20 Years Later, Romero Stirs Love and Fear

By MacEOIN, Gary | National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000 | Go to article overview

20 Years Later, Romero Stirs Love and Fear


MacEOIN, Gary, National Catholic Reporter


El Salvador's `citizen of the world' still threatens oligarchs

Oscar Arnulfo Romero is a citizen of the world. "The most universal Salvadoran of all time," as Msgr. Ricardo Urioste, who was Romero's vicar general when he was archbishop of San Salvador, told participants in the week-long commemoration here of the 20th anniversary of Romero's assassination.

Venerated worldwide, the risen Romero is a more complicated figure in El Salvador itself. What happened with Lazarus still happens today. Not everyone is comfortable with those who rise again. Here many love Romero. But some hate him. And there are those who fear him.

The love is visible and palpable everywhere. Streams of people flow all day into the crypt of the cathedral that holds Romero's body. And the streams became floods through the night of March 24 as they kept vigil to mark the anniversary of his martyrdom. Most were Salvadorans, but the entire linguistic babel could be heard, all the accents of Latin America and the Caribbean, the English of the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia, French, German, Italian, Irish, Swedish, Finnish, Japanese.

Wherever one goes, there is Romero. The bookstores feature biographies, books of photographs, collections of his homilies, videos, CDs. Young people sport Romero T-shirts and scarves. And, of course, posters and banners everywhere.

It is inescapably obvious that Romero is loved and venerated. But hated? By whom? Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley, author of a Romero biography, was one of the many who, in formal lectures and informal briefings to packed audiences and to scores of visiting groups, offered an explanation. Wealth and power in El Salvador has long been the monopoly of the so-called Fourteen Families who today number about 100. They think of themselves, he said, as belonging to a subspecies different from and superior to the rest of humanity, and specifically to other Salvadorans. To challenge them is to court death. When in 1932 the peasants began to agitate for a few acres of land to feed their families, the oligarchs taught them a lesson. They massacred 30,000 of them.

By the late 1960s and '70s, as population growth had increased the pressure for land to explosive levels, the oligarchs were ready. They had an army equipped with the most sophisticated weapons and trained and motivated in the arts of torture and murder, thanks to the U.S. School of the Americas, then located in Panama. These professional killers were unleashed in the mid-1970s against the leaders of FECCAS, the major peasant organization that was supported by Archbishop Chavez Gonzalez, Romero's predecessor, and also against other popular movements. Dead bodies were soon appearing on roads, many marked by torture. People disappeared. Many were arrested.

Then something world-changing happened. Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, found his voice. He was no politician. He was a conservative person in every respect. He was viscerally opposed to violence, including the violence of the growing guerrilla movement. But he listened to people, to everyone. As one peasant woman put it, "I am 70 years old, and this is the only person in my whole life who asked me what I thought." In his homilies, broadcast every Sunday to the nation and beyond its borders by the diocesan YSAX (repeatedly blown up but never long off the air), he listed with chapter and verse each atrocity committed by the armed forces -- tortures, arbitrary imprisonments, burning of homes and churches, killings of priests, expulsions of priests, massive displacements of communities.

For the oligarchy this was unacceptable. The high command of the armed forces met and issued the orders. Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Cristobal, Mexico, recalled for us in a talk here what happened next. The killer they sent was so professional that a single bullet fired from a distance went through the archbishop's heart as he stood at the altar. …

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