On June 20, 1979, thirty-eight year old Father Rafael Palacios was gunned down in the streets of Saint Tecla, El Salvador, one of many priests, religious, and catechists killed in El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s.
Raised in Suchitoto, he studied for the priesthood in the diocese of San Vicente and was ordained in 1963. But his commitment to the poor brought him and other priests in conflict with their bishop who suspended them. He was later accepted in the archdiocese of San Salvador.
In my unpublished work on the parish of Suchitoto, I wrote this about Padre Rafael.
Fr. Palacios was ordained a priest in Suchitoto on May 26, 1963. He then began working as a priest in Tecoluca, in the diocese of San Vicente. But his liberating style of evangelization brought him into conflict with his bishop, Monseñor Arnoldo Aparicio, who suspended him and nine other priests who were outspoken in their commitment to the poor. Palacios was forced to leave the diocese but was taken in by the parish of El Calvario in Santa Tecla. His work there also brought him trouble. As Plácido Erdozaín relates:
“Members of his local community, born of the city’s poor, worked out an interpretation of Jesus’ imprisonment based on their own lives of exploitation. On Holy Thursday, 1979, they acted it out in a passion play in the parish of El Calvario. The old accusations surfaced again and Rafael was criticized by some of his fellow priests and some members of the hierarchy.
“He was a hard worker, poor, very quiet, and built like a prize fighter. He spoke right to the point, Despite the accusations, he kept on working as before, but now with the poorest of the poor, those who lived in and around the markets, and those who had been evicted from their miserable dwellings. He refused to be tied down by territorial or liturgical restrictions. His goal was to create communities of free Christians, there where they lived, suffered, resisted, and struggled for liberation.”
Palacios worked somewhat outside of the normal canonical parish structures. However, in 1979 he was persuaded to take over the parish of San Francisco in Mejicanos after the killing of Father Octavio Ortiz in January. While pastor in Mejicanos, he also coordinated base communities in Santa Tecla and in Santa Lucía, San Salvador. He also served as the representative of the Pastoral Reflection Group to the National Committee of Christian Communities. He was also a committed member devoted to the Pastoral Reflection Group, sometimes called “the thirty” and was its secretary at the time of his death.
Fr. Palacios was killed on June 20, 1979, in the streets of Santa Tecla, on his way back from a meeting of the communities he worked with. The UGB, Unión Guerrera Blanca, the White Warriors Union, took responsibility for his murder.
A hymn written in his honor notes his attempts to have people understand their faith and live it, not as mere individuals seeking to save their souls, but as members of the community seeking the Kingdom of God. “Nuestro Dios no está en el templo / sino en la comunidad. Our God is not in the church building but lives in the community.”
He is buried in the church of Santa Lucía in Suchitoto. For several years there was a mural with the images of Padre Rafael and Monseñor Romero on the wall of the convento of the church of El Calvario in Suchitoto.