A pilgrim’s way home

Twenty-five years after Archbishop Romero’s assassination, one Salvadoreña visits people and places that carry on his message.

In the evening of March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador was shot and killed while celebrating Mass in the chapel on the grounds of Divine Providence hospital. His enemies rejoiced while the poor of El Salvador wept.

Now, 25 years later, Archbishop Romero has become an international icon. For me, a native Salvadoreña, the recent anniversary became an invitation to begin a pilgrimage, to follow the influence of this humble man, and to hear the stories of those changed by knowing him or by learning the tale of his life.

A plea for help
My first stop on this pilgrimage took me to the University of Notre Dame, to a conference called “Archbishop Romero: Martyr and Prophet—A Bishop for the New Millennium.” Scholars gathered with church pastors of El Salvador. While the scholars shared insights into Romero’s words from his writings and homilies, those from El Salvador told how their lives were directly touched by the man. To them he was a peacemaker, a preacher, a man of deep prayer.

Msgr. Ricardo Urioste, Romero’s vicar general, offered the story of his own struggle to embrace Romero as the newly appointed archbishop of San Salvador. He said that because Romero had not been his choice for archbishop, he had chosen not to go to his installation, feeling it would be hypocritical to attend. But Urioste encountered the new archbishop a short while afterward when he was leaving the grounds of the seminary in San Salvador as Romero was arriving. Their paths crossed for a moment.

Romero stopped and spoke a single word to him: “Ayúdame.” The simplicity and humility of Romero’s plea, “Help me,” won Urioste over. He later discovered that turning to others to ask for help was one of Romero’s essential characteristics.

Urioste also recalled an incident when Romero had assembled his brother bishops, priests, and other pastoral ministers to ask their thoughts on a certain matter. For a couple of hours, all shared their opinions while Romero wrote copious notes.

When the consultation was over, Urioste watched Romero make his way out of the building, where he encountered a beggar sitting on the steps. Romero stopped, walked over to the beggar, and leaned down. Urioste assumed Romero was going to give the man some money. To his surprise, he heard Romero ask the beggar the same question the bishops and priests had just been deliberating.

It was just one example of how his episcopacy would be marked by his openness to the thoughts of others, regardless of their social importance.

Monseñor Romero, ¡Vive!
My pilgrimage next led me to El Salvador and to the grounds of the Central American University, where more than 1,500 gathered for the anniversary of Romero’s assassination.

From villages in the province of Pete, a group of 21 Indian farmers made a 10-hour bus trip for the celebration of the life and death of Oscar Romero.

From South Africa came Bishop Kevin Dowling. A fellow pilgrim, he told me he was realizing a lifelong dream by traveling to the land of the martyr Romero. Romero’s spirit and testimony had inspired and accompanied him in his personal journey to live a committed priestly Christian life in the hate-torn context of apartheid. Romero was not only a brother in the episcopacy but a brother of the heart.

From many lands and many walks of life and religious traditions, men and women converged because they believed that this Romero who had died was yet alive. The halls resounded with the traditional cheers: “Monseñor Romero, ¡Vive!” “Monseñor Romero, you live!”

Survivors of El Salvador’s civil war spoke of the agonies that had enveloped them and their companions during the war-torn years. Romero had taught them that it was not God’s will that men and women should be poor. Despite others wanting to blame God, through Romero’s example the survivors understood that God does not desire suffering for the poor. God is not on the side of injustice. The presence of Romero then, and the memory of Romero now, filled them with hope.

The university itself is sacred ground, infused with memories of the living and of the dead. At the residence of the Jesuit community lives the memory of the six murdered Jesuits and the two women who died with them on the night of Nov. 16, 1989. The room where Elba Ramos and her daughter Celina were killed has become a simple chapel honoring the memories of these two women.

In the university chapel, named in honor of Romero, rest the bodies of the six Jesuits—Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín Baró, Segundo Montes, Amando López, Joaquin López y López, and Juan Ramón Moreno. On the back wall of the chapel the traditional Stations of the Cross have been replaced by black and white sketches of the tortured and crucified people of El Salvador. El Salvador has become a pueblo de mártires, a community of martyrs, both named and nameless.

The colors of resurrection
This daughter of El Salvador had to visit one more place: El Paisnal, birthplace of my father, José Antonio Pineda, and of my tío político, Father Rutilio Grande, S.J., a member of my Salvadoran family.

On the way I traveled through the town of Aguilares, where Grande had served as pastor. On the outskirts of town stands a large mural of Romero and Grande. Along the way I encountered a monument to Grande, Manuel Solorzano, and a young boy, Nelson Rutilio Lemus, who died together en route to El Paisnal, where Grande was going to celebrate Mass.

The front-page photo of La Prensa Gráfica for March 14, 1977 shows the bullet-riddled jeep. The caption reads, “The priest Rutilio Grande, pastor of El Paisnal and one of the major local proponents of liberation theology, was shot to death as he traveled in his car.”

At this very personal station of my pilgrimage, I stopped to pay my respects at the monument. I remembered the day in 1979 when I came to El Paisnal and found the church neglected, layered in dust and cobwebs. Twenty-six years later I am again entering El Paisnal. I am greeted by that joyful mural of Romero and Grande, painted in bright reds, yellows, and greens, colors of resurrection now flowing from the art of El Salvador. Beneath the mural are the words, “P. Tilo and Monseñor Romero—Prophets of Liberation.”

Around the bend the church building comes into view. Its walls are painted, its doors wide open. As I step in, my eyes move to a large painting of Grande. He looks out pensively while beneath his likeness are his words: “Let us work so that there can be a common table for all, where each one will have large tablecloths, food and a tambourine, and a mission.”

Once again I kneel in front of the altar, before the tombstones of Grande and those killed with him. A profound sense of gratitude and sadness fills my heart. My pilgrimage has led me to this place. I am in the presence of holy martyrs, of family, fellow Salvadoreños; and this history belongs to me.

Ana María Pineda, R.S.M. is an associate professor and director of the Graduate Pastoral Ministries program at Santa Clara University. This article appeared in the July 2005 (Volume 70, Number 7; pages 34-35) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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