May 23 in San Salvador, recounting Central America’s story
The beatification of Monsignor Romero
symbolically culminates a long and conflictive stage
of the Latin American, Central American and even Nicaraguan Church.
It’s a religious and political happening with the potential to open another stage. At the same time it’s a moment for celebrating, reflecting and also recounting.
The ceremony for the beatification of Monsignor Romero on Saturday, May 23, drew the largest gathering of people in El Salvador’s recent history. An exact calculation is difficult: at least 300,000; maybe even half a million?
The emotional participation of that multitude was ample evidence of the deep affection and admiration that a good part of the Salvadoran people still holds for a man who during three years of bloody repression was the “voice of the voiceless,” who became the “father of the poor,” as Pope Francis called him on designating him blessed.
Pope Francis’ buttressing of everything Monsignor Romero has meant over these 35 years, unblocking the process, declaring him a martyr and sending ecclesiasts from Rome to preside over the ceremony in San Salvador are signs of inflection in a drawn-out conflict that are essential to understanding the history of this little piece of the world called Central America.
Two determinant powersThe Catholic Church has been a powerful institution here as a result of the conquest of Latin America by the Spanish and Portuguese, both of which were leading lights of the military and cultural counter-reformation against nascent Protestantism. It has enjoyed notable influence with the civil powers and in people’s consciences right up to today, despite the recent rapid advances of the evangelical denominations.
In Peruvian sociologist and psychotherapist Guillermo Nugent’s acute analysis, the army and the Catholic Church have been and still are the two most solid hierarchical institutions in all of Latin America, two determinant real powers. What he calls the “military caudillismo and the Catholic cultural hegemony” occupy Latin Americans’ collective self-identity as fundamental referents of power. “Still now,” he writes, “military parades and [religious] processions are the street activities that best express the image of that hierarchical order…. Both institutions are considered pillars of social organization, without which society would unravel.”
He states in his thought-provoking conclusions that “in Latin America, democracy as a civil and secular project is facing the obstacles of a historical configuration different than that of the processes that took place in their time in Europe and the United States.” But he also admits Latin America’s capacity to “create entirely new things with the same old words, old ingredients and the naturally familiar.” In his view, we have the capacity to “create new contexts” that by questioning these two hierarchical prostheses—military order and clerical institutionality—can bring about “a broader sense of how to understand a national community and a less obedient religious experience.”
Two models of Church Something of that creative capacity was expressed in the act to beatify Monsignor Romero. It was a paradoxical act, an unprecedented moment. On the one hand, the ceremony had all the solemnity of any Catholic Eucharistic rite, turning it into an impressive sign of power. On the other, the figure being exalted was for decades a symbol, both Salvadoran and universal, of that ecclesiastic power put at the service of the poor and those oppressed and repressed by economic and military power. Romero was in his time and has become even more iconically over time, the protagonist of a “new religious context”… although certainly not one exempt from conflicts.
During the over 500 years of history of Christianity in Central and Latin America, certainly in Nicaragua, there have been two conflicting models of Church. These two models have always been in conflict, not over dogmas or doctrines, but over attitudes and practices with respect to civil power and the victims of the abuse of power.
As early as 1550 Nicaragua had the continent’s first martyred bishop. Like Monsignor Romero, Fray Antonio Valdivieso was assassinated for the cause of justice, as he too was killed by Catholic authorities “in hatred of the faith,” when faith, as Fray Antonio defined it, meant putting into practice “that the power of the Church is for the oppressed,” in his time mainly indigenous peoples.
In both bands During the wars of independence, Latin American colonial societies were deeply split, and Catholic hierarchs also chose opposing sides. Inspired by Mexico’s armed peasant movement headed by priests José María Morelos and Miguel Hidalgo, various Central American priests conspired against the Spanish Crown and engaged in a religious experience in “disobedience” of the authorities that represented it in the region.
Other priests defended the colonial power. In 1811, Father José Antonio Chamorro proclaimed that “the insurgent people have disobeyed the kings of Spain, and in this manner, they have been violators and offenders of all laws.... The people conceive that they have more power than God, the Church, and the King. We can conclude that the insurgents are traitors to God, to the religion, and to the King of the country.”
In September 1824, three years after Central America became independent, none other than Pope Leo XII, who had a horror of popular revolutionary governments, issued an encyclical to the archbishops and bishops of America, condemning the acts of rebel governments against the Church and asking them to support the cause of “our very dear son Ferdinand, Catholic king of Spain.”
Nearly a century later, during the US military occupation of Nicaragua, the Church as an institution remained silent, but individual members of the hierarchy took opposing sides. As early as 1912 the bishop of Nicaragua, Monsignor Simeón Pereira y Castellón, wrote asking his US Catholic counterparts to tell Washington they disagreed with what the US government was doing to Nicaragua. “Your powerful country,” he wrote in clear anti-imperialist terms, “has dominated our weak country with its battleships, powerful cannons and treasures of the bankers of the North, who strengthen themselves every day and exhaust our treasury with large loans, unjust treaties and unequal contracts.”
The following decade, when the diocese of Nicaragua was divided into three and Antonio Lezcano y Ortega became archbishop of Managua, both he and Bishop Canuto Reyes y Valladares of Granada leaned so far in the other direction that they actually blessed US Marine Corps contingents on their way to the Segovias “to finish off the bandit Sandino.”
Vatican II: It is, however, only fair to recognize that the “disobedient” hierarchies were generally exceptions and the religiosity taught by the majority of the hierarchies predominated for centuries at the grassroots level. It was and still is a religiosity centered on rites and characterized by resignation and hope for the “hereafter.”
The great change
This finally began to change some 50 years ago with the Vatican II Council (1962-1965), a great gathering of more than 2,000 bishops and theologians from all over the world, meeting for the first time in an event of this type not to condemn anything or just discuss internal Church affairs.
For the first time the Catholic Church seemed to be taking an interest in “the world.” It was forcefully proclaimed that the Church isn’t just the clergy and religious workers but all “God’s people.” The Council invited everyone to view the world with optimism and transform it to make it more just.
The Church began to understand itself as a people committed to making Jesus’ dream of the Kingdom of God a reality on earth. And also for the first time, Catholic communities began to read the Bible from a renewed exegesis, following the Protestant tradition. Latin was discarded in the liturgy and ecumenical dialogue was encouraged with all religions.
“Fresh air” entered through all the windows of the Church, as desired by Pope John XXIII, who had convoked the Council. While there was no shortage of religious hierarchies determined to close them again, at that moment they seemed to be in a minority.
Medellín 1968: Zero hourIn 1968, a time of military dictators dotted around the continent, Latin America’s bishops met in Medellín, Colombia, to “read” the Council’s important new ideas in the reality of our continent, the only region on the planet inhabited by a majority of Christian believers and, contradictorily, the most unequal one, with the most unjust distribution of wealth, land and opportunities. If the Europe of the Council was by then undergoing rapid secularization, in which the prevailing “religious” question was whether there is life after death, on this side of the globe the pressing question was whether there can be life before death.
Urged to respond to this question born of the majorities’ impoverishment, the theological concepts that came out of Medellín inspired practices to recover the transforming strength of Jesus’ teachings: the concept of structural sin (it’s not enough to avoid personal sin; social sin must be transformed); recognition that our continent not only needs development, but urgently needs liberation; recognition that faith and the commitment to social change cannot be separated; the belief that God is not neutral in historic conflict, but takes the side of the poor in escaping from their poverty; and the imperative that loving the wealthy must mean denouncing their unjust wealth so they can live as brothers while loving the poor must mean pulling them out of their poverty so they can live as humans …
Following the see-judge-act methodology, the bishops reflected on the continent’s reality and made the “preferential option for the poor” a centerpiece of the new practice. The documents that came out of Medellín were an original and autochthonous reworking of those from the Council. Medellín was the official baptism of liberation theology.
These ideas and the practice growing out of them—because liberation theology is above all practice, an attitude toward power and the poverty it provokes—gave birth to the most important evolution ever experienced by the Church in Latin America. While the governments were dominated by the protagonism of their armies, profound transformation dominated the practice of both the Catholic Church hierarchy and its base.
This change was conflictive in the extreme. Out of fear, Monsignor Romero was initially an active censor and adversary of everything that had come out of Medellín. It would only be some ten years later that he, like so many other hierarchs and so many people in general, changed, transformed into who he is today: the world’s best known representative of that stellar moment of Latin American history.
Renewed ChurchesThe Vatican Council and Medellín renovated the Church across Latin and Central America. Organizations of men and women who assumed leadership in promoting the faith and social justice popped up everywhere, all at the same time and for the first time: Christian base communities in city barrios and parishes and Delegates of the Word in rural zones, particularly strongly in Honduras.
The Church in Nicaragua, until then closed in on itself and very tied to the Somocista dictatorship, was not immune to this phenomenon. Already in 1966, only a year after the Council had ended in Rome, US Capuchin brothers had started promoting the Delegates of the Word movement and the training of laypeople in Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. The first Christian base communities were formed in Managua in those years with youthful, middle-class and urban characteristics.
In the Solentiname archipelago the Trappist monk and poet Ernesto Cardenal initiated an original pastoral work experience, while congregations of nuns stopped teaching in schools for upper and middle class youth to work in barrios, and the Catholic Church’s apostolic lay movement called Cursillos de Christiandad (short courses on Christian living) assumed social commitment as a sign of identity.
Ten years of renovation of the Nicaraguan Church had their most visible result in the massive participation of organized communities of Christians and Catholics in the overthrow of Somoza, an event that pleased Monsignor Romero. In his July 22, 1979, homily, three days after the triumph, he said, “I’m sure I’m interpreting the feeling of all of you if our first greeting this morning is for our sister republic of Nicaragua. What joy the initiation of their liberation gives us!”
Those in Nicaragua committed to changing the structures of power that generated so many injustices and such impoverishment paid a very high price —some 50,000 in the two-year insurrection and a similar number in the “low-intensity” war financed and led by the United States over the following decade. But the price paid in the rest of Central America became even higher once proponents of change began to understand faith as work and struggle for social justice and opponents of it pulled out all stops to prevent another Nicaragua. The price was mountains of martyrs of “hatred of the faith” as electoral fraud, dictatorships and repression were followed by resistance, peasant organization and civil wars. The list of those murdered in the 1960s, 70s and 80s in our region and in many countries in the rest of the continent is interminable.
The United States The US government, disturbed about losing “the ideological initiative” with the changes announcing a historic turn-around, had a huge share of responsibility for the blood shed by so many believers. At President Nixon’s request, Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York’s “moderate” Republican mayor, visited 20 American republics on an extensive fact-finding tour with a team of advisers in April and May 1969, the year after Medellín. Among other observations, he cautioned that the Latin American Catholic Church was no longer a trusted ally for the United States because it was vulnerable to “subversive penetration” and that Catholicism had become “a dangerous center of potential revolution.”
In the “Rockefeller Report on the Americas,” written after those four fateful trips, he reported that the Catholic Church “is transforming itself into a danger because it raises the consciousness of the people.” His recommendation to his government was to “give support to fundamentalist Christian groups and churches of the sort of Moon and the Hare Krishna.” Thus began an invasion of the continent by fundamentalist US Pentecostals and other sects that is still going on today.
Years later, a report called the Santa Fe Document, prepared in 1980 during Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign to serve as his inter-American strategy, provided a sequel to the Rockefeller Report. It repeated the warning about the Catholic Church and decreed that “American foreign policy must begin to counterattack (and not just react against) liberation theology.”
Never was the conflict between two models of Church—one accommodating itself to repressive and abusive power and one denouncing it and struggling to change things—manifested with such intensity as in those years.
Cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns and above all thousands upon thousands of men and women believers supported the Medellín agreements and liberation theology and were countered by other Cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns and grassroots believers. That conflict had a similar yet distinct and very specific history in each South and Central American country.
Rome 1978: Zero hourThe conflict reached to the pinnacle of ecclesiastical power in 1978, with the arrival to the papal throne of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from Communist Poland. Pope John Paul II took the side of those who wanted to “restore” the Church, returning it to pre-Council times. With even greater ardor he took the side of the Latin American rulers and Church hierarchies who were opposing liberation theology. He saw what was happening in Latin America through Polish lenses, fearing changes he identified with communism, and ended up taking a preferential option for those fighting them. That hostility came to Monsignor Romero full force during the three years he was head of the archbishopric of San Salvador.
Rome’s positions were translated into a calculated closing of spaces, the naming of “restorationist” bishops, changes in the seminaries to form a “restorationist” clergy, renewed control of the female religious congregations, the suspension of theologians, and prohibitions and condemnations of the “popular Church,” “parallel teaching” and the “rereading of the Bible.”
The most serious manifestation of that hostility was the support, either by commission or by omission, of the Latin American military dictatorships, all of which were headed by Catholics who killed other Catholics “in hatred of the faith” because the latter understood faith as a commitment to social justice.
March 24, 1980That “hatred of the faith” is what killed Monsignor Romero in March 1980. In the last months of his life he was like a gigantic pair of hands busily working to halt the war and hold together the pieces of his country, which was at the point of shattering. Shortly after his assassination, the war heated up even more and then dragged out for another 12 years.
The presence of those hands and the memory of that mortally wounded heart were persistent and rapidly crossed the borders of El Salvador. For 35 years Romero was San Romero de América, an icon held up against the “restoration” imposed from Rome, which was also rapidly installing itself in broad ecclesiastical sectors of the continent, from whence it flowed quickly toward the base, where the evangelical fundamentalism was also doing its work modeling consciousness in the resigned mold.
Times of “restoration” By the end of the 80s, even before the electoral defeat of the Sandinista government, the Catholic Church model in Nicaragua was again that of the “restoration,” a model still in full force today, where a self-styled “Christian and leftist” government is now actively promoting an alienating religiosity.
The important transformations achieved over ten years in our countries’ Church were being lost. With each delegate, catechist, nun or priest who fell, a multiplier of the changes was lost as well. The restoration imposed from the Vatican promoted a clergy formed in seminaries with scant critical conscience. Clericalism was reinforced and a more conservative theology was brought back, together with traditional morality and obedience to the pope. Charismatic communities were fostered to pull away followers of the Evangelicals, and Christian base communities were being replaced with Neocatechumenal communities. The commitments to social change as an expression of faith were being abandoned as the traditional devotions, processions, relics and saints were promoted. The clergy was becoming increasingly conservative and again cozied up to power.
The prophetic denunciations of social injustice and repression were being snuffed out. Over time more began to be said against abortion than against corruption or inequality. John Paul II bolstered Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ, putting more of his confidence in these groups than in the historical religious orders such as the Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans.
What remained The model imposed by John Paul II had clear continuity in Benedict XVI. Between the two pontiffs, they spent 35 years in high- and low-intensity war against the changes born out of the Council and Medellín. Pope Francis’ style, way of seeing the world and words represent a spring thaw after that very long winter, a gentle breeze after years of lead.
of the changes?
What remains of liberation theology in Central America? The social utopia and theology of the 60s, 70s and 80s are no longer the same referents, and there’s been a generational change as well, with ever fewer agents promoting such changes. But so many seeds were sown that they continue germinating in unexpected ways. Romero is one such seed, while another heir of that utopia is feminist theology.
Central America is Now that Pope Francis, who came from this “end of the world,” as he called our continent that is so far from the Vatican, is raising the altars to Romero in a gesture of unmistakable rectification, Central America is no longer as it was in Monsignor’s time.
no longer the same
In the current economic growth model that followed the armed conflicts of the 70s and 80s in Central America, our countries went from an agro-export economy exclusively dependent on traditional products—coffee, bananas, beef, sugar and at one point cotton—to an economy somewhat more diversified due to the increase of sweatshops for re-export, tourism and remittances sent home by our emigrants. By the 90s the hard currency income from these activities exceeded that generated by the traditional agricultural products and has changed the face of our economies.
The end of the armed conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, respectively in 1990, 92 and 96 also fostered the reactivation and expansion of commerce and investment flows within the region. The new face of our economies is now “more Central American” than it was a few years ago and the business elites are also now regional. Still other elites arose dedicated to illicit drug trafficking, acquiring financial and economic dimensions unsuspected only a few years ago and permeating political and juridical institutions as well as military and police corps.
Between violence Monsignor Romero’s time was one of rural crisis, of peasant organizations demanding their right to land through struggles for genuine agrarian reform or fighting for better wages on the farms of the traditional oligarchy, which has now transmuted into financial elites.
Although we are no longer in war, we are a territory of multiple kinds of violence. Honduras is currently classified as the most violent country “in peace” in the entire world, with Guatemala trailing by a head. May, the month of Romero’s beatification, was the most violent in El Salvador’s post-war period, with a record 641 homicides. More people are killing themselves or dying violently than in the years of repression and armed conflicts.
Central America isn’t the same as in Monsignor’s time. And while there are no longer disappeared people or clandestine jails, an increasing number of people are still disappearing from their country, emigrating in the “clandestinity” of having to travel undocumented and evade repressive controls.
The crowds of While Central America isn’t the same, it is still the most unequal region in Latin America, itself still the most unequal region on the planet. In his August 6, 1979, homily, Monsignor Romero described a crowd we can still see every day in both the urban and rural areas of our region: “Children who from a very young age who have to earn a living, youths who aren’t provided an opportunity for their development, peasants who lack even the most necessary things, workers whose rights are beaten down, who are unemployed, marginalized and overcrowded, elderly who feel useless…”
yesterday and today
There’s also another crowd in this new Central America, those who are resisting the mining companies and the pillaging of nature’s resources, struggling against impunity, working to halt so many forms of violence, supporting migrants, making an effort to change things and even giving their life in that effort. They are the new martyrs, although no one proclaims them as such. Monsignor Romero today represents all of them, those of his time and those of this new time.
The truth behnd that crimeMonsignor Romero’s beatification ceremony was recognition of the right to truth, which is a human right although not one consigned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2010 the United Nations proclaimed March 24, the date of Monsignor Romero’s assassination, International Day of the Right to Truth, a liturgical date that will now venerate that the truth to which all who have suffered grave violations of their human rights and their dignity have a right.
The truth behind the crime against Monsignor Romero was known at the very moment the shot to his heart was heard. Twelve years later, the United Nations Truth Commission confirmed what everyone already knew by pointing to Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, founder of the death squads and the ARENA party, as the crime’s intellectual author. “They dress as priests, but are Communists; they have set up a thing called Popular Church, which isn’t our Church of the Vatican, the Church the Pope heads, the Church of those of us who are believers,” he said on television… and soon after another murdered priest appeared. D’Aubuisson died in 1993, the year after the war in El Salvador ended.
The truth of that crime has been repeatedly recognized. In 1994, Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, Romero’s friend and successor as archbishop of San Salvador, said in a homily: “One cannot speak of Monsignor Romero and his pastoral work without mentioning D’Aubuisson, just as one cannot speak of the passion of Christ without coming up against Pilate and Judas and against Annas and Caiaphas. It was D’Aubuisson who gave the order to kill him.”
After Rivera died, John Paul II named a member of Opus Dei as archbishop of San Salvador. He consigned Monsignor Romero to oblivion and together with other Salvadoran bishops did everything possible to erase his memory.
“You killed a saint”On May 23, the truth that was recognized and proclaimed in the plaza of El Salvador’s capital was an act of reparation, of compensation, even of retraction on the part of the Vatican Church, which at the time did little or nothing to detain the fatal shot. That rectification would have been impossible without Pope Francis. On May 23, each time Francis’ name was mentioned, the multitude applauded him gratefully.
The beatification ceremony for Monsignor Romero was an official act symbolic of transitional justice. There have been few other attempts at transitional justice in Central America, so recently involved in dictatorships and civil wars, and none in Nicaragua’s case. Without saying so explicitly, the “truth” in the official Church’s affirmation of Monsignor Romero’s saintliness did justice to all of Salvadoran society and to the world. Without saying so in words, the truth proclaimed there under the sun to one still very powerful sector of Salvadoran society was: “You killed a saint.”
Among several recent defeats for ARENA, the most organized rightwing party in the region and founded by the very man who ordered a blessed man’s assassination, this was unquestionably its greatest symbolic defeat. Authenticating that truth and that defeat even more symbolically, precisely at the opening of the ceremony in which Monsignor Romero’s sainthood was proclaimed, the sun was surrounded by a brilliant halo of colors, like a circular rainbow, a very infrequent phenomenon that adorned the sky for a full half an hour, adding to the joy.
“This people will smile again”Yet another truth was proclaimed in the beatification rite, this one dedicated to those who continue killing so many good people in our countries: “While the persecutors of Monsignor Romero have disappeared into the shadow of oblivion and death, Romero’s memory lives on,” proclaimed Cardinal Amato, who officiated at the ceremony in which justice was done and those who continue to murder were warned that it will be done again.
Many of Monsignor Romero’s “persecutors” are still alive. Some, those in the political world, were present in the box seats of the invited guests, among whom D’Aubuisson’s son, now mayor of Santa Tecla, stood out. And some from the Catholic hierarchical world were also present, give interviews, even write books and make themselves out as having been closest to Romero. Among that group, the priest Jesús Delgado stood out.
Tears, contained or uncontrollable, appeared on the cheeks of many people during the three hours the beatification ceremony lasted. “This people will smile again,” Monsignor Romero had said in one of his homilies during the dark years of the harshest repression. That morning he got his wish: along with tears there were many smiles of hope, consolation and satisfaction on the faces of people who felt that justice had finally been done through this long-awaited gift.
Wheat and chaff: Two optionsAnother stage now begins, a time in which wheat and chaff will grow together around the new Blessed Romero, because there is still conflict between the two models of Church that we sketched out in this brief recount. Thirty-five years of the imposition from above of a conservative model don’t pass in vain; they leave rubble just like an earthquake, and they require reconstruction, a new start...
A new concept of sainthood has been inaugurated that goes way beyond personal virtues. This concept is linked to the commitment to social and political change to the point of giving one’s life. And as with all new things, it will trigger conflict. Some will continue conserving the messages of Monsignor Romero, keeping them alive and bringing them up to date in indefatigable struggles for justice. Others will try to sugar-coat Romero, de-prophetize him, domesticate him, take him out of the context that made him what he came to be.
Those trying to reconcile a country as polarized by injustice as El Salvador by proposing Monsignor Romero as a “patron of reconciliation,” sweeping under the rug the reasons for such violence and inequalities, are banking on turning him into a myth. But those who will work to conserve the narrative of his life and the transforming power of his message to change things in El Salvador are seeking the same thing they have sought for 35 years: to continue resurrecting him.
Only time will tell us which determination runs deepest.