortina founded the Association for Searching for Disappeared Boys and Girls, known here as Pro-Busqueda. The group attempts to track down and reunite children and parents torn apart by the war, mostly children who were kidnapped from their parents by the military and given or sold into adoption here in El Salvador and abroad. It hasn’t been an easy task, but at the end of 2004 the group had investigated and documented 743 cases, of which it had resolved 292. Of those, 166 cases have produced a re-encounter between parents and children. In another 38 cases, the children had been killed, and in 88 cases relatives have been located but for a variety of reasons have not been reintroduced. That leaves 451 cases that Pro-Busqueda continues to investigate, and every month more requests arrive for help.

She found her daughter

With help from the University of California in Berkeley, the group has pioneered the use of DNA to aid in confirming relationships. It was DNA evidence that confirmed to Paula Alvarado that after 25 years she had finally found her daughter Patricia, who’d been staying with Alvarado’s mother in Sonsonante when her mother was killed by government soldiers in 1980. Since that time, Alvarado had searched every corner of the country for her daughter, who had been adopted by a family in the capital. Alvarado finally approached Pro-Busqueda, and the organization’s intrepid investigators eventually tracked down her daughter. The two were reunited in an emotional meeting in December. Since then they’ve met several times, despite the vehement argument of Patricia’s adoptive mother, who despite the DNA evidence and the fact that Alvarado and her daughter look a lot alike, continues to insist that she is Patricia’s mother and that Alvarado and Pro-Busqueda are charlatans. Denial remains in vogue in El Salvador, but for the two women reunited after so long, sitting on the step of Alvarado’s simple home in Soyapango and telling stories from the lost years is an indescribable joy.

There’s been no happy ending for Teresa de Jesús Dubon and Moises Guardado. A married couple, they are 70 and 80 years old, respectively, but rather than living out their waning years accompanied by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, their solitude reflects the country’s voracious appetite for death and disappearance. Of their four children, one died of an illness that would have been successfully diagnosed and treated were it not for the fact that the family lives in Huisisilapa, a rural village like so many others with little access to health care. Another child died as a combatant in the civil war. And two daughters, Delmi and Blanca Lidia, ages 22 and 12 respectively, were taken by soldiers in 1981. A neighbor who survived heard the soldiers discussing whether to kill them or not; they finally decided to take them captive.

Dubon and Guardado fled soon after to live in refugee camps in Honduras. When they returned to El Salvador with the signing of the peace accords in 1992, they searched high and low, finding only rumors that led nowhere. Pro-Busqueda has also been unable to track down the children. Twenty-four years later, Dubon says she’s all but given up hope of every seeing them alive. What little hope she has, she told NCR, is nourished by her memories of Monseñor Romero. “When I think of him it helps alleviate the pain a bit, a pain that’s too awful for any mother to have to suffer,” she said. “He was a man who spoke the truth, and he told the people the truth. He gave us hope, whether you were Catholic or not. He keeps giving me hope today, even though I’m getting old. I may not see my daughters again, but before I die I’d like to know what happened to them.”

Just as those interested in seeing justice in the case of Romero had to resort to courts in the United States to begin to get justice, Pro-Busqueda took one of its cases to the Inter-American Human Rights Court in San Jose, Costa Rica. On March 1, the court ruled that the government of El Salvador violated the rights of Ernestina and Erlinda Serrano, who were kidnapped by government soldiers during a 1982 military sweep through Chalatenango. While the ruling didn’t consider the actual kidnapping, because El Salvador didn’t ratify the appropriate international treaty until 1995, it did declare that the government had violated international law after that date by not assisting the family to discover the truth about what happened to the two girls.

To recognize its responsibility

The court ordered the state to pay material damages, but Cortina says more important than the money is the court’s order that the government “publicly recognize its responsibility” in the disappearance, declare an annual day of remembering children who disappeared during the war, fully investigate this and similar cases and punish those responsible (despite the 1993 amnesty), and form an official government commission to investigate this and similar cases.

Cortina reports the government is having the most trouble with the order to publicly recognize its responsibility. “Asking for forgiveness isn’t part of their world. They prefer to talk about forgiving and forgetting. Otherwise, they claim it will open old wounds. That’s absurd, inhuman, and certainly not Christian. I can never forget the Jesuits who were killed. Nor can a mother forget a child who was yanked from her arms,” Cortina said.

“Who has asked forgiveness in this country? No one. Yet they want the victims to forgive, without anyone having to ask for forgiveness. There’s a need for confession before reparation. God asks us these things before we are forgiven. Why do they want to ask a peasant to be more forgiving than God?”

With a couple of exceptions, the country’s church leaders haven’t been helpful in the quest for truth-based reconciliation, according to Cortina. “The bishops are afraid. Their reaction strikes me as infantile. They want to avoid conflict with the authorities. But they don’t worry about conflict with the people, who they just shake off if they get bothered. But they want good relations with the government, so they avoid conflict, in the process leaving part of the reign of God, the denouncement of the anti-reign, to one side,” he said.

Such an attitude helps explain why most of the country’s bishops are, at least privately, reportedly opposed to elevating Romero to sainthood. “They’re afraid of the canonization of Romero, because it would be the glorification -- God’s approval -- of Romero’s pastoral work and denouncement. Some have done so much against Monseñor Romero that his canonization would symbolize that they are down here and Romero up there. That makes them the ignorant and lost ones,” Cortina said.

In his struggle to make public the truth about what happened in this country during the war, and thus begin to build a future that will be different, Cortina finds inspiration and encouragement in the martyred archbishop.

“If anyone spoke the truth, it was Monseñor Romero,” Cortina said. “And Monseñor Romero spoke not only the truth, he spoke the whole truth, which is even more difficult. He indicates where we need to go. When he spoke the truth he expected justice. But he didn’t get it.”

Paul Jeffrey is a freelance writer who lived for two decades in Central America. He now lives in Eugene, Ore.

For further reading
Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements
by Oscar Romero, translated by Michael J. Walsh (Orbis, 1985)
In addition to the collection of Romero’s own teachings, this book includes essays by Jesuits Ignacio Martín-Baró (one of the priests killed at the University of Central America in 1989) and Jon Sobrino.

Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Shepherd’s Diary
by Oscar Romero, translated by Irene Hodgson
(St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1992)
Begun on March 31, 1978, Romero’s diary is not a personal journal as much as a straightforward record of his day-to-day activities as archbishop.

Romero: A Life
by James R. Brockman (Orbis, 2005)
Considered the definitive biography, it was published in 1989 as a substantially revised version of Jesuit Fr. Brockman’s 1982 book, The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero. This year, Orbis has published a slightly updated 25th anniversary edition.

Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic
by María López Vigil, translated by Kathy Ogle
(EPICA, 2000)
Anecdotes culled from interviews with those who knew the archbishop are arranged in chronological order to create an intimate portrait of the man.

Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings
by Marie Dennis, Renny Golden and Scott Wright (Orbis, 2000)
The authors reflect on Romero’s life and the central themes of his teaching.

Monsignor Romero: A Bishop for the Third Millennium
edited by Robert S. Pelton, CSC
(University of Notre Dame Press, 2004)
An anthology of speeches given at Notre Dame examine Romero’s continuing legacy.

National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: