I met Sobrino on a visit to El Salvador in 1996. Here are some thoughts from my journal of that trip. I was more positively disposed to Liberation Theology in those days.
June 18, 1996
Today we went back to San Salvador. Our first stop was the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence, which was “consecrated on 16 July 1974 by Monseñor Romero. A second consecration was done by his blood on 24 March 1980.”
Our guide and hostess was Sor Luz Isabel Cuevas of Las Carmelitas Misioneras de Santa Teresa. She founded both this hospital and the orphanage where we stayed the first night and the last two nights in Santa Tecla. She spoke to us of Romero and of the murder she witnessed, “a tragedy deep in our minds and souls that we cannot forget.”
It wasn’t like it has been depicted in any of the movies, she said emphatically. In Oliver Stone’s fanciful Salvador, Romero is killed in the cathedral distributing communion, by a kneeling gunman who spits out the Host and pulls out a pistol and fires repeated shots, after which soldiers open fire on the fleeing worshippers. In the Paulist film starring Raul Julia, Romero, he is shot while consecrating the cup.
Sor Luz Isabel described it this way: “At 6 p.m., after the homily, when he was laying out the corporal, a bullet came from the door and entered his heart. At that moment he fell at Jesus’ feet [indicating the large crucifix behind the altar], his example and guide since he was a child. As he fell, he grabbed the altar cloth and everything on the altar fell on the floor.”
“I was on the right side, second row,” she said, “five meters from the altar. Few people were here, and they were so afraid they fell on the floor. Instead of being afraid, I was filled with indignation. I ran over to the altar to help Monseñor Romero, but it was too late; blood was flowing everywhere from his mouth, ear, and eyes. I turned to the door to see who did this, but I could not see who did.”
For her and the other sisters, the precise timing of his death is very important, and packed with theological significance. It was as if Jesus were saying to Romero, “I don’t want an offering of bread and wine this time–I want you.”
“All his teachings and homilies were supported by the teachings of the Church and the Gospel,” Sr. Luz Isabel emphasized. “As a prophet he was always announcing Jesus’ Gospel while denouncing the injustices of our people. After his homilies, we would ask him if he wasn’t afraid. He would tell us that sometimes he does not feel like preaching like this, but there was a voice inside compelling him to.”
She recalls him saying once, “I know I will be killed, but I’ve already forgiven the ones who will do this, and I will be resurrected in the voice of the Salvadoran people.”
“Our congregation, and the sisters who were living here, thank God for giving us this precious gift, and for letting us spend time with a saint.”
Sr. Luz Isabel then showed us the simple house on the hospital grounds where Romero lived. His books are still there–those left after soldiers carried away those they considered “subversive.” A display case shows the blood-stained clothes he was wearing at the time of his death–on the shirt, the small hole is clearly visible where the explosive bullet entered his heart. A small bed, desk and chair in the bedroom; a hammock suspended from the ceiling in the room where he took his siesta.
Sr. Luz told us of a time when he was getting many threatening phone calls, when one night sounds on the roof woke him up, and he was convinced someone was there to kill him. In the morning, though, he came into breakfast looking rather embarrassed and said, “Here are the guys who were trying to get in”–and he held up two large avocados. He had forgotten about the tree over his roof.
From the hospital we went to the University of Central America, where on November 16, 1989, soldiers of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion murdered six Jesuit professors, their housekeeper, and her daughter. The campus ministry director, Rodolfo Hernandez, gave us a detailed account of the causes of the war, the violation of human rights by the military, and the people’s growing loss of faith in the FMLN as its leaders became just like the government leaders they opposed.
“The Army and the wealthy must ask for forgiveness from the Salvadoran people,” Hernandez said. “This is the tragedy of our country. No one has asked for forgiveness for the things they have done to our country.” The people who committed the worst crimes were all pardoned by an amnesty which was being planned for even while a “Truth Commission” identified those guilty. “So the people who made the massacres are out there free. It could be the same in Guatemala, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Rwanda.”
“There is peace now,” he said, “but not a peace rooted in justice. Not rooted in truth, because the truth is not known in the country. Not because it’s unknown, but it’s not in the politicians’ interest to tell the people.”
The current ARENA government (the party founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was responsible for Romero’s death) has said that “to have peace we have to forgive and forget–not knowing that people with no historical memory have no identity. How can we forget people who did so much? We can’t forget Monseñor Romero. We can’t forget the screams of children who were raped and abused all those years. We can’t have a future forgetting the past.”
“The real losers of the war were the poor people of the country, who have grown in numbers and in tragedies. They are the ones paying the bills for the twelve years of war. This includes the soldiers and the FMLN fighters, all of whom were recruited from the poor,” Hernandez said.
As Hernandez continued to answer questions, two college students brought in photo albums containing the pictures of the scene on November 16, 1989, of the bodies of the Jesuits who had been killed and then dragged out onto the lawn. Contrary to Hollywood’s infinite number of depictions, bullets do not make neat holes. Never could such scenes be imagined. Never could a make-up artist depict such horrors. It looks cartoonish, in a way, it is so unreal. People speak of having their brains shot out. That is the literal truth. One photo showed a brain, intact, like a laboratory specimen, lying on the grass, yards from the body. That is all I can describe. All I care to remember.
As we left the conference room, still shaking from the pictures, we met Fr. Jon Sobrino, who avoided death that day because he was teaching a class in Thailand. “This is a sacred place,” he said, “More so than Fatima or the Vatican.” Someone mentioned that several of us had read his books. “My books are not important; what you are seeing here is what is important. The books make sense only in light of this.”
We then entered the Martyr’s Room, where the relics of the Jesuit martyrs are on display, along with relics belonging to Fr. Rutilio Grande and to the massacre victims of El Mozote, Rio Sumpul, Rio Gualsinga. Again we saw blood-stained and bullet-riddled clothing. A photo of Romero was in one Jesuit’s room; it was shot in the heart by one of the soldiers as if to assassinate him a second time. A book by Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, fell to the ground and was covered with the blood of Fr. Juan Ramon Moreno when his body was dragged out. That made the most profound theological commentary on all we had seen. In the sufferings of his people, Christ is crucified yet again.
We walked out onto the sunlit lawn where the soldiers dragged the bodies. Now it is a rose garden, planted by the husband of the housekeeper.
The university chapel, formerly known as “Jesus the Savior,” now known as Monseñor Romero Chapel, is their resting place. On the outside walls, on either side of the front door, are two phrases he often used: “If I get killed I will be raised in the Salvadoran people,” and “With these people it is not hard to be a good pastor.”
Inside the chapel, on the back wall, are the stations of the cross. You cannot avoid them as you walk out–seven large charcoal drawings on each side of tortured men and women. Images that burn into your mind.
We visited Romero’s tomb in the cathedral afterwards, almost as an afterthought. Ironically, the tomb of this beloved martyr, known everywhere we visited simply as “Monsenor,” is inaccessible to the people. The present archbishop has deemed it appropriate to begin renovating the cathedral. The new tomb, built for last spring’s visit by Pope John Paul II, is accessibly only to visitors who ask the guard for permission, and stumble through the dark and dusty crypt to where the saints await their resurrection.
I thought of the closing scenes of the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the ark of the covenant is crated up, labeled “Top Secret,” and hauled off to a military warehouse to be forgotten.
Only Romero will not be forgotten. His tomb may be inaccessible, public demonstrations of devotion may be discouraged, but his spirit lives. “If I die, I will be resurrected in the voice of the Salvadoran people.” And the faith and the hope of the people we saw demonstrates that this is so. Their suffering is not ended, and the criminals in their country and ours walk free. But the people confess their faith in a God who was himself tortured, was raised from the dead, and will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”