The Diploma He Never Presented
A conversation with Cecilia, the niece of Archbishop Óscar Romero
Archbishop Óscar Romero was killed while celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in San Salvador on 24 March 1980. He died instantly of a gunshot wound to the head. For years he had denounced injustices in El Salvador and the violence of the police and the military against the weakest. During a visit to El Salvador in 1983 Pope Wojtyła went to pray at the archbishop’s tomb. The cause of Romero’s beatification was initiated in 1997, but was then blocked until Pope Francis’ decision. And so it was that Romero was beatified during a Mass last 23 May in San Salvador. Cecilia Romero, a niece of Archbishop Romero, took part in the Mass. Deeply moved, she told our newspaper about that day.
Two hundred and sixty thousand faithful participated in the Mass for his beatification in San Salvador. Romero became the first in a long line of new and contemporary martyrs in our day. How important a role did Bergoglio play in speeding up the beatification process?
Without a doubt it was very important. For us it was a great sign of reconciliation and hope. It was inexplicable that a priest killed at the altar while celebrating Mass should not be recognized as a martyr. In this way the Church today officially affirms that Archbishop Romero was not wrong in what he said and did, as some have continued to claim for years. I believe that we needed the first Latin American Pope to beatify the champion of the people of El Salvador! I had been away from my country for 11 years, and I shared in this immense joy in San Salvador together with his two brothers, Tiberio and Gaspar, both octogenarians.
The image of his blood-stained body surrounded by the faithful will live on for ever. The moment of his death: what did that shot mean to you?
It made his image — that of a bishop who stood for the lowliest — even more enduring. It was the indelible sign of an atrocious act that affected at least three generations of Salvadorans — a single terrible shot. Romero was well aware that sooner or later they would kill him. But he never backed down. Our family felt burdened by the name “Romero”, and for years we had to pretend that we had no ties to him. At a certain point my family had no contact with Romero. Only my father kept in touch with him, but was forced to do so in secret. In 1979 a group of soldiers broke down the door and burst into my house, demanding that I show them my documents. When they read “Romero” they were suspicious. “Ah, so you are a Romero too! Are you related?” “No, we are not related”. Those words were laden with such great sorrow! In 1980, I finished secondary school, and for us here, it is the bishop who presents the diplomas. I couldn’t wait for October, the month in which the ceremony was to take place, to receive my diploma from my uncle’s hands and to celebrate with him and my family. That moment never came.
When my uncle was murdered, I was 18 and, for the same reason [death threats to her family] I didn’t attend his funeral — pain on top of sorrow. It was too dangerous then; out of caution, my father wouldn’t allow my mother to physically approach Archbishop Romero, who was the first to advise her not to do so. I must say that the danger continued even after his death. Until the 1990s it was impossible to talk about Romero openly. His name was problematic, I would say, until John Paul II’s visit in 1996: from that moment things began to change.
Much has been said about Romero in these long years. Help us understand who he really was.
His life was greatly distinguished by a unique coherence between the values he believed in, his faith and his daily life. He fought for human rights and not only with words, he paid with his life for his courage and determination in opposing the military dictatorship. His sense of charity extended even to his persecutors to whom he preached conversion to the good. He was accused of belonging to the ranks of liberation theology, but his was simply a Christian heart that suffered for and with the weakest. All Romero wanted was to lead the country out of violence, fighting against what he himself called “injustice”.
What remains of the years of the civil war? Does the memory of it still live in Salvadoran society? What do the younger generations think of it?
The civil war cannot be forgotten, even though so many years have passed. During the civil war about two per cent of the population lost their lives. This is an overwhelming figure if we consider what this means in concrete terms, in Salvadoran families. There are traces of those tragic events everywhere. Many of today’s 30-year-olds were orphaned then. El Salvador, in fact, is at last a democracy, crushed by the terrible legacy of the civil war and of course by the global econom- ic crisis.
Getting back to Romero, there is a date that marks the “before” and “after” of his life: 12 March 1977, when Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit, was killed in Anguilares, a small village in the north of El Salvador. Why is this date so important?
Rutilio Grande was his best friend. And he had one great merit: he brought Romero close to people. I think that his best friend’s atrocious end heralded a new phase for Romero, from the standpoints of humanity and faith. The crime overwhelmed him. Unfortunately, after Rutilio Grande, Romero also saw other priests die.
His catecheses, his homilies, broadcast by the diocesan radio, were also listened to abroad: were you aware of his increasing popularity?
I began to feel I was free by listening again and again to his beautiful homilies. Still today, listening to the tape recordings causes me great sorrow every time. I think of his loneliness, his convictions, and I think of the fact that not even we, his relatives, were as close to him as we wanted to be. We were used to silence, we were a timid, closed people. I grew up in those years by getting used to the silence. It was silence that killed a large part of us. Yes, the radio was the only way to know how to open one’s eyes and to obtain news. Everyone would stop to listen. Some people have told me that even if you didn’t have a radio, it was possible then to walk through the streets of San Salvador without missing a word of his homilies because his voice resonated from all the houses and and coffee shops. I have to say that Romero followed sort of a fixed outline. In the first part of his homily he would comment on the Word of God, in the second, in the light of that Word he would denounce the events of the week, just as he found them documented by the Socorro Jurídico, the office for the protection of human rights. He would read out the names of the people who had disappeared, found dead in the rubbish dumps of the city. He was the only source of information. The police pretended not to know about these cases, which is why the relatives of the desaparecidos would go to the cathedral every Sunday for news. Sometimes the news did not concern the discovery of a corpse but rather a detention, and then the family would recover their hope.
My uncle relied on the help of the lawyer Marianela García Villas, who was later tortured and killed, three years after him in the jurisdiction of Suchitoto, while she was collecting evidence on the military’s use of chemical weapons against the civilian population. This young militant for human rights was 34 years old. She loved playing music, painting and writing short stories. She was one of Romero’s closest collaborators, in charge of the small group of young lawyers who risked their lives recording and investigating the daily violence and who drafted weekly reports on the human rights violations committed by the State and by armed groups of any political faction. She has been nearly forgotten in our country and that is not all. She was “the lawyer of the poor and of farmers” and unfortunately her memory has been lost; and yet she is a martyr for the cause of human rights. And those who thought they had silenced Romero for ever, not only gave a voice to a faithful people, but consigned him to everlasting beatification.
Weekly Edition in English
7-14 August 2015, page 13
For subscriptions to the English edition, contact:
Our Sunday Visitor: L'Osservatore Romano