If truth be told, I have attempted to write this column in at least a dozen different ways over the past three weeks since returning from my retreat at the archbishop’s tomb in the Cathedral of San Salvador. Each time the topic has seemed too vast and my words so inadequate that I simply gave up and felt the need to start over.
Archbishop Romero was assassinated 30 years ago on March 24, 1980, while saying Mass in the hospital near his simple residence. He had just finished reading the Gospel passage about the need for the seed to fall and die (Jn 12:24) when a sniper stood up in the back pew and fired the fatal shot. The very altar which he had consecrated with chrism a few years earlier was reconsecrated with his own blood.
I spent a day in that chapel. I toured his little house on the hospital grounds.
The final report of Robert White, the former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, made it very clear that the military leader who had been the mastermind of the murder, together with a large number of his colleagues, had in fact been trained in the U.S. At one point Archbishop Romero had written to President Jimmy Carter, begging that the sanctioned supply of weapons be stopped because they were being used against the poor, but U.S. policy never saw a conflict between its commitment to human rights and its fight against anti-communism. Only later did the disastrous effects become so dreadfully clear.
Romero’s assassination came hardly more than three years after his hasty installation as archbishop amid a growing spiral of deadly violence over fundamental issues of the human dignity of the desperate campesinos, just living and working conditions for them and their families, and an economic climate of terrible repression. A few very wealthy families owned virtually the entire country and maintained that hold with a ruthlessly tight control on government and military.
Back in 1932, amid the Great Depression, which battered the entire western world, some peasants had risen in revolt. About a hundred landowners and government officials had been killed, followed by swift retaliation, which massacred 30,000 campesinos.
I spent two days beside the tomb of el Monseñor in the cathedral, reading his biography by Jesuit Fr. James Brockman, and watching the steady stream of people who came to pray … some still with tears after 30 years. He hadn’t always been so loved; at his nomination many were not happy over his traditional quiet timidity before the government. The endless deaths of his beloved poor and their priests, however, quickly transformed his pastoral heart and gave him a fearless voice and a passion for justice.
For three other days, I walked to the chapel of the Universidad Centroamericana … only a half-hour away from my little hotel … to pray in their campus chapel, which honored the tombs of the six Jesuits who had been so brutally murdered together with their housekeeper and her daughter back in 1989. Pictures taken on the morning of the crime are so violent that they are hidden away when the site is visited by school children. Their priestly hands had been symbolically mutilated and their faces cut off. It was nothing short of ghastly!
Archbishop Romero tried so hard to serve his people, using the Sunday morning radio Mass from the cathedral to give the numbers of people killed the prior week and to offer condolences and encouragement in the struggle for justice. When a popular pastor was ruthlessly murdered by the military during a weekend youth retreat, all parish Masses were cancelled and 100,000 campesinos traveled to the cathedral for the single Sunday Mass in the entire archdiocese.
He was insistent that social justice must be rooted in faith, not politics. In retrospect his analysis of the situation was right on target. Romero was discouraged at times because Pope John Paul II didn’t seem to understand the difference between the church’s fight against an atheistic communist government in Poland and the struggle in El Salvador against a “Catholic” government bonded to arrogant wealth and brutal military power against the poor.
Unfortunately, I was not able to visit the place where four heroic American women missionaries were violated and murdered in December of 1980, but I was very mindful of them throughout the week.
Amid all the murders of parish priests, pastoral workers and parishioners simply dedicated to studying and embracing the social teachings of the church (dismissed by the wealthy as communists) were the savage paramilitary and National Guard.
True social healing is by necessity very slow, and only now is the country carefully emerging from the evil chaos of the past decades. Soldiers armed with machine guns are still everywhere, however, even at the entrances of restaurants and stores.
Archbishop Romero denounced three idolatries of his age: 1) private property without social focus, 2) the absolutizing of one’s own organization, and 3) national security. I was saddened to realize that the same mindset often marks our own bitterly divided American society and culture.
We think of Jesus and all the martyrs of history during this Easter season. As a deacon reminded us in a fine Good Friday homily last week, the cross is gift, challenge and promise. Christ rose victorious over fear, ignorance, sin and death. Our efforts for justice must be worthy of the gift and the promise. Monseñor Romero, ruega por nosotros!