Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in a 2005 issue of SojoMail.
"El Papa Juan Pablo Segundo Murió" read the banner shown on the TV set in the El Salvador bar I was sitting in April 2, 2005. The pope's death had been rumored all week. One taxi driver told me the pope was dead, though the next one informed me he was not.
A cheer went up from the crowd in the bar. I was confused. Were these Salvadorans—who loved and ignored the pope at the same time—cheering for his death? No. The futbol game was playing on the other television set and Mexico had scored a point. I came to El Salvador to attend a week of theological reflection to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. It was held at the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador, where eight Jesuit priests and two co-workers were brutally murdered by a Salvadoran army hit squad in November 1989.
The dissonance is everywhere. While John Paul II was a consistent and clear advocate of the Catholic Church's social teaching, his experience in Poland made him—especially in the early days of his papacy—harshly anti-communist. In an unfortunate confluence of events, when Romero brought photos of his murdered priests to John Paul II, the pope could only view them through the lens of Marxism. In his papacy he proceeded to dismantle and discredit liberation theology as a dangerous Marxist perversion of Catholic teaching—a disservice to the passionate way the poor responded to this reading of scripture.
Now John Paul II is dead. For all its pomp, his was an essentially quiet death, completing one of the longest papacies the church has ever known. Yet Monseñor Romero, who served as El Salvador's archbishop for only three years and who was assassinated while saying Mass, is alive everywhere around me. His face is on murals all over the city. The poorest people, many illiterate, can quote Romero verbatim from having memorized his weekly radio addresses. They teach their children what he said.
I visited the small apartment where Romero lived at the Hospital of Divine Providence. He refused to live in the archbishop's mansion and moved into a suite of three rooms near the hospital chapel. The living area contains Romero's personal possessions—his books, driver's license, car keys, daily calendar, typewriter, a radio with his name written on masking tape, his bishop's crook carved from a tree branch with a cross on top and images from El Salvador, and photos, photos, photos. In a glass case are his cassock and the clothes he was wearing when he was shot.
The white shirt is covered in a rusty brown blood. There is a ripped hole where the high-velocity expanding bullet did its death work. In the same case hangs the white habit of the nun who knelt next to him at the edge of the altar where he'd fallen. The hem of her dress is rimmed in blood.
I thought of the women who gathered at the cross, and I wept. The tears weren't so much for Romero's death. He knew what was coming, saying "I forgive those who will kill me." He accepted the prophet's road and ran the risks that his ministry required. I wept more for the grief of the people who had lost their shepherd, for how frightened they were.
I could feel the shock of it in my bones, as if the wrenching suffering of the poor in El Salvador is still palpably present in the cloth. From afar, it's hard to understand the quality of love that Salvadorans have for their pastor.
On March 30, 1980, when they buried Romero at the cathedral, thousands of people filled the streets around the church. Those who were there remember a poor woman from the countryside carrying her baby, who found herself next to Romero's coffin. As her roughened hands caressed the wood, she kept repeating, "Mi amor, why did you leave us here? You are the one who truly loved us."
But Romero did not leave his people. He said, "If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people," and it's true.
The Sunday after Easter I went to Mass at the Parroquia Madre de los Pobres—a base Christian community on the outskirts of San Salvador that was targeted by the army and death squads during the war. The gospel reading (John 20:19-31) was about Thomas' attempt to understand the resurrection of Jesus.
Father Daniel Sanchez talked about the death of the pope, the commemoration of Monseñor Romero, and what resurrection means—then he invited dialogue. A teenaged young man came forward to the microphone. "It's true," he said, "that as young people we never knew Monseñor Romero, and yet he is alive in us. He teaches us how to follow Jesus. He helps us as we do our work. We feel very close with him. And this feeling helps us understand the resurrection of Jesus, because some of the disciples, like Thomas, also didn't know if Jesus had really been resurrected, if he was really alive. But then they saw him among the people. They saw how he continued to teach them and then they knew he wasn't dead. They knew he had been raised up."
The "father" of liberation theology, Gustavo Guttierez, who spoke at the theological conference at the UCA, boiled liberation theology down to this: "Liberation theology and everything surrounding it is simply a response to this question—how can we tell the poor that God loves them?"
Archbishop Romero wrestled with how to answer this question with integrity. He paid for his answer with his life.
This is the question every Christian must wrestle with. El Salvador is economically hemorrhaging from the pressure of unjust trade policies. In the United States, the Bush administration speaks openly about drafting a "Salvador Option" for dealing with the chaos in Iraq and has recruited the same political operatives for Iraq as were used in El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s. The original "Salvador Option" supported by the United States led to the killing of 75,000 Salvadorans, several U.S. Catholic missionaries, dozens of priests, and one archbishop—and one of the largest popular church-based resistance movements in recent U.S. history.
How can we tell the poor of El Salvador, the United States, and most parts of the world that God loves them? Take action against trade policies that kill them. Confront systems that don't measure all decisions by how they affect the lives of the poor. And allow San Romero de la America—as he has been named by Brazilian bishop Pedro Casaldáliga—to teach us about resurrection.