A 'Voice For The Voiceless': Sainthood For El Salvador's Archbishop Óscar Romero

18 hours ago
Originally published on October 12, 2018 10:30 am

In March 1980, Patricia Morales Tijerino and her sister had just left a wedding in a little chapel in El Salvador's capital and were on their way to the reception.

"And then I spotted him," Morales Tijerino recalls. "He was in his white cassock."

Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, was standing alone in a garden outside the church.

"We were his admirers and his followers and we had never met him before," Morales Tijerino, now 55, says. "So we approached him, right? We're two teenagers, just to say 'hello' and 'how are you?' And he was very soft-spoken. He said, 'Preocupado,' which means worried. 'Preocupado.' "

Two days later, Romero was dead, gunned down by members of a right-wing death squad.

A messenger of hope

This Sunday, 38 years after his assassination, Romero will be canonized as a Catholic saint. Known to his followers as Monseñor (Monsignor), Romero was a champion of human rights at a time when El Salvador was on the brink of civil war. His tireless fight for civil rights ranks him among figures like Martin Luther King Jr. His devout following filled San Salvador's towering cathedral each Mass.

"It was packed," says Octavio Duran, a Franciscan brother who started working with Romero as a 21-year-old seminarian. "People were standing, people were sweating. I remember when Monseñor Romero was making his entrance, people clapping."

Romero's voice echoed above the violence that engulfed his country.

"At a time of so much confusion and anguish," Romero said in his homily on Feb. 10, 1980, "I want to be a messenger of hope. In the midst of tragedy and bloodshed, there is hope."

At that time, "Hope was like water in the desert," Duran says. "It was scary to live in those days."

In the late 1970s, civil war loomed. Decades of government oppression sparked massive protests. Peasant workers united in the countryside, demanding basic rights. Popular opposition groups and teachers' unions called for wealth distribution, while leftist guerrillas took up arms against the military and government elites.

In rural Catholic churches, some priests and nuns supported the peaceful cause on behalf of the poor. But they were up against El Salvador's corrupt oligarchy. The country's so-called "Fourteen Families," who controlled most of the land and wealth, accused the priests and peasants of a communist uprising.

The Salvadoran National Guard roamed streets, searching for subversives. Priests were expelled from the country, beaten and imprisoned. Security forces burned villages and committed rape. The National Guard arrested family members, who never returned home again.

El Salvador's brutal military regime — supported by the United States — kidnapped, tortured and killed civilians, many of them among the poorest.

The "voice of the voiceless"

"These were atrocities towards innocent people, young people, even children," says Morales Tijerino, who is an interpreter, translator and human rights activist. She says Romero defended the most vulnerable.

"The people felt protected by him," Morales Tijerino says. "That protection was the power of his words."

Romero ran a church commission that investigated human rights abuses, and he openly denounced the violence of leftist and rightist forces alike. During Mass, he named victims of murder and those who disappeared. State-run media weren't reporting on the institutionalized violence, so Romero's homilies turned into newscasts for the poor. His message inspired the repressed and his words gave them their dignity.

"He became the voice of the voiceless," Morales Tijerino says.

The day before he was murdered, Romero pleaded with members of the military to disobey orders to kill.

"In the name of this suffering people, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression," Romero declared, to thunderous applause.

"Be a patriot, kill a priest"

Romero was a polarizing figure in Central America — family members often disagreed among themselves over his support of the poor.

"Part of my family believed that he was taking away from the rich. Others saw him as a communist, meddling in politics," says Sister Ana María Pineda, author of Romero & Grande: Companions On The Journey, a biography of Romero and his friend, Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande. "The other side of my family loves Romero. And so we reflect the mixed reality of El Salvador."

Romero was especially divisive within the Catholic Church in El Salvador. Some of his fellow bishops, loyal to the government, called him a subversive and accused him of inciting violence among the peasant class.

"That was a very painful reality for him," Pineda says.

In private, Romero seemed isolated.

"He had a bad temper, he was an introvert, he preferred to be alone and he was a perfectionist," Pineda says. "For all of his life, he struggled."

He was also uncompromising, Ricardo Urioste, Romero's vicar general and friend, recalled. In a book published in 2000, Monseñor Romero: Memories In Mosaic, Urioste is quoted saying: "When [Romero] had his mind made up about something, he was relentless — really stubborn. Like a steamroller."

But, Duran says, "He was such a good person, he had a good heart."

He remembers how Romero suffered through bouts of anxiety and depression. "Even though he was that shy person, when he spoke at the pulpit, he was a giant."

In Romero's war on inequality, the transistor radio was his weapon. Live broadcasts of his homilies on YSAX, El Salvador's Catholic radio station, became the most popular program in the country, according to the book El Salvador: The Face of Revolution.

"On Sunday, every house had their radio on," Morales Tijerino recalls. "If someone was walking from one end of the neighborhood to the other, they wouldn't miss a moment of his homily."

"Listening to Monseñor Romero was prohibited by the army. But everybody — everybody — was listening," Duran says. "Including his enemies."

Priests and nuns who advocated for and supported the poor were targets. Right-wing militants bombed the YSAX radio station in February 1980, and fliers showed up outside of churches with the message: "Be a patriot, kill a priest."

"I received notice that I'm on the list of those who are to be eliminated next week," Romero told his congregation one month before his murder. "But let it be known that no one can any longer kill the voice of justice."

Assassination of a saint

"I was so close to him, we were friends," says José Inocencio "Chencho" Alas, a former priest in El Salvador. The last time he saw Romero, Alas sensed that his friend was afraid.

"There was a moment that he said to me, 'Chencho, they want to kill me. But I must stay with my people.' He was offering his life."

On March 24, 1980, Romero was celebrating Mass with a small gathering at the chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia in San Salvador. A gunman from a right-wing death squad shot him as he stood at the altar.

Romero was 62.

"When you talk to Salvadorans of my generation about that day, people remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news," Morales Tijerino says. "It was this feeling of losing someone that is yours, of feeling orphaned."

Romero's assassination accelerated the conflict in El Salvador. Violence erupted at his funeral and the country soon spiraled into civil war. The U.S. backed the anti-communist military regime. The fighting lasted 12 years, ending in 1992 after claiming over 75,000 lives. Half a million Salvadorans were displaced, and many fled as refugees to the U.S.

Romero's voice was never silenced. For his followers throughout the world, he became a saint the moment he was shot at the altar.

"With Monseñor Romero, Jesus passed through El Salvador," Duran says.

But the wounds of war have not healed. Today, El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Street gangs — primarily the 18th Street gang and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) — control sections of cities.

His old friend Alas prays to Romero now for a country that is free of bloodshed:

"Archbishop Romero: We need your voice in El Salvador. Your work has not ended. Please, from heaven, help us. Please."

In the audio version of this story, poet William Archila provides the English voice-over for Óscar Romero. Archila was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador, and fled to the United States in 1980 during the civil war.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Archbishop Oscar Romero has become a hero of human rights. He led El Salvador's Catholic Church in the 1970s during widespread violence, earning a reputation as the voice of the voiceless. Patricia Morales Tijerino remembers walking with her sister and seeing Romero standing alone outside a chapel.

PATRICIA MORALES TIJERINO: So we approached him, right? We're two teenagers, you know, just to say hello and, how are you? And he said, preocupado, which means worried - preocupado.

KING: Two days later, Romero was murdered. This Sunday, the Catholic Church will declare him a saint. NPR's Danny Hajek has the story. And just a warning, this piece includes sounds of gunfire.

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: Oscar Romero's devout following filled the capital city's towering white cathedral.

OCTAVIO DURAN: It was packed.

HAJEK: Franciscan brother Octavio Duran was a seminarian back then.

DURAN: People were standing. People were sweating. I remember when Monsenor Romero was making his entrance, people clapping.

HAJEK: He had short, graying hair, these thick browline glasses and a captivating gaze. Romero's voice echoed above the violence that engulfed his country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OSCAR ROMERO: (Through interpreter) At a time of so much confusion and anguish, I want to be a messenger of hope. In the midst of tragedy and bloodshed, there is hope.

DURAN: Hope was like water in the desert. It was scary to live in those days.

HAJEK: Back in the 1970s, during Romero's time, civil war was looming in El Salvador.

WILSON RUIZ, BYLINE: I remember.

HAJEK: Wilson Ruiz was reporting there for NPR in 1979.

RUIZ: Every morning in San Salvador, you found two, three dead bodies dumped somewhere.

HAJEK: He happened to be recording when he was caught between the military and leftist guerrilla fighters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RUIZ: There are nobody...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

RUIZ: Here comes the military now.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

RUIZ: They're clearing this street now.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

RUIZ: Everybody's running.

HAJEK: In its attempt to crush an anti-government movement, El Salvador's brutal military regime - supported by the United States - killed, kidnapped and tortured civilians, many of them the poorest in society.

MORALES TIJERINO: These were atrocities towards innocent people, young people, even children.

HAJEK: Patricia Morales Tijerino, who met Archbishop Romero just before his death, says his preaching defended the most vulnerable.

MORALES TIJERINO: The people felt protected by him. That protection was the power of his words.

HAJEK: Romero ran a commission that investigated human rights abuses. He named victims of murder and the countless who disappeared. His homilies were like newscasts for the poor.

MORALES TIJERINO: He became the voice of the voiceless.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROMERO: (Through interpreter) In the name of the suffering people, I beg you. I order you, in the name of God - stop the repression.

HAJEK: Many people questioned his politics, especially within the Catholic Church. His fellow bishops, loyal to the government, openly denounced him. In private, Romero seemed isolated.

Was he a complicated man, Romero?

DURAN: All saints probably are complicated.

HAJEK: Again, Brother Octavio Duran.

DURAN: He had a short temper. He was timid. He was introspective.

HAJEK: He also suffered from anxiety. He suffered from depression.

DURAN: That's exactly right. But when he spoke at the pulpit, he was a giant.

HAJEK: In Romero's war on inequality, the transistor radio was his weapon. Live broadcasts of his homilies were the most popular program in El Salvador.

DURAN: Everybody, everybody was listening, including his enemies.

HAJEK: Priests and nuns who empowered the poor were targets, accused of communism. Right-wing militants bombed that radio station, and flyers showed up outside churches with a shocking message - be a patriot, kill a priest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROMERO: (Through interpreter) I received notice that I'm on a list to be eliminated next week. Let it be known that no one can kill the voice of justice.

JOSE INOCENCIO CHENCO ALAS: I was so close to him. We were friends.

HAJEK: This is José Inocencio Chenco Alas, once a priest in El Salvador. The last time he saw Romero, Chenco sensed that his friend was afraid.

ALAS: He said to me, Chencho, they want to kill me. But I must stay with my people. He was offering his life.

HAJEK: On March 24, 1980, Romero was saying mass at a hospital chapel. A gunman from a right-wing death squad fired a shot that rang out like an explosion.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

HAJEK: Patricia Morales Tijerino remembers hearing the news.

MORALES TIJERINO: You know, it was this feeling of losing someone that is yours. I mean, the feeling was of feeling orphaned. It was quite devastating, actually.

HAJEK: El Salvador spiraled into civil war. The anti-communist military regime was backed by the U.S. Twelve years of fighting claimed over 75,000 lives. But Oscar Romero's voice was never silenced. For his followers, like Brother Octavio Duran, he was a saint the moment he was assassinated at the altar.

DURAN: With Monsenor Romero, Jesus passed through El Salvador.

HAJEK: But the wounds of war have not healed there. Today, street gangs control sections of cities, and El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Jose Inocencio Chenco Alas prays to Romero for a country free of bloodshed.

ALAS: Archbishop Romero, we need your voice in El Salvador. Your work has not ended. Please, from heaven, help us. Please.

HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.