SENTIR CON LA IGLESIA - MOTTO OF SENOR OSCAR ROMERO
MARCH 20 - ARRIVAL IN SAN SALVADOR
A real red-eye special flight from LA and we are in El Salvador with Sean waiting to greet us at the airport. Drive and lively conversation with Sean - news of the recent elections here, the state of the civilian police where they have all but eliminated corruption, and the feel and smell of the road, the smog the dust and the people we pass - and we know we are well and truly here.
We arrive at the Baptist College to a big welcome sign to participants in the Romero anniversary, and the warmth and joy in the faces that greet us take centre-stage before our tiredness, our feelings, our uncertainties, and we are made welcome by people from Haiti, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and of course here in Salvador.
Breakfast where Corn Flakes are turned on as a treat, and to sleep. No running water yet, so we sleep first, and adjust to the toilet rituals, given the lack of water, and it's all done with good grace all round!!
The pattern of hospitality and warmth are the first impressions I have, and the sense of anticipation around the celebrations this week. Sean tells us that the celebrations are all over the place and somewhat fragmented organizationally - a symptom of the church of the poor, which itself is still fragmented and bruised.
He tells us of his moving pilgrimage yesterday with the people of his old community of Santa Marta, as they recalled their time of exile in Honduras during the war and the people who died on that journey - strafed from helicopters while crossing the river Lempa, and attacked by the Honduran army when they got to the other side. Without having met the people to any extent yet, it is clear that they have endured immense suffering in the recent past - suffering about which we knew almost nothing. We will visit the Santa Marta community next week.
I am sure that this time will be richly blessed.
Our group are hardy and travel well - Bruno continues to be a delight - I explained the etymology of "wanker" to him and he is becoming inculturated!!! Nicole continues with a couple of broadsides and puzzling generalizations. I have to be careful not to react, or more primarily, not to judge.
Introduction to San Salvador
- first glimpses of the Romero event
Well what a day we have had. After a good snooze we visited the downtown area of San Salvador. The diesel fumes, the dust, the bustle of the narrow streets, the smells, the honking of horns constantly and the energy of the people all gave the place a special flavour.
Sean kept introducing us further to the story of the nation and the church - the Cathedral with its colourfully painted facade, some Opus Dei inspired features on the inside along with local cultural images marked it as a place both of haven and quiet, and a political statement as well. Romero's tomb had been moved after protests from the Right Wing, from the main body of the Cathedral to the crypt where it remains now. The claim was that only a canonized saint can be buried inside the church!
The current Opus Dei Archbishop when appointed, was already a Colonel-chaplain in the military and was then promoted to General with all the accompanying pay and conditions, but protests forced him to give up his military rank with its perks.
In the crypt of the Cathedral we visited Romero's grave - I had a few sacred moments alone with him, remembering his beautiful clear-hearted spirit and love for the poor, and prayed for a renewal of that same spirit in my own heart. Young people were portraying dramatically the events around Romero's assassination to a large appreciative crowd.
Watching his people who revere him so much visit his tomb was a grace. There is something quite powerful happening here this week.
We met Mgr Ricardo Urioste, Vicar-General under Romero and still holding that position - and had a chat with him - he was pleased we were here. Apparently he has continued in the midst of all the Opus Dei takeover, to work for he cause of the poor, and he too is clearly revered by the people.
Out in the square it is twilight and the hot gospel gangs are beating a frenetic path to heaven's door for all who will hear - it's kind of street theatre and religious voodoo mixed together. Most of the people around listen impassively or go about their business.
Our group keep adjusting to the experience - Bruno with wide-eyed wonder and joy at the beautiful children, "who don't have much but are very happy and full of joy", Jenny and Linda keep their own counsel and simply drink it all in. Marie and Nicole draw on their previous immersion experiences as they encounter the stories of this place.
Bits of shopping followed by a marvellous Mexican meal high above the city - with several hours= good conversation .....then to bed and......to a dormitory full of men - and some of the most lyrical snoring I have ever heard. My body is not ready for sleep so I pray and enjoy the symphony of snores - at one point it quietens off only to be set alight again by a chorus of roosters from near and far who broadcast for a few minutes - then they seem to stir next movement of the snoring symphony!!! After about 2.00 am I slept - I guess tonight will be better.
I prayed the Rosary during the night and stayed with the Cross of Jesus - his arms are open for the whole of my life and my journey here, and open for all his poor where he is surely most likely to be found. I prayed that my heart would be truly open in these weeks, letting go of my own agendas and my own comfort needs (which have already been successfully challenged - but I'm sure there'll be more) so that I can embrace the gift of this time.
This morning I have spoken with a French priest from Lyons who works here in Latin America - so my French got a bit of a workout, and Miguel Torres, Nicaraguan Baptist Pastor who visited Melbourne for a WCC conference in 1991 I think. We got by with a mixture of Spanish and English - his English was better than my Spanish! Nicaragua still has its tensions he told me but "that is natural"!
Again I sense the spirit of something precious happening here - there is an expectation, a certain joy and a knowing that something good for God's family is in the air.
Today we visit the Jesuit University for the start of the Romero conference - and so onwards.....
TUESDAY MARCH 21
SICSAL Conference begins:
Well what a day and where to begin? It's been such a day and words will never capture it, but I need to record it well. Ready for bed and ready for another night of "Symphony in the Dark" with the snoring brothers - I might use my walkman as protection!!
After the early morning rituals we set out for a day that I will never forget - it has been awesome, moving in the deepest way, informative, joyous and tragic - all in a few hours.
San Antonio Abad B Site of the murder of Father Octavio OrtizY.
We began at the parish house in a poorer part of San Salvador, San Antonio Abad, and met the pastor Michael Campbell-Johnson - a sage of a man, in a shabby Romero t-shirt, worn shoes and trousers, a grey beard and a broad English accent. Variously in the past he has been Assistant General to Arrupe, Provincial of the English province of the Jesuits, pastor in various parts of Latin America, and Secretary to the Latin-American Bishops' Conference. Since 1985 or so he has lived at this place, reclaiming it from the wasteland it had become after 1979.
That year, a group of teenage boys were engaged on the site in a Cursillo weekend with Octavio Ortiz, a young Salvadoran priest. Early one morning, a tank burst through the gates, and when Ortiz went out to investigate he was shot once through the head and then the tank rolled on over him crushing his head into a totally unrecognizable form. The boys scrambling for safety were cornered, four of their number were selected at random, rifles were put in their hands and they were shot. The next day the paper reported that government troops had put down a guerilla insurrection at San Antonio Abad. This morning we stood on the place where all this happened and listened to the story.
Archbishop Romero conducted the funeral and in his homily publicly accused the government of lying. From this time till the time Michael arrived, the place became deserted and filled with spider webs. Six or so years later, looking for somewhere to open the Jesuit Refugee Service, Michael got permission from the Archbishop to set up house there.
Today the place contains a silk-screen printing operation, a playground for the local school's children, a workshop for young women from poor families to learn sewing and craft a beautiful garden and outdoor chapel of the martyrs where all the martyrs of El Salvador are honoured. Already Romero is popularly referred to as "San" - though the present Opus Dei Archbishop has a problem with that!
Canon Anthony from Westminster Abbey was also there today - they have recently unveiled statues of 20th-century saints at the Abbey including Romero so he told us about that project, and had Michael preach at the unveiling of the statues.
Numbed into quiet reverie we drove next to the Hospital of divine Providence run by the Carmelite nuns for cancer patients, the place where Oscar Romero lived during his three years as the archbishop, and the place where he died.
Hospital of Divine Providence - site of Romero's death.
The Hospital Chapel where Oscar Romero was shot, just after finishing his homily - Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die..........
His blood-stained vestments and shirt - one bullet created a tiny hole in a grey shirt and a huge hole in the nation's heart.
We saw through the simple three-room cottage the nuns had built for him, and this moment was one of profound reflection. Here is his bed, his old type-writer and cassette-radio, and
here are his books, and here hang his Episcopal robes, and here - here hangs the blood-stained shirt complete with bullet hole, the bloodied vestments in which he died.
Shot by a professional marksman from a little red combi van pulled up at the front of the chapel, just as he was beginning to prepare the altar for the Eucharistic prayer. Celebrating Mass in honour of the mother of a journalist whose anniversary it was, he had just preached on John's gospel - "Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die........" For the previous couple of months he had received death warnings, and knew his time was coming and had come to terms with it on a retreat - with great struggle, but a month before his death he had written that a bishop may die, but the church would live on, stronger because of the shedding of his blood. His resurrection would be in the lives and faith of his people.
Shot once through the heart and tended by the nuns and the father of the Sister who spoke with us today - Romero was protecting him from the government - he offered his last words, giving his life gladly into God's hands.
At his funeral the military were furious that the people showed up in such numbers - the square was filled to overflowing and the military exploded bombs and opened fire from the tall buildings around, killing many in the crowd.
The military celebrated with a noisy party the night of Romero's death. Twenty years' later their power is gone and Romero lives on stronger than ever in the hearts of his poor and in the hearts of believers all around the world. His has been a remarkable resurrection.
We visit Romero's place of death and resurrection and I knelt there without words - the simplicity beauty and ordinariness of the place belie the extraordinary event that took place there. It was time for prayer, for prayer without words and for feeling again the pain of this nation, the pain of the church that still struggles to honour the commitment of those who struggle for justice, and the pain of a world for whom violence is the normal way of resolving conflict.
Further, I reflect on how the church was born through the martyrdom of one Christ and how again and again it has been resurrected by the martyrdom of other Christs like Father Ortiz and the four young men, Romero, and the other wonderful martyrs of ours and other ages.
The text at the back of the chapel from a homily of Romero's one month before his death, sums up the scene - he was prepared to give his life so that his people might be free. After ten more years of bloody struggle between the army and guerrillas, his dream came to be and today the party based on the original guerrilla movement, the FMLN, has just in the past week achieved a majority in the national parliament. Though a bishop died, the church was reborn.
After this what more could there be?