Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas and the Struggle for Social Justice in El Salvador

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas and the Struggle for Social Justice in El Salvador

Article excerpt

Many religious progressives use the word disappointing when evaluating Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas's leadership of the Archdiocese of San Salvador from 1980 to 1994. As the only Salvadoran bishop to support Archbishop Oscar Romero (1977-80) in the latter's attempt to be the "voice of the voiceless" Rivera was expected to follow in his charismatic predecessor's footsteps.

This study attempts to demonstrate that although Romero's "prophetic" approach was a highly effective method of leadership during his three-year tenure of office, his assassination changed the climate dramatically, requiring a different approach from Rivera. Rejecting the "prophetic" method of Romero, he pursued a low-key, "pragmatic" path in his attempt to end the Salvadoran civil war and bring justice to the poor masses. Throughout the 1980s, Rivera labored to create peace negotiations between the Salvadoran power structure and the FMLN-FDR opposition. Previously, as an auxiliary bishop, he was the driving force behind the efforts of Archbishop Luis Chavez to incorporate the social justice concepts of Vatican II and the Latin American Bishops' Conference at Medellin into Salvadoran society. Thus, he alone among the Salvadoran prelates played an important role in the institutional church's fight for justice in El Salvador between the 1960s and the 1990s.

Bishop Rivera and Archbishop Chávez

On November 26, 1994, Arturo Rivera Damas, the seventy-one-yearold archbishop of San Salvador, died following a second massive heart attack. Recognized by many North Americans as a close friend and supporter of Archbishop Oscar Romero and as his episcopal successor, Rivera was, in truth, a far more complex protagonist who for three decades played a major role in his country's history, both as an advocate of social justice and an indefatigable peacemaker. For this reason, his life and accomplishments deserve to be better known.1

Rivera was born on September 30, 1923, in the small town of San Esteban Catarina, in central El Salvador's department of San Vicente. He was ordained a Salesian priest on September 19, 1953, just before his thirtieth birthday. After receiving his doctorate in canon law from the Pontificio Ateneo Salesiano in Turin, Italy, he was consecrated auxiliary bishop of San Salvador on October 23, I960, less than eight years after his ordination. Profoundly moved by aggiornamento when he attended the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), he was also present at the 1968 Latin American Bishops' Conference at Medellin, Colombia, where he and his episcopal colleagues attempted to apply the principles of Vatican II to the Latin American situation by announcing their now famous resolution to commit their Church without reservation to the liberation of the poor and oppressed.

Rivera's dedication to the progressive pronouncements of Vatican II and Medellin was shared by his immediate superior, Archbishop Luis Chávez y González, and the two soon joined forces to create an impressive reform program.2 They received little support, however, from the other Salvadoran bishops: Pedro Aparicio y Quintanilla of San Vincente, José Alvarez Ramirez of San Miguel, Benjamin Barrera y Reyes of Santa Ana, and Francisco José Castro y Ramirez of Santiago de Maria, and after the latter's death in 1974, his successor, Oscar Romero Galdamez. They were also opposed by the wealthy elite class, which tightly controlled every facet of Salvadoran life and equated their policies with communism. Indeed, according to political scientist Tommie Sue Montgomery, the oligarchy especially directed its wrath at Rivera. When Chávez began issuing progressive pastoral letters, some of its leaders accused the auxiliary bishop of ghost writing them and attributed the archbishop's shift to the left to Rivera.3

Chávez and Rivera realized that an activist clergy was essential if their reforms were to bear fruit. Thus, they worked cooperatively with the Jesuit faculty of the country's major seminary, San José de la Montaña, in revolutionizing priestly training. …

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