Modern Day Martyrs

Christian Faith Comes Alive on Pilgrimage in El Salvador

Summertime…and the living is on the go. This summer I headed south to El Salvador in Central America.

It’s a breathtakingly beautiful land country, but with a turbulent history that includes many modern-day Christian martyrs. The capital city, San Salvador, is a major Latin American pilgrimage stop.

San Salvador is not exactly Cancún—it’s not a fun vacation. But it is a deeply moving one—you get to know about some of the most courageous and extraordinary Catholics and people of faith of the last 30 years.

A few must see sites:

Monseñor Oscar Romero’s house, next to Hospitalito Divina Providencia:
Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador surprised the minority wealthy and the majority poor in the 1970s, when he spoke out against economic injustice and military repression in El Salvador.

The archbishop was beloved by millions of campesinos (farm workers), but reviled by an oligarchy determined to hold onto economic and political power. It was from his humble home that Msgr. Romero (as he was affectionately known) wrote fiery Sunday homilies which were broadcast by radio from San Salvador’s cathedral. The archbishop used his faith as a tool for liberation, knowing one day he might pay a heavy price.

Considering the times he lived in, I was surprised by the calm and peace present in his home. A simple bed with a green and white bed spread, a wooden rocking chair, a plain desk and typewriter from which he wrote his stirring words. But his closet now has glass doors into which you can see the bloodstained vestments he wore the spring day he was killed while celebrating Mass.

Chapel of Hospitalito Divina Providencia:
Next to a hospital run by nuns, Msgr. Romero often celebrated Mass in this window-filled chapel. On Monday, March 24, 1980 during the evening liturgy, an assassin lurked outside. Through a window he shot a single bullet that pierced Msgr. Romero’s heart.

Subsequent international investigations showed the officers responsible for Msgr. Romero’s assassination to be graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia. The U.S.-run school trains Latin American military leaders.

Cathedral of San Salvador:
Salvadorans filled the cathedral to hear Msgr. Romero’s Sunday homilies. The murals behind the altar are beautiful, and underneath the church is the tomb of the fallen archbishop.

Many consider Msgr. Romero’s death the start of El Salvador’s 12-year brutal civil war, during which death squads killed many Catholic campesinos, priests, and nuns committed to social justice.

During Msgr. Romero’s funeral, which drew some 250,000 people outside the cathedral, the military started shooting indiscriminately and plunged the Mass into chaos. At least 40 people died that day.

University of Central America:
It’s 1989 and a Salvadoran death
squad pulls six Jesuit priests out of their beds in the middle of the night and murders them outside in a patch of grass. Not wanting to leave any witnesses, they also kill the housekeeper and her daughter.

They thought they could kill the outspoken priests with impunity, but the murders caused an international uproar that forced even the U.S. Congress to confront its policy of giving the Salvadoran military government so much aid to fight guerilla “communism.” The deaths of these priests and two women launched the movement to resolve a civil war that cost 70,000 lives. Peace accords were signed in 1992.

The place where the Jesuits were killed is now a simple rose garden. Where the two women were murdered is a prayer room. The university also built Centro Msgr. Romero, which includes a library and museum. Inside the museum are the clothes the Jesuits were wearing when they were killed. There are many photographs and personal affects of Salvadoran martyrs, including three American nuns and a lay missionary (killed by Salvadoran national guardsmen in December of 1980).

The Jesuits will often talk to visiting groups. I joined an excellent presentation being given in English to college students from Colorado. (On another note, El Salvador is now dealing with gang violence, and American tourists would do well to travel with a group.)

Next to the center is the Jesuit Chapel where colorful folkloric crosses decorate the wall behind the altar. But turn around and you see a modern rendition of Christ’s suffering in the Stations of the Cross as depicted through large-scale drawings of Salvadorans enduring torture.

History and hope—the U.S. and El Salvador
My hope is that one day Americans and Salvadorans will understand their shared history and be reconciled, creating lasting friendships that respect basic human rights and dignity.

U.S. visitors to El Salvador will grasp in a deeper way why there is an annual Catholic-led pilgrimage of 10,000 protestors to Georgia each November opposing the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). SOA graduates also have been implicated in the deaths of the six Jesuits and the four churchwomen.

Too often our noble American vision of world democracy has been compromised by political leaders backing Latin American dictatorships and military repression of poor women, men, and children for economic short term gains.

But the solidarity movements growing between Latin American people of faith and U.S. grassroots organizations (see SOA Watch, Amnesty International USA, Creighton University’s campus ministry [see their other site], Salvadoran American National Association) offer hope for a much better future.