Reviewed by the Editors, Mark and Louise Zwick
Watching the documentary, Monseñor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero, brought back to us our intense experience of living in El Salvador during the time Monseñor Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador. It vividly illustrated again for us his prophetic, loving, prayerful role in the midst of growing violence, re-pression, and terrible suffering in the country.
The film, made last fall and now widely available in DVD, features not only much actual footage of Archbishop Romero, but eye witnesses who knew him and his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande. The speakers included poor campesinos, those who accompanied the Arch-bishop as he visited the places where people were killed and the families of the disappeared, the human rights lawyers who helped him prepare cases regarding the disappeared, Monseñor’s driver, priests, nuns, and catechists, former soldiers, former guerrillas. The story is especially told by the campesinos, the farm workers who inspired Romero.
As is pointed out in the beginning of the film by a Sister who worked with him, Monseñor’s voice and words were preserved as he recorded his daily activities and thoughts into a tape recorder.
Early in the film, farmworkers who participated in Fr. Rutilio’s country parish tell the story of his arrival at the parish and how he spoke with the people, sharing the Scriptures with them and explaining their prophetic significance.
We moved to El Salvador in early January of 1977 with our children to live with the poor, learn Spanish, to learn about the culture, and to learn about the work of the Catholic Church among the poor. When we arrived, we did not know that we were arriving in a powder keg about to explode. Soon after we arrived, however, intense violence erupted and death squads roamed the land.
We did have a hint when we crossed the border into El Salvador. We were told to remove everything (our world’s belongings at the time) from our car. We did so, and the military people examining our things were very agitated to discover a colorful Taizé children’s Bible among our things. They talked among themselves and seemed to regard it as subversive.
As we met participants in the comunidad de base organized by Fr. Bernard Survil, the priest who received us in his parish in San Salvador, we soon became aware of the tense situation in the country. Elections were held right after our arrival, and many who protested fraud in the election were killed.
The people cautioned us about ORDEN, the paramilitary group that turned people in to the government and the military as suspected Communists. Anyone who was organizing with the poor or spoke about better conditions for the great numbers of the poor was targeted.
The old Archbishop of San Salvador, Luis Chavez y Gonzalez, was retiring. On February 3, 1977, the announcement came that Bishop Oscar Romero had been appointed Arch-bishop. The announcement was not well received. A Maryknoll priest expressed to us some of the bitterness about such a poor choice. Archbishop Romero was considered to be someone who was very traditional, who related only to the small percentage of middle and upper class people in the country, someone who would probably neglect the masses of the very poor and their hope for some change in their lives.
As the film points out, one priest who welcomed Oscar Romero as Arch-bishop was Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ, who had been a friend since seminary days. Fr. Rutilio had left his teaching post in the university to work with the rural poor. There he was scandalized by the plight of poor families.
During our time in the country Fr. Bernal, a priest from Colombia who had a radio program and spoke about the plight of the poor, was deported. Fr. Rutilio Grande celebrated a Mass protesting his deportation. At that Mass on February 13, 1977, Fr. Rutilio criticized the attitude of the government, the wealthy landowners, and the military of El Salvador that Christianity was sub-versive: “I am fully aware that very soon the Bible and the Gospels will not be allowed to cross the border. All that will reach us will be the covers, since all the pages are subversive—against sin, it is said.”
Mark attended that protest Mass as did Fr. Survil. A few days later the Guardia picked up Fr. Survil and he was soon deported. He told us years later that his interrogators at the jail (where people were speaking in English in the background, apparently American advisors) kept asking him who that other gringo was at the Mass, but he did not tell them it was Mark.
When Fr. Bernie was deported, Mark went with men of the community to visit the old Archbishop. As he saw the priests being deported, Archbishop Chavez jokingly said he would have to ordain Mark as a replacement.
Monseñor Romero was installed as Archbishop of San Salvador on February 22.
On March 12, a little over a month after Fr. Rutilio Grande celebrated the protest Mass, he was gunned down by machine gun fire, along with two people accompanying him. With that type of weapon, the crime had to be committed by the military.
Fr. Rutilio’s murder had a profound effect on Mon-señor Romero. At his wake, the Archbishop spent hours listening to many poor people. His life was significantly changed by these events.
We tried to attend that wake with Salvadoran members of the groups which Fr. Bernie had worked, but the jeep in front of our car, carrying several of the people, including nuns, slid on the drippings from sugar cane trucks and turned over. We all went to the hospital to accompany them instead of continuing to Aguilares. The trip to the hospital was fraught with fear on the part of the Salvadorans that the military would discover that we were on our way to the wake.
With the death of Rutilio Grande, people began to see a different Monseñor Romero than they had expected. The Church aligned itself with the poor.
On the Sunday following Grande’s death, the Arch-bishop cancelled all the Masses in the Archdiocese except one to protest the assassination of Rutilio Grande. He announced that there would only be the one Mass at the cathedral in San Salvador. We attended that Mass with the large crowd of people outside the cathedral.
As those who recount the events in the film point out, the threats against Mon-señor Romero began the same week as the one Mass.
In a country where members of the Church hierarchy had been close to government officials and the wealthy, Oscar Romero refused to attend any government functions after the death of Rutilio Grande until there would be clarification about his death.
He very quickly became immersed in the problems of violence, as socially-conscious Catholics were especially targeted for persecution and death. We listened, as did everyone else in our neighborhood and throughout the city and the country, to the Catholic radio station where Monseñor’s sermons were broadcast. Soon the new Archbishop was announcing on the Catholic radio station the names of people who were picked up by the Guardia Nacional and jailed. He said he had to get out the news as soon as possible before the person was permanently disappeared. He was able to save some people in this way and get them out of jail at this early stage in the conflict.
He spoke of the great persecution that was coming. He said he was calling on the God who weeps, hearing the lament of his children.
Later, Monseñor met with the guerrillas who organized in response to the terrible repression and death squads and tried to instill in them the idea of Christian nonviolence, but they were convinced they had to fight violence with violence and did not accept his recommendations.
It was Monseñor Romero’s appeal to the soldiers to disobey orders from their superiors when ordered to kill their brothers that led to his death. He said, “No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is against the law of God.
Monseñor Romero was killed on March 24, 1980.
We left El Salvador in 1977 with our children as the violence escalated, two years before Monseñor Romero was killed. We came to work in Texas, first in the Rio Grande Valley and then in a parish in Houston. When the refugees from El Salvador began arriving and had nowhere to stay, we knew that we should respond. We knew that they were fleeing terrible violence and forced recruitment into the army or the guerrillas. We told each other that if we had any guts, we would open a Catholic Worker house for refugees from the wars in Central America, in which, sadly enough, the United States government was on the side of the military governments and against the people. We began the Houston Catholic Worker in 1980.
The rest is history at Casa Juan Diego.
We are glad to be identified with the Beatitudes, with the tradition of Dorothy Day and Monseñor Romero.
The creators of the film remain faithful to Romero as a theologian and prophet of the Beatitudes. A martyr for the faith, he is a model for us all. We recommend Monseñor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero to our readers.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, June-August 2012