Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"Holy Land, Holy People": The 26th Anniversary of Romero's Martyrdom

I left the studio on March 24 at 7 in the morning, after the broadcast ended. I had been invited to share my thoughts on Oscar Romero, along two Roman Catholic bishops-- Ricardo Urioste, the head of the Romero Foundation and a personal friend of Romero's, and Rafael Urrutia, who is overseeing his canonization process, on El Salvador's equivalent of "Good Morning America." Urioste had invited me, after we had both spoken on a panel the night before, my topic being "Romero Outside of El Salvador"-- his witness around the world. I was definitely out of my league on the show, especially because Mauricio Funes, the journalist, did not receive my email the night before and mistook me for an expert on Romero, rather than just an admirer!

After greeting and chatting about Romero with a homeless gentleman, I made my way to the Chapel of the Divine Providence at the small Catholic cancer hospital where Romero lived during his three years as archbishop, and where he was gunned down behind the altar on the evening of March 24, 1980. The ecumenical service was already underway, but I found a seat next to a friend. Many people spoke-- people from different places in Central America, people of different faith traditions, campesinos (peasants), and even the mother of the first Salvadoran soldier killed in Iraq. I always feel myself to be in the presence of the Holy when I enter this chapel, but today there was a special energy there. One of the speakers characterized it when he said, "We are in the holy land. This land is holy because so many have given their lives here for the sake of the Gospel. And this people is holy." Holy land, holy people. Tierra santa, pueblo santo.

The inscription behind the altar reads simply, "At this altar Monseñor Oscar A. Romero offered his life to God for his people.¨

The most wonderful thing about being on national television was that people came up to me after the event and told me their memories of Romero. There is an on-going love affair between the people of El Salvador and Oscar Romero, and his love for them, and theirs for him means that his memory gives them permission to speak about things which are usually kept silent.

At the seniors meeting at my church that afternoon, virtually at the mere mention of Romero's name, the floodgates opened. For an hour and a half I heard the little old ladies at my church tell the most horrific stories of what they had suffered during the war. One usually quiet woman talked with ferocious animation about her experience fleeing with the people of her village while military planes bombed them and soldiers chased them. Later she listened while death squads tortured and killed her son and pregnant daughter-in-law. Since March 24, but not before, I have begun to hear these stories of the war from the people in my parish, most of whom were refugees from rural parts of the country that saw the most fighting, Suchitoto; Berlin. I hear a new story now every few weeks.

In the evening we participated in a two-mile march from the Salvador del Mundo statue to the steps of the Metropolitan Cathedral, where Romero is buried. Probablly five thousand people participated in the candle-lit march, singing, shouting, talking, and laughing, and another ten thousand were waiting in the plaza in front of the Cathedral for the Eucharist that would begin the all-night vigil. But as one speaker remarked, this was a people, not a crowd or a mob--"un pueblo, no una masa," and they were gathered for worship. There were shouts that peppered the Eucharist, "We want bishops on the side of the poor!" (The bishops who officiated were in the theological line of Romero, but the current Archbishop, who is extremely conservative, was no where to be seen.) And "You can see it, you can feel it, Romero is here!" I took communion, because I knew Romero would have invited me, and one small girl was very persistent in passing me the peace.
To learn more about Oscar Romero's story, look at these bios: and or watch the movie Romero. Romero's compete sermons (in Spanish) can be found at, and you can listen to them at

No comments: