Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 407 | Junio 2015


El Salvador

Resuscitated or newly assassinated in his beatification?

Now officially recognized by the Catholic Church, will Monsignor Romero continue to be a living saint or will they manage to reduce him to just another statue? Many Salvadorans in the social organizations and communities and even a large majority of individuals are alert to the risk, and will help keep him and what he represents alive in their day-to-day work.

Elaine Freedman

May 23, 35 years after his assassination by a death squad ordered by Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, the founder of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero was beatified before a jubilant audience of nearly 300,000 people. Catholics and non-Catholics, Salvadorans and foreigners, individuals of all generations and social classes joined together to celebrate it. Laughter, hugs and tears filled the ceremony during which Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who had come from the Vatican, officiated at the formal Mass.

Sainted for the first time in 1980

A few days before Archbishop Romero was gunned down by a sniper while celebrating a memorial Mass for a friend’s mother in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital on May 24, 1980, Brazil’s Bishop Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, a liberation theologian and poet, wrote his poem “San Romero de América: Pastor y Mártir.”

Spontaneously, the Salvadoran people took up that title and before the year was out, one could already hear references to St. Romero of America all over El Salvador and even the rest of the continent. Franklin Quezada, musician and founder of the group Yolocamba Ita, who has put Romero at the center of his artistic work, recalls: “Many youths like myself saw Monsignor Romero as a man already sainted in life, a blessed man. He was such a good man, very honest, with a direct and frank way of expressing himself.”

What symbols of the poem by Bishop Casaldáliga did the Salvadoran people embrace to sanctify Monsignor Romero back then?

“You knew how to drink
from the chalice of the altar…”

Monsignor Romero was a man of
profound spirituality. “I began to work with Monsignor Romero in educating the seminary students of San Miguel,” recalls Father Miguel Ventura, long-time liberation theology leader in El Salvador, who throughout the war accompanied the Christian Base Communities of Morazán, where he was born. “Romero had a spirituality formed in the old tradition of taking the priest out of his reality, sticking him in a seminary where he was isolated and filling him with conservative contents. He was very responsible, consistent and disciplined with that spirituality. All of that helped shape his charisma and people sought him out for that. He once told me, ‘There are priests here who are apparently very progressive, but when people have problems they turn to me.’ And it was true. I think they went to him because of the weight of his spirituality, his moral example. That relationship with the people formed him in a very humane way.”

That same humanity shaped him as a communicator able to inspire with his words and hear with his heart. On January 27 of the year of his death, only five days after the massacre during a huge march of the Revolutionary Coordinating Body of Masses, the archbishop, whose homilies were listened to in all the houses and whose boost to Radio YSAX was key, said, “It really pleases me when simple people find my words as a way of getting closer to God.”

“...and from the
chalice of the people”

Sister María Isabel Figueroa, Monsignor Romero’s secretary during his three years in the archbishopric, links that capacity to listen to his conviction: “His conviction was demonstrated when people from the countryside came to look for him, to meet with him, particularly families that had been affected by the repression. He had an enormous sensitivity and concentration when he was listening to people. He listened with his heart. You could see the sense of pain and by listening he was clarifying how things were.”

Things became even clearer to him with the murder of his friend, Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, and, as that process continued, his relationship with the grassroots organizations deepened. His link to these people’s liberation process was never theoretical. He proposed that the Church, “without abandoning its own identity, and in fact being itself, offer the country the service of accompanying it and guiding the people in their longing to be free
and liberated.” And that’s what he did personally: accompany and guide.
Quezada tells how “in March 1979 I was part of a group of 14 compañeros of the Revolutionary Grassroots bloc who took over the Metropolitan Cathedral. It was a peaceful takeover in solidarity with our compañeros who were occupying the Constancia and Tropical juice factories… One night we heard a ruckus near the altar and prepared ourselves to die because we thought the guards were going to burst in through the door to the archbishopric’s radio station. But when the door opened it was Monsignor Romero: ‘Muchachos, have you eaten?’ ‘Yes, the people give us food.’ He had brought us chicken and sat down to eat and talk with us, putting his own life in danger. He told us we were in God’s house and that it was also our house. Although he was never organizationally part of us, that gesture told me he was one of us.”

“Poor glorious pastor,
assassinated by a hired gun...”

Like the Christians in the catacombs of
the Roman Empire, Monsignor Romero acquired an anti-imperialist posture, rooted in the gospel. He always had an anti-capitalist line, based on the Christian concept of idolatry. “The denunciation of idolatry,” he said in his June 11, 1978, homily, “has always been the mission of the Church’s prophets…. You can’t serve two lords: the true God and money. You have to follow only one.”

He was not just “assassinated by a hired gun…” His attitude to the issue of wealth and capitalist accumulation was a key factor behind his murder. The oligarchy slanderously accused him of being a communist and of inspiring “class hatred” with his words. His pastoral letters reveal that in 1978 Romero already had an analysis of the country’s socioeconomic composition and the demands of the organized people—peasants, workers, students and professionals, the majority of them Catholics and members of organizations of Marxist thinking.

He wasn’t a Marxist, but he agreed with them on the basics. As he wrote in his third pastoral letter: “In a society such as ours, in which the majority barely has anything, this privileged minority, abysmally separated from all the others, enjoys standards of living like those enjoyed by a few in the wealthier countries. It also has great power, precisely due to the undemocratic structure of our political organizations.” And in the fourth he quoted from the Puebla Document: “The fear of Marxism prevents many from facing the oppressive reality of liberal capitalism,” adding that it “shapes our society in an unjust and anti-Christian way.”

US-inspired assassination

In his poem, Pedro Casaldáliga wrote that Monsignor was assassinated “at the dollar rate,” not “the colón rate,” emphasizing the link between the nationally given death sentence and the US counterinsurgent project.
One month before he was killed, Monsignor wrote his famous letter to the then-US President, Jimmy Carter, asking him, fruitlessly, to stop sending the millions in military aid: “I am very worried by the news that the government of the United States is studying a form of abetting the arming of El Salvador by sending military teams and advisers.” The letter concluded: “It would be unjust and deplorable if the intrusion of foreign powers were to frustrate the Salvadoran people, were to repress it and block its autonomous decisions about the economic and political path that our country ought to follow.”
Twelve declassified US government documents show that it already had an eye on Romero even before then. These texts include a letter from then Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski to Pope John Paul II requesting the Vatican’s intervention as Romero had shifted positions. In recent weeks, it said, “Archbishop Romero has strongly criticized the junta and leaned toward support for the extreme Left” even despite Washington’s “frequent and frank dialogue with Archbishop Romero and his Jesuit advisors” warning him in this respect.

“...abandoned by
your own brothers...”

Monsignor Romero spoke out frankly not only against the structures of economic, political and military power, but also against the ecclesiastical power of which he was a part. As in other spheres, his determined hope allowed him to believe in its possible, albeit difficult, conversion and transformation.

His loyalty to the Church and the pope was a constant in his life, but since his fidelity to his conception of faith and his ideal of the Church were also constants, opting for that ideal constantly clashed with clerical power. In his June 22, 1978, homily he said: “Preaching that pleases the sinner and allows him to be more secure in his sinful ways betrays the message of the Gospel… Preaching that awakens, that illuminates, as when one turns on a light when someone is sleeping and it naturally annoys but awakens that person, is Christ’s preaching: awaken, convert. This is the authentic preaching of the Church.”

“...and by your
brothers of the staff”

This is what he told the Vatican’s Cardinal Baggio about the performance of Enmanuele Gerada, the Apostolic Nuncio to El Salvador: “I have concluded that His Eminence lives very removed from the problems of our clergy and of our humble people and that the information and pressures from Cardinal Casariego, the politicians, diplomats and well-off class of the elegant residential neighborhoods prevail in him…. It is only fair to confess that due to those preferences H.E. does not currently enjoy the sympathies of the clergy or of our people.”

Romero’s positions and behavior earned him reprimands from the Vatican and isolation within El Salvador’s Episcopal Conference, where he could only count on the support of Monsignor Rivera y Damas, who succeeded him as archbishop after his death. Bishops Pedro Arnoldo Aparicio of San Vicente, Benjamín Barrera of Santa Ana, his auxiliary Marco René Revelo,
and Eduardo Álvarez of San Miguel were always opponents. Álvarez’s position on the suffering of both the people and his own clergy exemplifies the predominant attitude of these bishops. When Miguel Ventura, the parish priest of Osicala at the time, was imprisoned and tortured for several days in the police dungeons, Álvarez shrugged it off: “They tortured Father Miguel as a man, not a priest.”

It was not surprising that no Salvadoran Church hierarch attended Monsignor Romero’s burial and that the pope’s personal representative, Mexican cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada, was the one who officiated at that Mass. A hundred thousand people gathered in front of the Cathedral for the funeral. The detonation of a bomb, followed by shots and other explosions interrupted the Mass as sharpshooters positioned in nearby buildings attacked the population, which dispersed in panic, resulting in a stampede. Many were injured and 35 died. Monsignor Romero was hastily buried in a crypt inside the Cathedral.

“Another” Monsignor Romero

Cardinal Vicenzo Paglia, prefect for the Congregation of the Family and postulator of the cause of Monsignor Romero, arrived in San Salvador on March 10 of this year. In a press conference given with religious and civil authorities in the presidential palace the following day, he announced that the beatification would take place on May 23 in the Salvador del Mundo plaza and that Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, would officiate. Three weeks earlier Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas had announced that the commissions organizing the beatification ceremony were already working.
From the moment that announcement was made, “another” Monsignor Romero began to appear in Episcopal Conference messages and the mass media. It was an ahistorical and decontextualized image, far from the St. Romero of America of the Salvadoran people, who still yearn for their liberation.

The history of canonization

The Vatican institutionalized the canonization process in the Middle Ages, establishing a four-stage process with a series of criteria and categories for a person to move through towards sainthood: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed and Saint. It concludes with
the assigning of a day in the liturgical calendar, the dedication of churches to the person, pictorial representations and recognition of the person’s power to intercede before God.

The canonization proceeds if the candidate has lived Christian virtues to a heroic degree or has suffered martyrdom as a result of his/her faith. Another requirement for canonization is the confirmed occurrence of one miracle if the candidate is a martyr or two if this is not the case.

Impediments to Romero’s
canonization process

In the case of Monsignor Romero, his cause was rooted in the category of martyr “killed in hatred of the faith.” In the 21 years since Romero’s friend Monsignor Rivera y Damas introduced the cause of canonization, all manner of hobbles have been applied to its progress. Finally this year the Vatican acknowledged that there had been a campaign to denigrate Romero and that John Paul II had blocked his cause. Two influential Colombian cardinals figure among Romero’s enemies inside
the Vatican: the late Alfonso López Trujillo, famous for his ultra-conservative positions, and Darío Castrillón Hoyos, now retired. This February, Monsignor Paglia made public what all had known or imagined: “Kilos of letters against Arnulfo Romero from El Salvador and other Latin American countries calling Monsignor Óscar Romero a communist and mentally disturbed held up his beatification.”

Quite apart from these hurdles, Miguel Ventura believes that “the main impediment to the beatification of Romero was the traditional scheme of how the Vatican conceives sainthood. For them, Monsignor didn’t fit into that scheme. He didn’t remove himself from the world and didn’t sacralize poverty as a path to salvation, but rather denounced the structures of power that generate it.” In this regard, the category of “killed in hatred of the faith” isn’t a precise classification of the nature of Monsignor Romero’s martyrdom. He was indeed killed but he’s a martyr for his defense of justice and commitment to social transformation. While rooted in a profound faith in God, what triggered and precipitated his death was his struggle for justice.

From martyr due to hatred
to martyr due to love

In the hands of the Episcopal Conference, the beatification resulted in the marketing of “another” Monsignor Romero. The first step was to modify the category “martyr for hatred of the faith” to “martyr for love.” As Monsignor Urioste, President of the Romero Foundation, tried to explain it: “He who causes it [martyrdom] does so out of hatred of the faith and he who suffers it does so as a sublime act of love. Hence the phrase ‘martyr for love’.”

But this explanation wasn’t convincing and many were offended, believing it to be yet another step in the manipulation of the figure of Romero. In a country where the Catholic congregation has shrunk from 64.1% of the population to 50.4% in 21 years while the Evangelical population has grown from 16.4% to 38.2%, it also seemed a move aimed at expanding the event’s audience, since Evangelicals wouldn’t feel called upon to celebrate someone killed for hatred of the Catholic faith.

The questioned jingle
In April the ceremony’s official song

was announced. It was produced by Telecorporación Salvadoreña (TCS), owned by the powerful Eserski family, and was both composed and sung by the channel’s personnel, with the following lyrics:

The voice was of the poor/ he did it with love /he left us a legacy / returning to man / his rights and dignity: love life to the end. /

Romero opened love’s gates for us: a new civilization ( where life is given / because it’s worth it. / No one was indifferent to his passage among the people. / And though he was loved he gave the world a turn. / A single El Salvador singing with one voice, / neither forgetfulness nor rancor. / Romero, martyr for love!

The song offended members of the Christian Base Communities and grassroots organizations, who compared its melody and lyrics to the Telethon promotion propaganda produced by TCS. The slogan “neither forgetfulness nor forgiveness” coined in the 1970s by the families of victims of the repression was changed to “neither forgetfulness nor rancor.” The image of “a single El Salvador singing with one voice” seemed particularly hypocritical from a television channel that battles the FMLN government every single day. TCS provides daily proof that El Salvador is still divided between rich and poor, between those who cling to their economic, judicial and media power and the victims of that power. Moreover, the text of the song mentioned none of the historical causes of the testimony and murder of Monsignor Romero and consciously omitted any reference to the crime and its perpetrators.
The next thing we learned was that TCS would be in charge of producing and broadcasting the ceremony. According to the Bishops’ Conference agreement with Telecorporación, the only other channel that would have any participation would be TVCA Channel 39, donated by TCS to the Catholic Church a year ago. “The Catholic media are disappointed by the behavior of the Executive Commission in charge of the event’s development,” admitted the Association of Catholic Communication Media. “A lot of money is being moved around by the rich, who will have more and better priorities than the people in the event.” In the end, the jingle wasn’t sung in the Mass and TCS didn’t end up with exclusive broadcast rights.

“Romero, everyone’s Blessed”

In the days leading up to the beatification, La Prensa Gráfica published daily inserts on Monsignor Romero, with photos, testimonies and the event’s official propaganda. The day after the ceremony, the lead title of El Diario de Hoy was: “Monsignor Romero: Everyone’s Blessed.” It couldn’t have been more cynical coming as it did from the same media that in the harshest years of the repression promoted the campaign “Be patriotic, kill a priest,” or even more specific, “Build the nation, kill the fucking bishop.”

Even more offensive was the statement by Edwin Zamora, then-ARENA candidate for mayor of San Salvador: “Monsignor Romero belongs to all us Salvadorans.”

He said this in the middle of the electoral campaign only days before Norman Quijano, the incumbent mayor, signed to change the name of San Antonio Abad Street to Roberto D’Aubuisson Street, in honor of the party’s founder and the man behind Romero’s assassination.

The thousands of victims of the repression who had come to the May 23 beatification were enraged to see the assassin’s son “Robertillo” D’Aubuisson, now mayor of Santa Tecla, attending the event. Many were also infuriated by the presence of figures such as Alfredo Cristiani, who sanctioned the highly controversial amnesty law while President, and other members of the oligarchy who have refused to heed Romero’s warning “Take off your rings, gentlemen of the oligarchy, before they rip them from your hand!”

Romero wasn’t
easy to manipulate

The oligarchy’s efforts to co-opt Monsignor Romero began the moment he was named archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, when they offered him a Cadillac and a luxurious house in Colonia Escalón. The new archbishop rejected both gifts.

Over the years, in the middle of the death threats, the killing of committed priests and lay workers, and the bombing of YSAX, the archbishopric’s radio station, the repressive government cynically offered Romero bodyguards. “He responded with great courage,” recalls María Isabel Figueroa, who witnessed many of these moments. “He said that as long as the people had
no security their pastor couldn’t either. The sentence came out spontaneously. The archbishop knew he was refusing the Right, the people’s enemies, those who were going to kill him. He knew it was a game to see if they would do it from their side and he said it with great wisdom. He was a man of convictions who wasn’t easily manipulated.”

Because they couldn’t co-opt him they had to eliminate him. They murdered him that fateful March 24 in the Divine Providence Hospital, but could not eliminate him with his physical death. He became increasingly present in the people’s struggles. “The people cried out for him,” recounts Miguel Ventura. “They put his name, face and words in public places and carried his photo and messages in their demonstrations, as if he were already a saint, regardless of what the Church had to say.”

He remained forever alive

The political and religious Right continued trying to eliminate him symbolically, splattering or eliminating murals of him painted in places such as Perquín, Morazán and Tierra Blanca in Usulután. In San Miguel they destroyed a bust of him. And his statue in the Salvador del Mundo plaza, where the beatification act was just held, was vandalized more than once.

“Not only that,” recalls Ventura, “the hierarchy came and prohibited any expression of veneration on the grounds that it is only for saints, according to the Church. There were bishops who wouldn’t permit their parish priests to hang photos of Romero in their churches. Some bishops made their priests take down the photo with the vile argument that it affected the canonization process, while others said it was politicizing Monsignor’s figure.”

The San Vicente diocese is one of the places this happened. With the exception of its first bishop, Luis Chávez y González, it has always had a very conservative leadership, ideologically and politically committed to the Right. The current archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, was rector of the minor seminary of San Vicente and later auxiliary bishop. His was one of the chorus of voices that prohibited any talk or veneration of Monsignor Romero.

But even with all that, they didn’t achieve their objective. Right up to today, Romero’s example has guided both religious and secular communities and organizations committed to liberation. His face still adorns walls all over Latin America and there’s no demonstration by the grassroots movements where his face and words aren’t present in at least one placard or banner.
This history makes it reasonable to suspect that using beatification of Monsignor Romero to convert him into “everyone’s saint” is a new twist in the co-optation strategy to mediate his prophetic example. It is negating the spirit of Romero, who stated in his January 22, 1978, homily: “Naturally, brothers and sisters, such preaching must encounter conflict, must shed what is miscalled prestige, must disturb, must be persecuted. One cannot get along well with the powers of darkness and sin.”

Although most agree that there’s a difference between the Vatican’s current discourse, which seems more true to Monsignor Romero’s authentic legacy,
and that of the Salvadoran Episcopal Conference, few in the Church of the poor disagree with the negative appraisal of cultural worker Franklin Quezada: “It has been a political and media show by the religious hierarchy. The majority of them were opposed to Monsignor Romero. This isn’t sincere.”
Miguel Ventura delved deeper into the same idea: “It’s not sincere for people with a rightwing mentality in the Church to start supporting the beatification process only because they are being told to from the top. It’s dishonest. It isn’t being done out of conviction, but just so they don’t appear to be opposed to the people and because the pope has decreed it.”

A living saint or just a statue?

What will determine whether Monsignor Romero continues to be an example of the struggle for justice and a beacon of hope for the transformation of this country or ends up a traditional saint, closed up inside churches to which people go to beg for miracles and light candles?

Quezada’s answer is that “it depends how intelligently or crassly those opposed to truth, justice and liberation act using the figure of Monsignor Romero in their media. It depends on the opinions they generate because today’s wars are waged in the media. Father Jesús Delgado has lied in saying that Monsignor was threatened by both sides, the Right and the Left, equally. That’s crass.” Delgado, currently the vicar general of the Archbishopric, has insisted that “the Left threatened to kill him because, according to them, he blessed the coup d’état and the agrarian reform it proposed in 1979…. They declared him a lover of reformism and not of the revolution and sentenced him to death.”

That crude distortion of what was a respectful, although not always harmonious or conflict-free relationship between Monsignor Romero and the revolutionary political-military organizations that emerged in the 1970s is a very good example of how the Right has been rewriting history ever since the Peace Accords.

How to keep Monsignor alive

Keeping alive the authentic legacy of Monsignor Romero also depends on the people’s efforts. For Quezada, it depends on the ability to create other sensibilities, other energies or states of the soul, free of lies, of the enshrinement of the “mad life” of consumerism. As he puts it, it depends on “the culture with which we sow and harvest, with which we feed our behaviors, habits and values, the way in which thinking generates emotions and how we act.” In this regard, any effort to create
a spirit and practice of solidarity and liberation will be an essential piece in the work to keep Monsignor Romero alive.

Miguel Ventura says it also depends on the capacity of the Popular Church to see Monsignor Romero’s beatification as a space opened by the Vatican to recognize liberation theology, the Christian base communities and the justice of the Salvadoran people’s struggles. “Romero wasn’t a faithful follower of liberation theology. He didn’t write or give classes or even talk about it. But he lived the theology of liberation more than anyone.”

His message is still valid

At the end of the 70s Romero spoke of
the three political projects in El Salvador: that of the oligarchy, that of Christian democracy and that of the grass roots.
“He condemned the oligarchy’s project, in which he saw no good whatever,”
says Ventura. “He challenged the Christian Democracy project to either abandon the repression or abandon the government. And he leaned toward the grassroots project, above all if it united the grassroots forces, didn’t absolutize its ideology and always avoided unjust violence.” Although Christian democracy has shrunk to nothing in El Salvador, the criteria Romero put forward remain valid.

Keeping Monsignor Romero alive will most of all mean that the new generations that didn’t know him in life learn to know him through his own words. There are many books and audios of his homilies that can be read, listened to and studied.

In its communiqué about Romero’s beatification, the National Articulation of Christian Base Communities of El Salvador, the Mercedes Ruiz Foundation and Voices of the Frontier called on the faithful to strengthen the communities as a model of church promoted by Monsignor, on the Episcopal Conference to promote education for the clergy in consonance with the reality, and on the Ministry of Education to integrally incorporate Romero’s thinking into education and the building of citizenship.

María Isabel Figueroa speaks of the efforts of the New Dawn Association to keep alive the memory of Monsignor Romero and so many other martyrs. “We work with children and with young former students of our children’s centers. When the dates of the martyrdom of Monsignor Romero, Rutilio Grande, Octavio Ortiz or Alfonso Navarro come around, the children paint the faces of the martyrs and learn the songs about them. We explain how they died, that it wasn’t of a fever but that they were assassinated for struggling so that children wouldn’t be without food and education. We give the youths their biography to study and encourage them to participate in the marches.”

In all arenas

“Romero’s words are a gigantic fount for creating works that keep him alive,” says Quezada, “through theater, music, poetry, cybernetic language, in all arenas.”

Last but not least, it’s essential that the recommendations issued by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights upon reviewing Romero’s case in 2000 be met: 1) The conducting of a complete and effective judicial investigation to identify, judge and sanction all material and intellectual authors; 2) Reparation for all the consequences of the violations, including payment of a fair indemnification; and 3) Modification of the American Convention’s internal legislation to overturn the General Amnesty Law decreed in 1993.

Without justice on earth the ecclesiastical justice of the beatification will fall short.

“They won’t get what they
intended with Monsignor’s death”

María Isabel Figueroa concludes: “They never got what they intended with Monsignor’s death and they won’t now either if that’s what they’re hoping. After they killed Monsignor, people said he was a true saint who gave his life for us yet for so many years the Church has denied this. Those segments of people who are enormously admirable in their conviction to struggle are happy now because the Church has finally let of us know we’re right. And Monsignor’s spirit is so present and so strong among us and God is present in our history. Many people are alert, wanting to do something with this beatification. That’s going to allow them to hold on to Monsignor more in the struggles and daily tasks of our organizations and the communities.”

The grassroots decision is clear: come what may, Monsignor Romero will continue to be resuscitated in the Salvadoran people.

Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and the envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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