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That diploma never presented

· A conversation with Cecilia, one of the nieces of Archbishop Óscar Romero ·

Archbishop Óscar Romero was killed while he was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in San Salvador on 24 March 1980. Hit in the head, he died instantly. According to the audio recording, the shot was fired during the Eucharistic consecration while Romero was raising the chalice. For years he had denounced the instances of injustice in Salvador and the violence of the police and the military against the weakest. On a visit to Salvador in 1983 Pope Wojtyła went to pray at the archbishop’s tomb. The cause of his beatification was initiated in 1997, but was to be blocked until Pope Francis’ decision. And so it was that Romero was beatified last 23 May.

Cecilia Romero is one of Romero’s nieces and took part in the Mass at San Salvador. She told us about that day, deeply moved. Two hundred and sixty thousand faithful participated in the Mass for his beatification at San Salvador. Romero became the first in a long line of new martyrs in our day. How important was Bergoglio’s role in accelerating the beatification process? “Without any 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 did not err 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 octogenarian brothers, Tiberio and Gaspar.

The image of his bloody body surrounded by the faithful will live on for ever. The moment of his death: what did that shot mean for you? “It made his figure as a bishop belonging to the lowliest even more eternal. It was the indelible sign of an atrocious action that affected at least three generations of Salvadoreans – a single shot, terrible. Romero knew well that sooner or later he would be killed but he never withdrew. In the family we all felt burdened by the surname “Romero”, and for years were obliged to pretend that we had no ties with him. From a certain point my family’s contacts with Romero were interrupted. Only my father kept them up, but in secret. During 1979 a group of soldiers broke down the door and burst into my house, immediately demanding that I show them my documents and when they read “Romero” they were suspicious. “Ah, so you are a Romero too! Are you relatives?” “No, we are not relatives”. With what great sorrow those words were laden! In 1980, I finished school and in this country it is the bishop who presents the diplomas. I couldn’t wait for October to arrive, the month in which the ceremony was scheduled to take place, in order 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”, Cecilia continued, “I was 18 and for the same reason (death threats to his family) I didn’t take part in his funeral – a suffering in suffering. It was then too dangerous; my father, for the sake of caution, didn’t let my mother 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 a burden, 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. May it help us understand who he really was. “His life was strongly marked by a unique coherence between the values in which he believed, his faith and his daily life. He fought for human rights and not only in 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 good. He was accused of belonging in the ranks of liberation theology, but his was only a Christian heart that suffered for and with the weakest. Romero only wanted to lead the country out of violence, combating what he himself called “injustice”.

What is left of the years of the Civil War? Is the memory of it still alive in Salvadorean society? What do the younger generations think of it? “The Civil War cannot be forgotten, although so many years have passed. During the Civil War about two per cent of the population lost their lives. This is an overwhelming fact if we think of what this means, in practice, in Salvadorean families. Everywhere there are traces of those tragic events. Many 30-year-olds are the orphaned children of the past. El Salvador, in fact, is at last a democracy, crushed by the terrible legacy of the Civil War and of course the global economic crisis. To return to Romero, there is a date that marks the “before” and the “after” of his life: it is 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 the atrocious end of his best friend heralded a new phase in Romero, from the viewpoints 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 tapes with the recordings causes me a great surge of pain every time. I think of his loneliness, his convictions, and I think of the fact that not even we, his relatives, were close to him as we would have liked to be. We were used to the silence, we were a timid, closed people. I grew up in those years accustoming myself to silence. It was a 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 to it. Some people have told me that it was possible then to walk through the streets of San Salvador even if one didn’t have a radio, without missing a word of his homilies because his voice resonated from all the houses and bars. I have to say that Romero respected a sort of fixed plan. 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 they were documented for him by the Socorro Jurídico, the office for the preservation of human rights. He would read out the names of the people who had disappeared and who were 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 disappeared would go to the cathedral every Sunday to have news. Sometimes the news did not concern the discovery of a corpse but rather an imprisonment, and then the family would recover their hope.

“My uncle”, Cecilia recounts, “relied on the help of the lawyer Marianela García Villas, who was later to be tortured and killed, three years after him, in the jurisdiction of Suchitoto, while she was collecting evidence on the use by soldiers 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, at the risk of their lives, were recording and investigating the violence perpetrated daily and who drafted a weekly report on the violations of human rights committed by the State and by armed groups of any political faction. She has been almost forgotten in our country and that is not all. She was “the lawyer of the poor and of farmers” and unfortunately the memory of her has been lost; and yet we have before us a martyr for human rights. In spite of those who thought they had silenced him for ever, she not only gave a voice to a faithful people but consigned him to eternal bliss”.

Cecilia Romero, 53, is a daughter of José, a first cousin of the Salvadorean archbishop. She was born in San Salvador and has lived in Italy for 15 years. She married in her country an Italian who was working for the European Union. They live in Tuscania, in the Province of Viterbo, Italy, with two children, Lucia, 16, and Edoardo, 15. She is very close to Tiberio and Gaspar Romero, Archbishop Romero’s two remaining brothers, now over 80. She belongs to the Commission for Truth and Justice for the Latin American desaparecidos, whose members met Pope Bergoglio on 28 May 2014. Sigan adelante, “go ahead”, Francis said to the delegation of relatives of the desaparecidos of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. According to Cecilia it is in his last homily, which he celebrated on 23 March 1980, that the true Christian testament of Romero should be sought: “I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “You shall not kill”.

Silvina Pérez

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