Pilgrimage to El Salvador
Steve Clemens, March 2005
“You didn’t come to be a tourist but to be on a pilgrimage”, Sister Peggy of the Sisters of Charity told us. She reminded us of the words of Gustavo Gutierrez: “Woe to you who come dry-eyed.” We were told by several speakers who addressed our 21-person seminar sponsored by Augsburg College Center for Global Education that the social and economic conditions in El Salvador today are as bad as or worse than before the civil war which ripped this Central American nation apart during the 1980s. Our pilgrimage coincided with the Christian Holy Week and the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero.
Why did God choose this “flea of a nation” as the place to raise up a prophet to the wealthy and powerful and a pastor and shepherd to the poor? Does the life, ministry, and witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero deserve canonization by the church? Is his martyrdom relevant today or was he killed for meddling in political affairs that shouldn’t concern him as his fellow bishops warned him?
The parallels to Jesus of Nazareth are striking: both men were raised in the rural countryside by working-class parents. Both had a public ministry of three years. While criticized by the religious hierarchy, both of these prophets spoke directly to the poor, insisting that God has a special concern for them. And both were killed by the powers who wanted to silence them.
As an Anabaptist whose tradition scorned icons and discounted the claims to “sainthood” of many by the Roman Catholic Church, I found myself wanting to touch the altar and the place on the floor of the Divina Providencia Chapel where Romero was shot while celebrating the Eucharist in 1980. After hearing the words of many Salvadorans who lived and walked with Romero, I knew I was standing on holy ground. I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift that this prophet and pastor has been since his “conversion” in 1977 after being selected as the new archbishop. Because of his writings and eloquence in his homilies and radio broadcasts which have been preserved, Romero continues to inspire and challenge people of faith around the world today.
Part way through the 5 km march from the site of his murder, past the statute to the patron saint of the country, Salvador del Mundo, a sculpture of Jesus astride the globe of the world recalling his transfiguration, we came to a park where we encountered the Memorial Wall for Truth. Reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, this monument for the victims of the 12 year civil war listed by name those killed and “disappeared” in columns, alphabetized by year. There, amidst thousands of other names, I found the names of not only Romero, but also Rutillio Grande and Alfonso Navarro, two of many priests and women religious who were targeted by the notorious death squads, financed and armed by the U.S. government, whose murders compelled Romero to speak. Those who worked with this new archbishop said that he daily made himself accessible to the poor who traveled from the rural countryside to tell him about a relative, friend, or loved one who was killed or disappeared. In this processes, he truly became a bishop, a shepherd, one who tried to protect and comfort his “flock”.
The life, witness, and martyrdom of Romero, powerful as it was, was repeated over and over again by others in this nation who, inspired by the Gospel and its application encouraged in their daily lives by “Liberation Theology”, continued to try to work for justice despite the obvious risks and costs. If the death squads were willing to target the archbishop, not one who spoke out on behalf of the poor was “safe”. Yet, despite the growing numbers of the martyrs of the church, others continued and more voices arose demanding an end to the killings and repression. Father Tojeira, the Provincial for the 6 martyred Jesuits at the university seminary, told us that he expected his bullet would come “any day” for the next several years until the war ended – yet he had no option except to continue his call to mission that had been shared by his fellow priests.
It is quite evident in the way the common folk of El Salvador commemorate “Good Friday” that this is a people that understand suffering and can relate much better than I what the arrest, trial, and crucifixion was really about. Yet resurrection also abounds: before his assassination, Romero clearly understood the risks he was taking on behalf of the people. He told the people that if he was killed, he would “rise again in the people” of El Salvador. This is quite evident when you see how precious the memory of this saint is to the poor. He is risen every time another person speaks on behalf of those with “no voice”. He is risen every time the base Christian communities read, reflect, and act on the scripture, recognizing that “God has a preferential option for the poor”.
The present hierarchy of the Catholic Church in El Salvador did not wish to adapt or change their traditional observation of Holy Week, finding it “disruptive” of their Maundy Thursday, to endorse the public march in honor of the slain archbishop. One bishop in the countryside has declared that Romero’s name is not to be mentioned in the Department of San Vicente. The Opus Dei right-wing sect within the church has taken over control of the seminary, blessing the status quo and making religion a way of coping until one gets to heaven. So the push for sainthood has its opponents in both Rome and El Salvador. Cannonization for Romero raises the ugly question of who is responsible for his death and why was he killed? Two questions whose answers critique and question not only the status quo in San Salvador but also our nation as well. While many of the perpetrators of the violence today live in luxurious self-imposed exile in Miami, some of the architects and promoters of the anti-communist foreign policy which led to the U.S. support of the military repression throughout Central America in the 70s and 80s continue to be named to high positions within the U.S. government today.
While the death squads were used to keep the rich protected then, bankers and other financiers are able to do the same today through trade and loan agreements. The poor, whether in the countryside or working for the internationally-owned maquilladoras, are being killed with ink pens rather than bullets today. God is calling us to take up the fallen mantle of Romero and be a “voice for those who have no voice”.