Bishop Romero's Baptism by the People
In March, exactly thirteen years after Bishop Oscar Romero's martyrdom, a new biography of the bishop has just been published
by UCA Editores of San Salvador. Called Piezas para un retrato, this book of testimonies by those who knew him was written by María López Vigil, editor of the Spanish edition of envío. The chapter we have chosen to publish deals with Romero's "conversion."
María López Vigil
SAN SALVADOR, February 10, 1977. The media officially confirmed today that the Vatican named Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdámez to preside as archbishop of the archdiocese of San Salvador. Romero was head of the diocese of Santiago de María for more than two years and substitutes Monsignor Luis Chávez y González, archbishop of San Salvador for 38 years.
WE HAD KNOWN since the end of 1976 that Rome was in consultation to find a new archbishop, because Chávez had reached retirement age. The nuncio promoted Romero's candidacy, in consultation with the government, the military, the business sector and the ladies of society. He asked the wealthy and the wealthy gave their total support to the naming of Romero. They felt he was "one of their own."
THE OLIGARCHY had given his candidacy the green light; that was known in our circles. And it was even said that some traveled to Rome to encourage his naming and that one of those was Rodríguez Porth. I don't know if it's true, but it's true that it's being said.
THE END of the Molina government, after the failure of the agrarian reform, was a period of tremendous repression against the peasants. And the persecution of the Church was already beginning. In February of that year alone, they tortured four priests; another four were expelled from the country as foreigners; there were already break ins and threats against religious workers a very ugly scene. Archbishop Chávez asked that the change be speeded up so that his substitute would take on that crisis.
He was dismayed when he learned that it was Monsignor Romero. Romero had been his auxiliary for four years and Chávez knew his limitations.
"It's curious," he told me, "that the Holy Seat paid no attention to me regarding Monsignor Rivera, who was always my candidate and they knew it. Forty years as archbishop and they didn't take my opinion into account."
He was hurt. Perhaps they feared Rivera in Rome because, although he wasn't scrappy, he knew how to make legal arguments.
The right and the military always said of Rivera: this big turkey's a communist who only knows how to put us up against it. Perhaps in Rome they said: Better Romero, whom we can handle.
MY WORLD CAVED IN when I learned that Romero was the new archbishop. I went to the UCA crying bitterly. "I'm not going to obey a Church that has such a head. Now we'll have to go to the catacombs."
WE DELEGATES OF THE WORD from Morazón and some other areas were really upset when we learned. I remember that we evaluated it with the Franciscan fathers and came right away to the following conclusion: "This is going to completely mess us up!"
I WORKED WITH several progressive priests in a peasant organization. We were in a meeting when the news arrived about what would happen. And it did. We felt that it was a great victory for the conservative oligarchic sector. And we prepared ourselves to face it.
I WAS IN CHILTIUPAN, in a grassroots promotion course. "Forget it!" another priest said to me. "This man's going to do away with all of this!"
I ran to San Salvador and put in a telegram to Monsignor Chávez. A goodbye. And another to Rivera. Of sympathy. He was the one we wanted for archbishop. I didn't send anything to Monsignor Romero; I didn't congratulate him, it wouldn't have been sincere on my part. I was profoundly displeased.
"MAN, NOW WE'RE SCREWED!" we seminarians said. Because Monsignor Chávez had been accelerating his commitment for 17 years, supported by Rivera. And now with Romero? Where to go? It was grim for us, because if we didn't get in line with the new bishop, we had little hope of ever getting to be priests!
I DECIDED NOT TO GO to any celebration that might be organized. And I sent a telegram to Monsignor Romero: "My regrets. Ibáñez."
Antonio Fernández Ibáñez
I WAS FREE OF PREJUDICE. I didn't know anything about his life, I'd never heard him spoken of. But when I saw him on the front page of the newspaper, all dressed in his elegant clothes, I said: This guy's just one more in the long line of traitors.
OUR CANDIDATE WAS RIVERA, as he was for the majority. As president of the Peace and Justice Commission, I'd sent a letter to Rome saying that he was the one who had the consensus of the Church. I was sure they'd elect him. That day a friend brought me El Diario de Hoy with the big photo of Romero and it just came out of me, very ironically: "There you have your bishop." I just couldn't make an act of faith.
"AND HOW DID GOD not deliver us from this man?"
"Don't mix poor God up in the intrigues of the Vatican."
"The only hope is that Romero's in such delicate health that he won't be able to handle being at the helm of the Church and... and he'll get out quick!"
WE GOT AN INVITATION to his inaugural, we of the Zacamil base community. We decided not to go to anything. And we set out to see that no one from the other communities would either. We felt like sheep who didn't recognize their shepherd.
Carmen Elena Hernández
WE WERE DISMAYED by the bad news, but we decided to send letters to him. By my own hand I wrote two, with the agreement of the communal board from my canton, San José del Amatillo. El Terrero, Conacaste, Los Naranjos, El Jícaro, La Ceiba and El Tamarindo also wrote letters. So many of us peasants, organized for years, weren't going to just shrug our shoulders. But, given all that had been said about him, we chose the methodology for the letters carefully, saying that he should declare whose side he was on: "What is your message, Monsignor Romero? We would like to know if you come for the rich, or for us, the poor."
THEY SAY THAT IT'S BEING SAID...
that some old priests from Santiago de María and other parts, upon learning that Monsignor Romero is leaving that diocese for the San Salvador archdiocese, have wanted to alert him to be very alert:
"Look, it's not the same there as it is here. Over there there's an unruly clergy; nuns who act like bossy mayors and some communities that have degenerated into pure politics. But the worst you'll find over there is Aguilares!"
"I know about all that; I lived in San Salvador a few years ago..."
"Yes, but in these few years everything that was already serious has become dire. And that parish of Aguilares has turned into a focal point of communist agitation. That so called peasant experience has gone too far; it's a national danger and you're going to have to act!"
"Do you really believe it will be so bad?" asked the Monsignor, shocked.
"When we say that a leopard has spots it's because we have its hairs in our hand. Be most careful of Aguilares!"
And they say that Monsignor Romero became more worried than he already was.
I USED TO CARRY FOOD on my head and sell it all around Aguilares. In the mornings I went with duck or chicken soup, and in the afternoons I carried toasted corn drink or pineapple drink. The doctor prohibited me from continuing to carry food on my head because of the heat, so I had to earn my living another way. I went to a tobacco factory.
In Aguilares everyone knew me, but not only for my food; also because I was the main person from there who said prayers. When someone died they came looking for me. I also said prayers for San Antonio, San Judas, Santa Eduviges, El Carmen, El Niño de Atoche, La Virgen de Guadalupe some days I did as many as five prayers. Some people charge for that, but I did it from the heart and didn't earn anything. My little girls learned to sing the Ave María and the eldest helped me do the second part, so ever since my kids were all little tykes, I've led them on the path to the prayers.
If a child was dying, they called me to go, to sprinkle water on it, or, in case it died, to sing it the congratulations, which are sung at 4 o'clock in the morning:
Here I have come to this house
Without them having invited me
To sing the congratulations
For this child wrapped in a shroud
The godparents of this child
Who will not be happy
Because they have given a little angel
To the heavenly fatherland.
When Father Rutilio Grande and the other Jesuit priests arrived in Aguilares with their evangelizing missions, they checked around and realized that everyone knew me. It was December of 71 and only my littlest kids were in my house when Father Grande got there with the others. My little house was full of flowers because I was preparing the Christmas pastorale.
"Is this where the praying woman lives, the one called Mrs. Tina?" asked Father Rutilio.
"Yes, she lives here."
"And is this praying woman one of the cohetonas?"
My little ones didn't know how to answer that question. The fathers left me a message that they wanted to speak with me. I, not understanding why they would have called me, got distressed.
When I finally met with the Jesuit fathers, I explained my way of life to them. And they did the same: they told me that they wanted to evangelize in all of Aguilares.
"To know Christ and the gospel in depth. Do you read the Bible, Tina?" Well, I didn't even have a Bible, only a handful of saints' novenas. Now they were letting me in on their plans.
"With your permission," I finally said to Father Grande, "why did you ask if I was...a cohetona?" That was what most disturbed me.
"Cohetonas are religious workers who live only on high, like cohetes [fireworks, rockets]. Those who only pray with their eyes cast upward and don't look around them or concern themselves with their neighbors."
"Hmm, well, I guess I've been a little bit of a cohetona."
"But that can be worked out, Tina. We're counting on you; we need your help because everyone knows you."
That's how a friendship began. I felt happy, welcomed and ready to help them. You know that someone who's poor feels exalted by being chosen. Until that day I had put priests on such a pedestal, as so divine that I didn't feel worthy of talking to them. And with these ones I even ended up working alongside them.
They began to develop communities. Those communities! The thing began in Aguilares, everything was born there.
HE ARRIVED ONE DAY in a big rush, making great sweeps with his visored cap and flapping his hands as was his habit. "Ay, my head's so full already, nothing more will fit in it!!"
He understood that a head was like a warehouse to store ideas in. And he had already learned so many new things that even that prodigious memory of his wasn't enough to remember everything.
"I need to learn to read and write. To be able to tore more!" For three years there had been resistance to Chamba and Cauche teaching him literacy. But now that it was decided, he was there within three days. No one read as nimbly as he did.
Polín. Apolinario Serrano. From El Líbano canton, at the foot of the Guazapa hill. A cane cutter since he was a kid, with fingers deformed from so many harvests and so much machete. A nomadic hog raiser from over near Suchitoto with his network of connections that only he knew about. One of the hundreds of Delegates of the Word born with the experience of the Aguilares parish. And, without doubt, the most brilliant of them all.
And soon thereafter, the most inspired of El Salvador's peasant leaders. What a special kind of leader Polín was! He could put any audience in the palm of his hand. He laced his speeches with proverbs, with jokes, with stories from the Bible. And more than anything, with reality.
"They don't want to candy coat things for us, do they?" say the compañeros who aren't from FECCAS UTC when they hear him. "This Polín can't be any peasant. He must have taken some dandy ideology courses in Havana and Moscow!" They can't believe that Polín could be a hayseed, but figure he must be some trained politician in camouflage.
He'd never use the term shanty neighborhoods, he called them "scanty" neighborhoods; and he'd never say proletariat, but "proletariat." Everyone in Aguilares understands this catechist's word games, because he's one of them, one of so many. They understand and they organize.
Carlos Cabarrús and Antonio Cardenal
EVERYONE IN AGUILARES has years of growing in consciousness and in organization, listening to their parish priest, Father Rutilio Grande:
"Some make the sign of the cross like this: In the name of the Father (bankroll), the Son (coffee), and the Holy Ghost (better that it be of sugarcane)! This isn't the God of our brother Jesus, who gives us his good Spirit so we'll be brothers as equals and so that, as full followers of Jesus, we'll work to make his kingdom present in the here and now...
"Don't be cohetones, your head in all that stuff and bother up there, up there! Here down below, here down below is where the mess has to be put right. God isn't up in the clouds lying in a hammock. It matters to Him that things are going badly for the poor right down here...
"I've often said that we didn't come with a big machete or scythe. That's not our gig. Our violence is in the Word of God, which forces us to change ourselves and improve this world and to put the huge task of changing the world before us...
"I'm very afraid, brothers, that if Jesus were to return today, coming down from Galilee to Judea, in other words from Chalatenango to San Salvador, I dare say he wouldn't get as far as Apopa with his preaching and his actions. And they'd go hard on him; they'd even shut him up or disappear him!...
"The chiltota birds have a conacaste tree where they can hang their nests from, so they can live and sing. They don't even leave the poor peasant so much as a conacaste or a fistful of soil to live on or be buried in. Those who have a voice, a bundle of money and power organize and make use of all the means within their reach. The peasant's don't have land or dough or the right to organize to make their voices heard and defend their rights and dignity as children of God and of this homeland...
"We are children of this Church and of this homeland, which is said to be of the Divine Savior of the World. It's not good enough to say: Everyone look out for themselves, so everything will go alright for me! We have to save ourselves like a bunch of bananas, like an ear of corn kernels. In other words, in community..."
"THE MISSION OF THE FATHERS of Aguilares came to the canton on March 25, 1973. Before the mission came, it was really something. At that time the canton was a bramble thicket, pure bootleg hooch. Everybody got drunk and did crazy things. And all those people only passed the time inebriated, only in booze, in screwing up their lives. But after the mission they cut that right out. No more secret stills, all that remained were maybe a few beers; the people dropped their vices. Another way the canton changed is that, before, each one went his own way. Now help is given collectively, even people who aren't organized offer themselves to some activity. Enmities between villages: all that changed. Now all that has changed. They received the mission with open arms. Then they ended up with a shitload of delegates, some 30 energetic delegates. you could see it in the people's energy."
Inhabitant of the canton El Tronador, in Aguilares. Cited by
Rodolfo Cardenal in Historia de una esperanza. Vida de Rutilio Grande, UCA Editores, 1985.
THEY SAY THAT IT'S BEING SAID...
that a little old lady from a canton over by Aguilares asked one day:
"And you, do you still remember Father Grande?"
"Yes, I remember."
"And, of everything, what do you most remember about him?"
"What do I most remember, most remember...that one day he asked me what I was thinking about. Nobody had ever asked me that question before, in all my 70 years."
HUGE SUGAR HACIENDAS dominate Aguilares. Refineries with thousands of hectares of cane. The millionaires from there the De Solas, who had the La Cabaña refinery; those Dutch, who had San Francisco; and the Orellanas, who had Colima had been pushing thousands of peasants off onto the stony ground and then renting them those barren slopes, raising the rent year after year. When the peasants caught on that such ingratitude wasn't God's will, they went on several very noisy strikes.
Instead of strikes, they had wanted to do something else: community works and agricultural cooperatives. But when the cooperatives began to gather strength, all their paperwork to get equipment, seeds or whatever else fell between the cracks in San Salvador. That's when they got into strikes, demonstrations and such. That thing grew like suds, and some 10,000 peasants from the zone joined together on the streets of San Salvador demanding better salaries in the coffee or sugar harvests.
In my parish of Guazapa, which is right alongside, the same thing happened. We began to do mission work in 1976, in the same style as Aguilares. We priests spent 15 days in each canton, visiting the houses one by one and even arranging it so we'd arrive at a different house each mealtime, so as to get to know everyone real well. They were missions to awaken a different vision of Christianity in the peasants. To motivate them to struggle for their liberation. We applied Freire's literacy method to the evangelizing, so the change would come from the peasants themselves.
"Inside the seed is the strength of the tree," we'd tell them. "Inside of you is the strength of your liberation."
Even though they didn't know how to read, we gave each of them their own New Testament. Every afternoon we held meetings with the whole community. Groups, songs, prayers. We reflected on the Bible. It was a tremendous shake up for peasants to speak and be listened to, to see their neighbors evaluating and commenting on what they said. And more than that! When it ended, the mission left behind a formed community and the Delegates of the World were elected by democratic vote. We organized training courses for these leaders in Aguilares, where they were still more advanced.
Soon after they had opened their eyes reading the Bible, the peasants always raised the same question: "If God doesn't want this poverty, what do we have to do?"
José Luis Ortega
SO MANY POOR opening their eyes, so many peasants making demands. And nothing. The answer was pure repression.
"The government no longer respects me," complained Monsignor Chávez dejectedly, a few days before leaving the archdiocese. "Now they don't even pay any attention to what I ask of them. The new archbishop has to begin governing soon."
Things were getting ever more knotty. The elections on the 20th had once again been a circus, a fraud.
On February 22, my mom gave me the news: "Y'know? I heard they're consecrating that Monsignor Romero today." Everything was done in a hurry. A large number of us priests didn't even know. It was a surprise ceremony.
"Well, your son's going to leave this country," I said to my mom. "I can't work with that man!" Some 20 years earlier he'd been a friend of mine, but as things were now I wouldn't be able to bear working with him.
All dressed up and curious, I went running from San José de la Montaña to see the ceremony. I went in at the side of the seminary, you could hear the organ music, the singing. I went into the chapel, and there was Gerarda, the nuncio, and some bishops, and only a handful of priests and religious women. More than anything else, they had gone to say goodbye to Monsignor Chávez and not to receive Romero. Mainly there were diplomats, the upper middle classes all manicured, people from the government, the big oligarchs... I checked them all out, and I knew a lot of them. How many of those short lecture courses on Christianity I'd preached to them years ago, and for what! Had they converted?
SAN SALVADOR, February 26, 1977. General Carlos Humberto Romero, of the National Conciliation Party, was officially proclaimed the new President of the Republic of El Salvador today after receiving twice as many votes as the opposition UNO coalition candidate, retired Colonel Eduardo Claramount. The final result of the elections, held the 20th, was not made public until today.
Meanwhile, disturbances in the Salvadoran capital continue, as the opposition parties grouped together in UNO claim the victory for themselves, charging that the elections were fraudulent. For two uninterrupted days, thousands of angry opposition members occupied the Plaza Libertad, alongside the National Palace, warning that they will not leave it until the vote count and the chain of irregularities that, according to them, characterized these elections, are reviewed. The morning of Sunday the 27th, a mass protest rally is planned in the Plaza Libertad.
SOME 60,000 PEOPLE CAME. That plaza was jammed all day. And in the afternoon, a mass was even celebrated. There were plenty of people from the Christian communities. The tension was tremendous.
"They're going to evict us by force tonight..." We in UNO had this information since earlier on. The military had decided on whatever massacre was necessary to get rid of such a concentration of people. But we weren't going to abandon the field that easily either.
"What shall we do?"
We decided to look for Monsignor Romero, who had been the new archbishop for only five days, to see if he could prevent the killing. "You know him," they said to me. "You go find him."
Romero wasn't in the archbishopric, and he wasn't in any other office where I went to look for him. I finally discovered that he was in Santiago de María resolving who knows what business. I found him very late and by telephone.
"Look, Monsignor, it's night already and there are about 7,000 people here in the plaza..."
"Yes, of course, I am aware of that..."
"There are women, and children, and the people are prepared to stay there all night; they're not going to move..."
I explained to him about the army, the information we had, that they were going to move us out on any pretext...
"Yes, yes, I understand perfectly."
"So, Monsignor, we believe that if you were here, perhaps they wouldn't have the nerve to act with such violence."
"Did you hear me, Monsignor?"
"Yes, yes, I'm listening to you."
"I beg you to come then, you are our pastor..."
"We need you here, they could kill a lot of people tonight, in just a few hours..."
"Can you hear me, Monsignor?"
"Then you are going to come. Shall we expect you?"
"I shall entrust you to God in my prayers."
And he hung up the telephone.
DID WE AGREE WITH UNO and with facing the military in elections? What do you think? Anyone knew that wouldn't solve anything. But we also saw that being in that plaza was a form of denunciation. Well, our religious community of Zacamil, priests and all, went to the demonstration. It was a nightmare!
In the night, at the time of the shooting, the tumult was such that we were dragged along the street.
"To El Rosario! Everyone to El Rosario!"
When we managed to get into the church, the first dead were falling at our feet. We lost shoes and I don't know what all. That church was absolutely packed with people, and we were choking to death on the tear gas...
"Girls, girls!!" we heard Odilón Movoa shout to us. He was a community leader who always spoke to us that way.
We were three novices, but he had long experience in such violent happenings and so precautionary that he'd brought us little bags with bicarbonate and kerchiefs for the gas.
A lot of us who were there that day believed that Monsignor Romero was a relative of General Romero, the "winner" of the elections. We thus thought the two were linked in power and I remember that some shouted in the middle of that uproar: "A great pair! While one Romero batters us, the other Romero will applaud it."
SAN SALVADOR, February 28, 1977. Late last night, the army of this Central American country opened fire indiscriminately on a multitude of opposition demonstrators who had been occupying the Plaza Libertad for several days. According to some sources, over a hundred dead and a still undetermined, but very high number of wounded is the initial estimate of the violent ejection.
When the shooting began, many of the demonstrators took refuge in the nearby El Rosario church, situated alongside the plaza. In the early morning hours Monsignor Luis Chávez, until a few days ago archbishop of San Salvador, and his auxiliary, Bishop Rivera y Damas, worked out a kind of truce with the military so that the church could be evacuated of those who for hours had sought protection there from the bullets and tear gas with which the army attacked the demonstrators. The new metropolitan archbishop, Monsignor Oscar Romero, was away from the capital during these bloody events.
THEY DECREED A STATE OF SIEGE. That day there was a meeting of the San Salvador clergy. We went. Government trucks were still picking up dead people to go throw them who knew where and some military cistern trucks were hosing down the blood stains from the Plaza Libertad.
The Monsignor, who made his debut as archbishop chairing the meeting, had chosen Rutilio Grande to speak on the topic of the Protestant advance in the country.
"To have to talk about this in such a situation!" Rutilio had complained to us. "Romero's on the moon!" But he didn't refuse.
"Good, Rutilio," Romero said to him as he was about to make the presentation. "I know that you have your little way, and you know how to tell us some things that will do us all some good..."
Rutilio stayed in line and began to speak, but every moment news was arriving. "Come on, man, it seems that some people from your community have disappeared..." One would come in, another would go out, whispers were going on all around.
"That's it!" This time it was Rutilio who interrupted himself. "I think that today isn't the day, there are more important things!"
Monsignor Romero agreed to postpone the question of the sects for another day. Another day that never came. Everything was rushing headlong in the country. The meeting quickly turned into an exchange of information about the massacre in the plaza... What were we going to do?
Monsignor Romero seemed like a chicken out of its coop. He was scatterbrained. We decided to prepare some bulletins to keep informed and approved that all the bishops would publish a message as soon as possible denouncing the national crisis.
"The doors of the archbishopric are open day and night for any emergency," said Monsignor Romero. He could do no less than propose something too, but he was out of it.
Salvador Carranza and Inocencio Alas
EVERYTHING HAD A GRIM CAST. On March 20, we had a first special meeting of priests and nuns, more than 150, called by Monsignor Romero. "Today we will analyze the situation of the foreign priests."
In those times they'd capture one and put him on the border, or, for reasons of your papers, they'd refuse your residence permission and expel you. There were more and more such cases of government arbitrariness.
The situation of the Aguilares priests was a particularly hot potato, since it was a zone of many land conflicts. And we two who were foreigners no longer slept in the parish; we went around hiding ourselves.
"What do you think, then, Monsignor?" Rutilio Grande asked Romero in the plenary. "Can those who are hiding in caves now come out into the light and go down into the valley?"
"Yes, go out. Maintain some precaution, but you will now see that things are going to ease up." He continued to trust in the government. We knew that Molina, the outgoing President, was his personal friend.
At the end of the meeting, Romero tried to put those of us from Aguilares even more at ease. "I don't think anything's going to happen to you, because you're Jesuits. Go without worry to the pastoral work on Sunday."
And he said to Rutilio there in the passageway, "Look, we have to have a chat about that whole experience of these years in Aguilares. You have a lot of knowledge about these popular organizations, which at times are very radical, and even violent. What would you think about studying that in meetings like this one?"
"If God agrees, Monsignor! Why not?"
They never saw each other again. It had been Romero's first meeting as archbishop. And it was Rutilio's last. But neither of the two knew it when they said goodbye to each other.
THE THREE BLOODSTAINED CHILDREN ran between the rows of sugarcane until they arrived in El Paisnal with the bad news:
"They killed Father Tilio!"
Several men ambushed his vehicle on the dusty highway, past the Los Mangos canton, and discharged a hail of bullets down on Rutilio Grande, who was driving, on old Manuel, the father's faithful guardian who tried to cover him with his own body, and on Nelson, the epileptic boy who sometimes rang the church bells in Aguilares. The three young messengers said that they'd been saved because the stream of bullets didn't reach the back seat, where they were:
"Where they shot from, we saw the faces of the killers!"
"The father's done for, he's not talking any more."
In El Paisnal, the place where he was born, they'd been waiting for Father Rutilio so he would celebrate the second day of the novena of San José for them. Instead of firecrackers, now there was crying and screaming. Everyone ran through the cane fields to see if what the children said was true. And it was true: Father Tilio wasn't moving, he wasn't talking anymore. Never more would they hear the good news of the gospel from him:
"You lucky ones, the poor, God wants you to stop being so."
NO, NOT HIM! Rutilio was the only one we didn't think they'd kill. First they'd blow away Chamba, who was Spanish. Or me, a Panamanian. And during the previous day's meal we had joked that they'd scratched a cross on the window of the parish car with a jackknife. As a threat. "After the cross, they'll give us a bomb!"
But we'd said it as a joke; we didn't believe it. That Saturday afternoon, when the mass ended in El Tablón, a peasant came running up. "Some accident must have happened to Father Tilio before getting to El Paisnal. They've spotted his car overturned on the road..."
With him and other peasants I walked the five kilometers from El Tablón to El Paisnal. When I got there the town was in chaos. Yes, they'd killed him. They'd killed our Salvadoran priest, the one with the greatest prestige in the archdiocese, the spiritual father of two generations of priests from the seminary. Tilio, then, my brother. In the midst of that tumult, someone spoke to me from behind my back, but very clearly so I wouldn't fail to hear it.
"You saved yourself, pal!"
When I turned around, I didn't see anyone. Then suddenly it hit me: they'd also planned to kill me, but at the very last minute I'd given my place to old Manuel, because it would be better for me to take the bus to Tacachico and from there to El Tablón and not hold them up.
I headed for Aguilares. A car left me at the entrance, because I wanted to walk that last stretch to the parish alone. The streets were empty, silent, it was already night... As I got close to the plaza, everything exuded grief. The peasants were coming, they were all arriving. I entered. Rutilio was stretched out on the table we ate on. Blood was still running from his back. Manuel was on the other table. The bullets had chewed up one arm. Nelson, poor thing, had only one bullet hole, perfectly round, in the middle of his forehead. It was true, they'd killed them. And I'd been saved. I saved myself, pal...
MORE OR LESS AT THE TIME they were killing Rutilio Grande, Monsignor Rivera was meeting with the boys from a parish team of San Salvador. Suddenly Monsignor Romero arrived, interrupting the meeting. He seemed harassed. "But what's wrong?"
All the bishops, Romero included, had signed a very courageous pastoral message that would be read in the churches the next day. By that time, Romero had been deluged with phone calls and visits. He was getting pressure from his friends of San Miguel, from the Opus Dei people who had a lot of confidence in him.
"And how could you, Monsignor, have let yourself be tricked by the communists?"
"This thing you've signed is going to make things worse!"
"And now that you are the archbishop, how could you have not stopped that craziness?"
So Romero went to Monsignor Rivera and, right there, in front of everybody, he let loose his anguish. "It seems to me that this message is inopportune. It takes sides, it takes sides..."
"Of course it takes sides," Rivera told him. "In these moments we have to take sides, to be on the side of those who are suffering."
They had words. And Monsignor Romero returned to his offices still mulling over all his doubts. Soon the telephone rang. It was the outgoing President, his friend Colonel Molina.
"A pleasure to hear from you, Mr. President..."
"Monsignor, I have to give you some news. They have just informed me of the assassination of Father Rutilio Grande near Aguilares."
"With my most sincere condolences, I want to tell you two things. First, that the government has absolutely nothing to do with this act. And, second, that we will carry out an exhaustive investigation to find the killers."
Monsignor Romero didn't say anything. He hung up. Rutilio, his friend for years, assassinated... Afterward he slowly put in order the pages on which were written the message that, yes, he would be reading the following day.
José Luis Ortega
I TOOK OFF HIS SOCKS, all drenched with blood. I helped undress Father Grande. I received him dead. When I heard the news I felt like I was lifted up into the air, then dashed against the earth. I was so shaken I don't even know how I got to the parish house. And I ask myself what I did to live through so many things that day. I loved him. That's why I kept a little piece of cloth with his blood to preserve forever.
The fathers gave me permission to be there the night we held the wake in the Aguilares parish, all there together recalling the great communities we'd made with him.
It was midnight when Monsignor Romero arrived to view his body. He approached the little table where we'd put him, wrapped in his white sheet, and there he remained looking at him, and in his way of looking you could see how much he loved him too. We didn't know the Monsignor before then. And that night we heard his voice preaching for the first time.
It was a great surprise to hear him. "Ay, it's even the same voice as Father Grande," we all said. Because it seemed to us that night that the word of Father Rutilio had passed to the Monsignor. Right there, truly.
"Can it be that God is making us this miracle so we won't be orphans?" I said quietly to my close friend.
SHORTLY AFTER ARRIVING, Monsignor Romero sat down next to me to chat. At about 3 o clock in the morning they came in, muttering, to do an autopsy on Rutilio. Without being able to even remove a bullet because their instruments were so bad, they clearly deduced from the impact that they were the same calibre as the arms the security forces used. But that's as far as the investigation went; there was no more.
Romero and I were talking about this when I saw him reach his hand into the pocket of his cassock and pull out some crumpled bills, which he gave to me.
"Father Jerez, this is to help in all the expenses there will be..."
"But, Monsignor, how..."
"Yes, Father, these things cost, and that way you don't have to go around so strapped."
Finally, I accepted. Romero didn't have much trust in the Jesuits, but he had always appreciated Rutilio. I accepted and we went on talking of other things.
That gesture made me lose my bearings. Monsignor Romero wasn't a man to go around with a checkbook. He didn't have one then and he didn't have one ever; it wasn't his style. He was more homegrown, more familiar. That night seemed to me like when there's a death in the family and an uncle arrives and comes up to you because you're the head of the family and he peels some bills off for you like he wants to say: it's also my dead, I want to put in my part.
"PREPARE A MASS, Father Marcelino."
"Now, Monsignor?" It was four in the morning.
"Yes, we're going to celebrate. You choose the songs and the readings, and we'll carry the bodies to the church."
I set about getting everything ready. It was impossible to count on Chamba, who was nothing but sobs and more sobs; he couldn't stop crying. The yard of the parish house was full of peasants organized in FECCAS. We prepared the mass and they prepared a communique; they were enraged.
"Father, tell me, are they the organized? Are they from FECCAS?" Monsignor Romero asked me, very nervous.
"Yes, they all belong to FECCAS," I answered, thinking that it was like he was seeing devils.
"And are they going to...?" But he didn't even finish the sentence.
We didn't have caskets. With some peasants we carried the bodies in sheets and put the three in front of the altar.
"What will the readings be?" Romero asked me.
"Well, the gospel of John: 'Greater love hath no man than to give his life'..."
"Good. And the first reading?"
"That's already been said!"
"What do you mean 'it's already been said'?" he asked, worried.
"Those three are the first reading. Doesn't it seem to you, Monsignor, that not much needs to be said tonight, that they've already said everything?"
He didn't contradict me. Perhaps he'd lost his voice in the face of such a huge reality.
PROFOUNDLY CONCERNED by the assassination perpetrated against Father Rutilio Grande and two peasants from his parish of Aguilares who were accompanying him, I address you to communicate to you that a series of commentaries are arising with regard to this act, many of them unfavorable to your government. As I have still not received the official report that you promised me by telephone on Saturday night, I judge it of great urgency that you order an exhaustive investigation of the facts, given that the supreme government has in its hands the appropriate instruments to investigate and execute justice in this country.... The Church is prepared not to participate in any official government act as long as it does not put its pledge entirely behind making justice shine over this monstrous sacrilege that has consternated the entire Church and caused the whole country to experience a new wave repudiating violence...."*
* Six weeks later not even an order had been given to exhume the bodies and do the autopsies. During his three years as archbishop, Monsignor Romero lived up to his word and never participated in any official act. Eight years later, in March 1985, former Colonel Roberto Santibáñez of the Salvadoran army director of Migration at the time of the crime identified Rutilio Grande's assassin in a press conference in Washington. He pointed to Juan Garay Flores, member of a group of Salvadoran officers among them Roberto D'Aubisson and Santibáñez himself who had been trained in the International Police Academy in Georgetown, Washington, DC.
Fragments of the letter written by Monsignor Romero to President Molina on March 14. Cited by James R. Brockman in La Palabra queda. Vida de Mons. Oscar A. Romero, UCA Editores, 1985.
IT WASN'T ONLY RUTILIO. It was a well organized persecution that was barely beginning. That same day, March 12, they had intended to kill at least three more priests. In the afternoon, at the same hour they machine gunned Rutilio, they shot at the vehicle of Father Rafael Barahona in Tecoluca and, by mistake, killed his brother, who was driving.
The other to be killed was Tilio Sánchez, but as he was an expert in disguises, he managed to escape. I don't know how he did it that day, whether he was dressed like a possum or what. I was the fourth on the list. Saturday the 12th I was in a village after performing a marriage ceremony when they came to advise me:
"Look, Father, this is real ugly: some armed civilians are wandering around over there and it seems they're trying to recognize you..."
The dentist from there offered to get me out at once by a not very traveled road. Soon after I left, those civilians arrived with some uniformed men from the Guard. They broke up the party and captured the son of the owner of the house in which the community usually met.
A few days later, the following headline appeared in El Diario de Hoy: "Incendiary Accuses Priest." I read it and saw that the "incendiary" was the captured kid. They said they had detained him while he was busy setting fire to cane fields in the zone, on orders of Father Trini Nieto, yours truly. He had also "confessed" that his mother's house had been used to plan with the priest, yours truly again "all the sabotage actions and crimes of destruction that the terrorists of the area carry out."
We knew only too well that the plan was put together by that devil D'Aubisson. I began to hide out.
RUTILIO'S BURIAL was to be the 14th. As night was falling on the 13th, Monsignor Romero called us urgently to his office.
"I need you to go right now to Aguilares to arrange the issue of the graves. I want the three to be buried together in the church of El Paisnal, Rutilio in the center, and the graves to be entirely lined with bricks, from top to bottom."
"At your command, Monsignor..."
"But you must go right now, so everything will be ready for tomorrow."
Right now? Aguilares was totally militarized at that hour of the night. Perhaps he saw the fear on our faces, but, never mind, he went right on asking favors...
"I also want you to speak tonight with the comandantes..."
"With the comandantes?!"
"Yes, yes, seek out the guerrilla comandante leaders from the organizations around there and see if you can convince them not to give out any propaganda leaflets during mass. Tell them that I am asking them not to convert the burial into a political act."
More serious yet! At that hour of the night to go looking for "comandantes"!
"Of course, Monsignor..."
They'll kill us there, Jon Cortina and I told each other as we left his office. And we went, sure that they'd kill us.
We arrived in Aguilares, that olive green sea of uniforms, at midnight. The first thing we did was seek out a brother of Rutilio's. "Do you know of any bricklayer who can dig graves for us at this hour for the burial tomorrow?"
He did. And he also got involved in the other task, that of finding "comandantes". "I know where they hang out," he told us.
We went toward El Paisnal. At the entrance and exit to Aguilares, guards stopped us. Several times that night we had to pass by the very spot where hours before they had killed Rutilio.
We began by digging the graves... It was hard! Over the years we had to dig so many others, but that one was to bury Tilio in and we still weren't accustomed to such sadness.
The bricklayers were slow, and we got way ahead of them and went to carry out our other task, the most apoplectic one.
Holy God, walking something like two hours through that darkness, up and down hills full of bushes. Finally we came across some compas. I don't know if they were comandantes, but they spoke with authority so they had to be something. We explained what Monsignor Romero had sent us to say. It was quite a little debate. They were thinking of passing out leaflets, why not, if it was the first priest assassinated in the country and was also Rutilio, whom everyone loved so much.
"You can pass out your leaflets and then go hide, but the people have to stay here and later those from ORDEN come to kill them," we said.
"But we have to express what the people feel," they said.
It went on for a long time. For them, Monsignor Romero's authority didn't count for anything. He was unknown to them...or worse, was a usurper of the responsibility that many of them, too, had wanted for Monsignor Rivera. Finally they were convinced: no political propaganda during the mass and burial.
"But when they say the final benediction, then we're free to distribute our flyers," they said decidedly.
With the negotiations done, we went back up and down the hills, returned over the roads, and by the time we were back in San Salvador it was already dawn.
It then became my job to run around trying to get the marble headstones made that they were going to put over the graves. Near the cemetery are craftsmen who do those kinds of funeral things.
"What names do you want engraved on the stones?" asked the first one I approached.
I showed him the little piece of paper with the three names. "Rutilio Grande? Ay, no, master. I'm very sorry."
In another shop the same, and in another and another. No one wanted to engrave those headstones. Too much fear, too much panic. "But if it's a thing like this? Very little? Tell me, who's going to see it?"
No one wanted to. Until I went around a bend, waaay at the end, half hidden, and found a frizzy haired gentleman who was the only one willing. "But, please, don't tell anyone... And I'll only do it without a bill!"
Mission accomplished, then. It was almost time for the mass to view the body in the Cathedral.
Antonio Fernández Ibáñez
THEY SAY THAT IT'S BEING SAID...
that in San Salvador everyone was talking about the burial of Rutilio Grande, and, even more, about the single mass that would be held Sunday, March 20.
"And why do they call it single, then?"
"Because it will be a special mass. Because even though it's Sunday, no father will give a mass in any church in any tiny hermitage or anywhere, but apparently all will go and be together in just one mass in the Cathedral. Just one! So if you want to comply, whether out of duty or out of devotion, that's the only mass there will be in the city."
"I've never seen that kind of single mass."
"Killing a priest isn't something that happens every day."
There was curiosity. And there was also the desire to show the government and the top brass that, in the face of such a crime, Christians are united and all feel like kernels in one single ear of corn.
WHAT TO DO about Rutilio's death? After the burial came discussions and interminable meetings with Monsignor Romero and the priests, lay workers and nuns.
"What has been said and done up to now is already sufficient," said the most conservative.
"We can't stop until we break relations with the Vatican," said the most radical.
The idea of the single mass was born in the heat of these debates, and then became the core of the polemic.
"And you really believe that will work?" Monsignor Romero was filled with doubt.
He wanted to be convinced, to hear all the arguments, to come to a decision that was really collective. There were multitudinous assemblies, of eight hours and even longer, right and left mixed together.
"The government will interpret this mass as a provocation!"
"That's what it will be! Open air mass, these people in the street and with the state of siege... Does anyone think that if a shot is heard it won't end in a stampede?"
"But the idea of the single mass has already really caught on in the communities."
Monsignor Romero was full of scruples. In one of these meetings, he came out with what seemed like the best one of all:
"And in this situation, wouldn't it be to the greater glory of God to have many masses in different places than just one mass in one single place?"
A whole new round of opinions was heard, pro and con. After a while I asked for the floor.
"Look, I believe that all of us here studied that the mass is an act of infinite valor. What sense would it make, then, to concern ourselves with going around saying a whole bunch of masses, adding up infinities? One's enough. I also believe that Monsignor Romero is completely right in that we should concern ourselves with the glory of God, but if I'm not very wrong, I recall that famous phrase of St. Ireneo, "Gloria Dei vivens homo," "The glory of God is that man live."
I think this ended up convincing him. At the end, with the approval of the immense majority of those in the meeting, it was decided that on Sunday, March 20, there would be just one mass, a single mass, in the whole archdiocese of San Salvador.
HE WAS SMALLER THAN EVER. At the end of that last meeting about whether or not to have a single mass, he was darker, uglier, more shrunken into himself than ever. He had said that, yes, he accepted the idea, but he knew how many criticisms he would have to face.
Upon leaving the Guadalupe salon, four or five of us priests stayed behind chatting, smoking cigarettes, being wise guys.
"This man has changed." Everyone made the same comment.
Then the Monsignor came over to where we were. And it came right out of him, just like that, with no preamble: "Tell me, tell me what I can do to be a good bishop."
Ingenuous, like a child who's lost.
"It's easy, Monsignor," said one real rascal. "If you dedicate seven days of the week to being in San Salvador, you'll spend them listening to those old women who gather round you and invite you to tea. Change your recipe: spend six days in the countryside, among the peasants, and only one day here, and you'll be a good bishop."
And then he comes out with this, even more ingenuously: "It seems like a good idea, but I still don't know the places to go to in the countryside. Why don't you all make me a little program for those six days?"
What more could we want? As the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, he hadn't even left his office. And now he was asking nothing less of us than a pastoral work plan!
"What an incredible change!" that priest, the rascal, said to me, without being able to even believe it.
Antonio Fernández Ibáñez
"THREE DAYS WITHOUT CLASSES?! The caprices of communists. What has this craziness come to now?"
The oligarchy shouted to the heavens. In addition to celebrating the single mass, a collective decision was made to suspend classes in the Catholic high schools for the three days prior to the mass so the students could reflect together on the situation in the country. The tension among Monsignor Romero's old friends was growing.
Overwhelmed, but convinced, the Monsignor decided to go in person to communicate to the nuncio, Emmanuele Gerarda, that the question of the single mass was definitive. He asked four of us priests to accompany him so we could explain it better all together.
The nuncio wasn't in. His secretary, an Italian priest, received us and sat in front of Monsignor Romero with the face of an inquisitor. Although he had the archbishop in front of him, he did nothing to dissemble his anger.
To begin with, we explained to him one by one all the arguments that we had dealt with, pro and con, in the meetings.
"Bene." He responded with ire from the very start. "This thing of the single mass has various levels. There is the pastoral level, the theological level... You have laid out molto bene these two levels, but the most important one is lacking!"
What could it be? It didn't come to me.
"The juridical level! The canonical level! The normative one! What's missing here is the law!"
And that man began to argue that the Monsignor didn't have the authority, through the laws of the Church, to grant anyone dispensation from going to the Sunday mass, nor could he deprive anyone of the right to attend a mass. And after that, he began to berate him with pure shouting!
I insisted that the circumstances were very special, that it was a time of repression, that we should give hope to the people and that the legal aspects were completely secondary in such a critical situation... "The sabbath is for man and not man for the sabbath," I reminded him.
But deaf, he continued with the chastising and the laws and the rights and the dispensations and the codes and the articles of the codes...
Monsignor Romero was silent. He only spoke at the end: "I beg you to communicate to the nuncio that there will be a single mass. That this is the decision of almost the whole clergy and is also mine, and that I am the one who has the final responsibility in my archdiocese."
No one spoke further. When we left the nunciature, Romero said to us: "These are like the ones of Opus, they don't understand."
IT WAS THE EVE of the fought over single mass, early the afternoon of Saturday the 19th. They had asked us to prepare 136 placards so each parish of the archdiocese could carry one. It was a tedious task, my sisters and three seminarians were helping. When we were well into it, the nuncio appeared in one of the passageways.
"Where is Monsignor Romero?" he asked me irritably.
"He isn't here right now. He went out." He had gone to El Paisnal to celebrate the fiesta of San José, which Rutilio Grande was unable to honor with his people.
"Well, he has to be here, in his place," he shouted.
"But, why do you speak of him like that, so angrily?"
"Because tomorrow he's going to commit a major error and he's blind, he doesn't realize. Tomorrow will be a terrible day for the Church!"
He spoke more and more aggressively.
"A terrible day how? We're all going to celebrate a mass together and that will be a great blessing..."
"Enough! Give him this from me when he returns."
He left me a letter and went away. The Monsignor returned about five in the afternoon. I gave him the letter and he went to his room to read it. Shortly he came out, very upset, looking for me. "Look, read this letter."
The nuncio was pressuring him, ordering him, threatening to communicate to the whole clergy that the single mass was suspended. "What can I do, Chencho?"
I reminded him of the most classic theology. "You are the bishop, no one else. And only you will respond to God for your decisions as the shepherd of these people. God gave you this position and neither the nuncio nor even the Pope has the responsibility for the archdiocese of San Salvador; you have it."
He looked at me searchingly. And I, not finding anything more to say to him, went back into the past and something occurred to me.
"Remember the lecture courses on Christianity?" Some 15 years ago we'd been in them together. "Remember how many times we said there that, when we don't find an answer for the problem we're facing, the best thing is to go speak to Jesus? Why not do that? Why not go and speak with the Lord and decide between the two of you what it is that must be done?"
He went straightaway to the seminary chapel. I went on painting letters on the placards, with a great fear that the man would get all twisted around by so many pressures. I continued painting.
After about an hour I see him coming down that incredibly long passageway. He came slowly, and there was I, racing inside, red hot... It seemed as though he was never going to arrive... When he was finally there alongside me, I remained kneeling, painting, dissembling my tension...
"Well did you two speak?" I stopped with a can of green paint in my hand.
"Yes, Chencho, we've spoken. He is also in agreement."
THE PLAZA WAS ABOUT TO BURST. A hundred thousand people there and who knows how many more listening on the radio. There were priests all over the place, and hundreds of people confessing in the streets. For many, distanced from the Church for years, that day was their return to the faith. The assassination of Rutilio and the sign of that single mass was an awakening. Almost all of the priests of the archdiocese, some 150 of us, concelebrated that mass.
At the beginning of the mass I noticed Monsignor Romero sweating, pallid, nervous. And when the homily began, he seemed to me to be slow, without the eloquence he normally had, as if he were doubting whether to enter through the door that history and God held open for him. But after about five minutes I felt that the Spirit of God descended over him.
"...I want to express my gratitude here in public, standing before the face of the archdiocese, to all these beloved priests for the unity that today is gathered solidly around the single gospel. Many of them run risks, up to the maximum immolation of Father Grande..."
Upon hearing Rutilio's name, thousands of people burst into applause.
"That applause ratifies the profound joy that my heart feels upon taking possession of the archdiocese and feeling that my own weakness, my own inabilities, will find their complement, their strength, their courage, in a united presbytery. Whoever touches one of my priests touches me as well!"
Thousands of people gave him an ovation and he grew. It was then that he crossed the threshold. He entered. Because there is baptism by water and baptism by blood. And there is also baptism by the people.
HE "CONVERTED" AT AGE 60
He could be happily preaching today in assemblies or conferences, wearing a red collote on his head, a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. His chosen path of faithful orthodoxy had already purchased almost all the ballots he would need to be awarded this post.
But, instead, wearing a bullet hole at the level of his heart, he is buried in the cellar of a shabby cathedral of a poor country in Central America, in the forgotten South.
Few people pull the rug out from under their own feet when they are already old. To exchange security for dangers and certainties amassed over the years for new uncertainties is an adventure for the young. Old dogs don't learn new tricks. It is a law of life.
And it is a law of history that the more power authorities get, the more distant they become from the people and the more calloused their heart gets. The higher you climb, the more people lose sight of you. The heights are dizzying, intoxicating and isolating.
Oscar Romero broke both of these laws. He "converted" at 60 years of age. And it was by climbing to the highest of his country's ecclesiastical positions that he came truly closer to the people and to reality. At the top of the ladder, when his years were begging him for repose, he understood that nothing is higher than reaching back toward earth. And toward it he went. At that eleventh hour he elected to open himself to compassion to the point that he staked his life. And he lost it. It doesn't occur to many people to do that.
For that and various other reasons I believe that Oscar Romero's story merits the pain of the telling. I thought of this book in 1981, when each morning more than 30 bodies of murdered Salvadorans appeared in the streets and roads of that country. Each Salvadoran I bumped into passionately related his or her personal history with Monsignor Romero. The archbishop of San Salvador seems to have left a print on his country as profound as the one he left on the heart of so many of his compatriots.
To socialize these dispersed memories, to put such witty and fluent anecdotes alongside each other, to transform them into
the mosaic pieces with which to reconstruct a portrait of Oscar Romero turned into a real challenge for me. Will it finally be THE portrait of the real Monsignor Romero? In any event, it will be A portrait. But one made collectively.
I dreamed of this book during the time of the cruelest repression, when the memory of the Monsignor was still fresh and the destiny of the poor peoples who were struggling for their liberation still evoked pain throughout the world. Solidarity in those times was an almost sacred word.
But when I finally wrote the book, it was another time. So much blood and stubborn hope of the Salvadorans had forced down the drawbridge to another era, one of the beginnings of peace and the end of armed confrontation. In the collective memory, Monsignor Romero is now a myth, but the new generation doesn't know him very well.
It is also another time in the world. With breath catching speed, entire dreams, ideas and projects were devalued, and in the middle of this confusing wave of changes, we have to continue searching in the direction of solidarity, although the compass needle swings wildly. I get easily irritable at the hell of a spin the world has made. Other times will come, perhaps more encouraging ones. Despite all the spins, yesterday in its time, and today and tomorrow too, I believe it is still valid and necessary to tell the story of this good man named Oscar Romero.
Among many other things, his story reveals the action of God: it reveals how compassion is winning over ever more space from ideology. And this is what these, and perhaps all, times need in the world: good authorities, people with power in the Church too who call things by their real names, who look at reality and not at the image of reality, who sympathize with and go into action for; how many lives half lived, how much avoidable pain....
(Extracted from the prologue of Piezas para un retrato, by María López Vigil.)