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Blessed Oscar Romero’s legacy of charity in El Salvador

Blessed Oscar Romero’s legacy of charity in El Salvador

rchbishop Oscaro Romero with young people in El Salvador in this undated file photo. Photo courtesy of Arzobispado de San Salvador/Oficina de la Causa de Canonizacion.

By Jonah McKeown / Catholic News Agency

October 15, 2018

San Salvador, El Salvador

Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez, better known as Blessed Oscar Romero, once said that if El Salvador’s military oppressors killed him, he would “arise in the Salvadoran people.”

On March 24, 1980, Romero was assassinated in the middle of celebrating Mass, likely by a right-wing death squad. Not long afterwards, the country devolved into a devastating civil war that would last twelve years and claim more than 75,000 lives.

Though Romero’s earthly life may have ended, his love for God and the principles for which he stood— care and dignity for the poor, freedom from oppression— have been far from forgotten. Romero, along with Paul VI and Fr. Franceso Spinelli, will be canonized Oct. 14 at the synod of bishops taking place in Rome. The Vatican had recognized him as a martyr in 2015.

Romero’s words have a prophetic resonance today with the people of El Salvador, according to Rick Jones, technical advisor for policy in Latin America for Catholic Relief Services.

“You go into poor neighborhoods and everybody has a little card, a poster, a picture of Romero. He is in those poor communities, and he’s still the signpost for the Church and what they hope for,” Jones told CNA.

“He was the voice of those voiceless people who were suffering the violence and repression in the ’70s, and now people still look to him as the beacon and as the example,” he said.

“Canonizing someone in the Church is to hold them up as an example: ‘This is what we want people to be like.’ And so I think, still today, that’s who the poor point to for hope and for a sense that there is meaning and purpose, and a different way to do things.”

“A voice of those voiceless people”

Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 and was perceived as a “safe choice” who wouldn’t cause too much trouble. At the time, right-wing military death squads were terrorizing many of the citizens of El Salvador, especially the poor, mainly because of protests over the extreme economic inequality that marked the country in the 20th century.

Just three weeks after Romero’s appointment as archbishop, a death squad ambushed and killed his friend, Father Rutilio Grande, who was an outspoken defender of the rights of the poor. Five more priests from the archdiocese would be assassinated during Romero’s time as archbishop.

Romero’s weekly homilies, broadcast across the country on radio, were a galvanizing force for the country’s poor as well as a reliable source of news. He railed against the killings and urged the government to let people live in peace.

A military junta seized the government of El Salvador in 1979, with training and financial backing from the United States. Romero criticized the US government for backing the junta, and even wrote to Jimmy Carter in February 1980— a month before his death— asking him to stop supporting the repressive regime.

The Carter and the subsequent Reagan administrations in the US continued their support in the hopes that El Salvador would not fall to the communist revolutions that had already engulfed Cuba and Nicaragua. All told, the United States had provided more than $1 billion in aid to El Salvador’s government by 1984, while in 1980 alone the Salvadoran armed forces killed nearly 12,000 people. The casualties were mostly peasants, trade unionists, teachers, students, journalists, human rights advocates, priests, and anyone perceived to be a part of the popular leftist movement.

“Both the victims of violence and the perpetrators”

The civil war between military-led governments and left-wing guerilla groups officially ended in 1992, but El Salvador remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

In light of the Synod on Youth taking place this month in Rome, Jones said a number of factors, including hardline policies meant to curb gang activity, have led to the rise of devastating violence among young people in El Salvador.

“It really has a lot to do with the lack of opportunities,” Jones said. “Kids get in gangs primarily because of dysfunctional families, and living in marginalized neighborhoods where they don’t have any other opportunities. Young people, coming out of a situation where there’s domestic violence, walk out their door onto the street and there’s a gang waiting to recruit them, saying, ‘We’ll be your family.’ And so kids join gangs to get a sense of power, belonging, and identity, and a lack of hope for any other alternatives.”

Jones said after the United States began deporting large number of Salvadorans from Los Angeles after the civil war ended, many of the young people who returned were already involved in gang activity.

“You have a situation where in the mid-1990s most young boys were out of school and unemployed, and only made it to 6th grade. And so they started organizing and [the gangs] spread through the metropolitan area,” he said. “Then, in 2003, the government decided to put out the ‘Iron Fist’ policy. Meaning zero tolerance. Meaning any kid with baggy clothes, tattoos and a hat on backwards could get picked up and thrown into prison.”

These hardline policies backfired, however, as the homicide rate continued to increase despite the changes.