Category Archives: El Salvador

Salvadoran martyr of the base communities

In [Rafael Palacios] we see the new man and the zeal he had to fashion those new human beings that Latin America needs today—not just by changing structures but above all by changing hearts. It is the voice of conversion, the voice of genuine evangelization.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, June 1979

Rafael Palacios grew up in Suchitoto, El Salvador and his body lies in the Sacred Heart chapel in the city’s church of Santa Lucía. There is even a street named for him. Until recently there was a mural on the wall of the convento of the El Calvario church in town.

Mural of Rafael Palacios and Monseñor Romero

Mural of Rafael Palacios and Monseñor Romero

On June 20, 1979, at the age of 38, he was shot and killed on the streets of Santa Tecla, El Salvador, where he was working with base communities. At the time he was also serving in the Mejicanos parish whose pastor, Octavio Ortiz, had been killed in January 1979.

He had been ordained in 1963 as a priest for the diocese of San Vicente. He transferred to the archdiocese of San Salvador in the 1980s when the bishop of San Vicente suspended ten of his priests for their liberating style of pastoral work.

Father Jesús Delgado, cited in James Brockman’s  Romero: A Life,  noted that he “was fully convinced that Christian lay people should commit themselves to political struggle in order to bring to it the light of the Gospel and the salt of God’s Word.” But Padre Rafael did not confuse political organizing with the grass-roots church communities.

Yet he did connect faith with the life of the people, including their sufferings and persecution by a repressive government.

For example, in 1979 the communities he worked with staged a passion play in the church of El Calvario which connected Jesus’ imprisonment and death with the exploitation and repression they were suffering.

Faith should not be separated from life, a life which for much of the world is filled with suffering.

Those of us who live comfortable lives should not forget this. Nor should we forget that Jesus came among us, not with power and might, but in poverty and humility, sharing the pain and the joys of the people with whom he lived.

May the example of the martyrs, life Padre Rafael Palacios, remind us of God’s identification with the poor and suffering.

As Archbishop Romero said at Padre Rafael’s funeral Mass, cited in Brockman,



The God who has been pierced

On March 12, 1977, the Jesuit pastor of the church in Aguilares, El Salvador, was killed together with a young boy and an older man. Father Rutilio Grande had been a friend of the newly-name archbishop for several years. Grande’s death had a significant impact on that archbishop, Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

Aguilares parish church bell tower with bullet holes

Aguilares parish church bell tower with bullet holes

A little more than two months later, on May 19, 1977, Salvadoran government forces raided the city of Aguilares. Three Jesuit priests were arrested and expelled from the country. At least fifty people were killed, including a boy who was running up the steps of the church bell tower to ring the bell to alert the people of the city.

The Salvadoran military occupied the church for about a month; they opened the tabernacle and desecrated the hosts; they would not let even a military chaplain enter the church to retrieve the Eucharist.

Finally, on June 19, Monseñor Romero with several priests came to take back the church and install a new pastor and three women religious to help him.

In his sermon Romero made a strong connection between the suffering of the people of Aguilares with the suffering of Christ.

You are the image of God who has been pierced, which the first reading [Zechariah 12: 10-11] speaks of in prophetic words of mystery, but which present to us Christ nailed to the cross and pierced through by a lance. He is the image of all the peoples who, like Aguilares, will be pierced and insulted. But, if one suffers with faith and gives it a redemptive meaning, Aguilares is singing the precious chorus of liberation, because when they look at Him whom they have pierced, they will repent and see the heroism and the joy of those whom the Lord blesses in their sorrow.

The suffering of this world show us Christ crucified.

It is difficult to look upon the suffering – whether in Sudan, Syria, the Central African Republic, Honduras, or in the cities of the US.

But when we look with love on those who are pierced, Christ is offering us the opportunity to repent, to be in solidarity with those who are suffering – as Christ Jesus himself made himself one with all those who suffer and are in need.


We need prophets

All too often we look to leaders for words of comfort. We seek security.

But a true leader is a prophet, who speaks the truth, who calls us out of slavery and sin and injustice to a life of solidarity and justice, a life that reflects God’s reign.

Monseñor Romero

Monseñor Romero

Today is the 34th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the Divina Providencia Cancer hospital chapel in San Salvador.

There are hints that he will soon be beatified, but he is already a saint and a martyr in the hearts of many around the globe.

He was a prophet, but I believe he calls all of us to be prophets, to speak the Word, in season and out of season. We cannot leave prophecy to the recognized prophets.

As he said in a December 10, 1977 homily:

It is very easy to be servants of the word without disturbing the world: a very spiritualized word, a word without any commitment to history, a word that can sound in any part of the world because it belongs to no part of the world. A word like that creates no problems, starts no conflicts.

What starts conflicts and persecutions, what marks the genuine church, is the word that, burning like the word of the prophets, proclaims and accuses: proclaims to the people God’s wonders to be believed and venerated, and accuses of sin those who oppose God’s reign, so that they may tear that sin out of their hearts, out of their societies, out of their laws – out of the structures that oppress, that imprison, that violate the rights of God and of humanity.

This is the hard service of the word. But God’s Spirit goes with the prophet, with the preacher, for he is Christ, who keeps on proclaiming his reign to the people of all times.

May we seek to be prophets like him.

The subversive Gospel

The Good News of Jesus undermines all our pretensions.

Jonah thought the Ninevites were incorrigible – after all they were Israel’s enemies. But he also feared that God would not strike them down as they deserved, because God is merciful.

The leaders of Jesus’ day asked for signs, looking for a God who would make things right with a quick miracle. But the Good News is a Jonah who provokes conversion in the hearts of the people of Nineveh.

Father Rutilio Grande, the Salvadoran Jesuit who was a good friend of Archbishop Oscar Romero, was martyred on March 12, 1977. His death moved Monseñor Romero to live more openly a commitment to preach and be Good News for the Poor.

Rutilio had been a very scrupulous seminarian whose sense of unworthiness was so overwhelming that he didn’t consider himself worthy to be ordained. But God chose him, strengthened him, and moved him to be a presence and a voice for the poor.

In a February 13, 1977 sermon at a gathering to protest the government’s expulsion of a priest, he stated:

I fear that if Jesus entered the country crossing the border in Chalatenango, they wouldn’t let him pass. There by Apopa they’d detain him…
They’d accuse him of being a revolutionary.

How is the Gospel revolutionary and subversive?

Another quote of Rutilio Grande suggests that Jesus’ message of inclusion and community – all as children of God seated around the table of the Lord – is subversive of our images of god:

“In the name of God,” or “Glory to God,” [people cry out].
But what God are they referring to?
Some make the sign of the cross: In the name of the father – money, of the son – coffee, and of the spirit – rather sugar cane.
That is not God, the Father of our brother and Lord Jesus who gave us a Good Spirit so that we might be brothers [and sisters] – equal, and that as real followers of Jesus we might work to make present here and now His Reign.

Rutilio’s God was not a god “sitting in a hammock in the clouds.”

He is a God who offers the sign of conversion of all, a God who walks among us, seeking out the poor and the sinners – and rejoicing when we all sit together at the banquet table of the Lord.

As the entrance hymn of the Salvadoran Mass puts it – echoing the words of Rutilio Grande:

Vamos todos al banquete
a la mesa de la creación,
cada cual con su taburete
tiene un puesto y una misión.

We are all going to the banquet,
to the table of creation,
each one on his stool
has a place and a mission.


This week is was announced that the Archdiocese of San Salvador is beginning an investigation into the life of Father Rutilio Grande to determine if they will initiate a process seeking his canonization. Yet he, like Monseñor Romero, is already a martyr and a saint in the lives and hearts of many people. 


A purpose in life

Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford was one of the four US women killed on December 2, 1980, by the Salvadoran military.

They, like many in Latin America, had taken seriously the preferential option for the poor, sharing in the lives of the poor, accompanying them in their joys and struggles, showing the poor the mercy of God.

For this, they and many others were killed in Latin America, mostly by government forces. To be a Christian committed with the poor meant to put their lives at risk.

But for them it was what gave their lives meaning, partly because we see people living and struggling with a purpose.

Sister Ita Ford explained this in a letter to a sixteen-year niece:

This is a terrible time in El Salvador for youth. A lot of idealism and commitment are getting snuffed out here now. The reasons why so many are being killed are quite complicated, yet there are some clear, simple strands. One is that people have found a meaning to live, to sacrifice, struggle, and even die. And whether their life spans sixteen years, sixty or ninety, for them their life has had a purpose. In many ways they are fortunate people.

Brooklyn is not passing through the drama of El Salvador, but some things hold true wherever one is, and at whatever age. What I’m saying is that I hope that you can come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you, something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead.

The killing of youth by government forces in Latin America doesn’t happen as much as it did in the 1970s and 1980s, but still “a lot of idealism and commitment are getting snuffed out” by the violence, the poverty, the desperation, the political machinations of economic elites.

Yet I too find small signs of hope.

Yesterday I witnessed the entrance of 92 mostly young people into the catechumenate in the parish of Dulce Nombre. It filled me with hope to see so many wanting to journey with Christ, to live as members of the People of God.


They are finding something that gives their lives a deep meaning.

May all of us find that – in opening ourselves to the workings of God in us and in the poor.

Good news for the rich

The experience of the church in Latin America has brought to the fore the preferential option for the poor which can be found in the scriptures, from the injunctions of the Torah to care for the widow and the orphan to the beatitudes where Jesus calls the poor blessed.

But what about the rest of us, the rich?

I include myself among them since I have much more than most of the people of the world and have access to more wealth and power than most of my neighbors here in Honduras.

Rose garden of the UCA, where the Jesuits' bodies were found, November 16, 1989

Rose garden of the UCA, where the Jesuits’ bodies were found, November 16, 1989

Father Juan Ramón Moreno was one of the Jesuits killed on this day in 1989 by members of the Salvadoran armed forces.

The Jesuits at the Central American University (UCA)in El Salvador had, like many Jesuits in Latin America and throughout the world, taken seriously the call to live out their lives in “the service of faith and the promotion of justice.” In El Salvador it meant being a university community that accompanied high intellectual standards with a critical eye on the situation of injustice in the country. Thus they could not avoid being a thorn in the side of the Salvadoran elite and the repressive government.

Father Juan Ramón Moreno – Pardito – was not one of the well-known martyrs of that night. But he had devoted his life to God and the poor and was the assistant director of the Oscar Romero Center at the UCA.

In an essay published in Jon Sobrino’s Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador, he wrote about evangelization, being good news to the poor. In a section on the dilemma of the rich he wrote words that we who are not poor should take to heart:

“Basically the poor are impoverished due to hoarding and exploitation by the rich; and the rich are enriched at the cost of the impoverishment and misery of the masses. To free the poor by giving them access to living conditions consonant with their dignity as human beings and children of God entails sacrificing the privileges of wealthy oppressors. Hence, when faced with the news that the Kingdom of God is coming, the rich feel challenged and called to accept God’s justice and kindness, by allowing themselves to be re-created and changed by that justice into brothers and sisters, and persons in solidarity. ‘Be converted and believe the good news’ (Mark 1:15). Only conversion, metanoia, change of mentality, new eyes in order to see reality with love in solidarity with which God sees it, can enable the approach of the Kingdom to ring out as good news in the ears of the rich — conversion to God who comes in gratuity and kindness to remake things, the God of the Kingdom.”

The good news for us who are rich is conversion, expressed in solidarity.

That is the best starting point in working for the Reign of God and being good news to the poor. And it is, I believe, one of the ways in which God saves us.

The faithful insecurity of Father Dean Brackley

Two years ago today, Father Dean Brackley, SJ, a friend, died in El Salvador. I had gotten to know him in El Salvador and had found myself inspired by his example and aided by his book on Ignatian spirituality, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola.

In 1990, Dean had volunteered to leave the insecurity of work in the South Bronx and teaching at Fordham University to the insecurity of teaching at the Jesuit University of Central America in San Salvador, where six Jesuits and two women had been killed in November 1989 by government forces. In addition, on the weekends he served in the mountain parish of Jayaque where one of the martyred priests had served.

I live in Honduras, a country which many (including the US State Department) consider “insecure,” in part because of the high murder rate, especially in the major cities and along the north coast. Many, including the US government, see militarization of the police as the answer.

And so these words of Father Dean strike home:

What makes us secure? The “war against terror” demonstrates every day that military force can no longer make us safe, if it ever could. Instead, traditional military action is making everyone, including the U.S., less secure.

… The word of God is eloquent on these matters. Security comes from God, not from Tomahawk missiles or oil. “Trust in Yahweh and you will be secure” (2 Chr 20:20)….

It is important to recall, especially in affluent countries, that the vast majority of people who have ever lived (and all poor people today) have struggled daily to stay alive in the face of dangers: natural disaster, sickness, scarcity and social violence. But the practical  measures people take to address these threats never eliminate insecurity altogether. So, throughout history, people have turned to gods. Gods are supposed to provide security. In Israel, we have a unique situation: the people are to trust in only one God, Yahweh, for all their security needs. Only Yahweh provides real security and prosperity- shalom….

Jesus demands “total” faith: Do not fear those who can kill the body. Do not worry about what you are to eat or to wear. Do not worry or be afraid of anything. Do not let fear – a normal enough reaction to danger – dominate your lives. Instead, seek first the Reign of God and its justice. The rest will take care of itself….

It is essential to unmask the official lies that would justify imperial conquest and violations of human rights. It is crucial to promote the road of nonviolent peacemaking and to advance in our ethical thinking as a church. However, the present situation suggests to me the fruitfulness of proposing questions like these: Is the war on terror making us more secure or less so? What really can make us secure? What does our faith say to this? Can we be secure if half the world lives in misery? What idols do we rely on for national security? What idolatrous rituals does our nation engage in? How do these idols enslave? What victims are we sacrificing to them as a nation?

In the face of obsession about security, it is important to recognize that the quest for absolute security (an impossibility) can lead us to an idolatry that paralyzes us.

Fear and the pursuit of security can enslave us, but Jesus shows us another way, as Hebrews 2: 14-15 notes:

Now since the children share in blood and flesh, [Jesus] likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.

Will we live in the radical insecurity of the reign of God or rely on the gods of power and might?





Remembering the Way of the Cross of the massacred

On February 28 thirty years ago, hundreds of campesinos, fleeing the Salvadoran army, were killed in and near Tenango and Guadalupe in the municipality of Suchitoto, El Salvador.

tenango poster

1999 poster commemorating the massacre

This was but one of the massacres experienced by the Salvadoran people during and before the civil war, a war in which Salvadoran government forces were aided by the US government, up to one million dollars a day during the 1980s.

I have spoken with some of the survivors of the massacre, people I knew when I worked with and visiting the parish of Suchitoto.

What stuck me was one story that shows the faith of the people and helps us connect their suffering with the suffering of Christ, something we might do during this Lent.

In the evening before the massacre, there were, according to one eyewitness, about 900 people gathered together for a celebration of the Word. They had come fleeing from Palo Grande, Platanares, and Chaparral and were quite afraid. As they met, they reflected that Christ had struggled and suffered. “He had to flee from one place to another because he was being persecuted. So we too have to walk here afflicted, persecuted. If not, we’ll all have to die and the revolution will not go forward.” With these words they felt comforted.

The next morning as they were fleeing up a hill the army attacked them. The hill was covered with people, suffering, as a witness said, their Way of the Cross.

As we live this Lent, in prayer, repentance, and fasting, let’s remember all those who have suffered from oppressive regimes, especially those regimes which have received aid from the US.

Lord, have mercy on us and our nation.


Insecurity and the US women religious martyred in El Salvador

Thirty-two years ago, today, in 1980, four US women missionaries in El Salvador – two Maryknoll sisters, an Ursuline sister, and a lay volunteer – were killed by Salvadoran government forces.

This morning when I read the brief account in Robert Ellsberg’s  All Saints, I was deeply touched by  their courage in the face of death. They knew that their work placed them in danger. The laywoman, Jean Donovan, had regularly baked chocolate chip cookies for Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed on March 24, 1980. Maryknoll sister Maura Clarke wrote:

One cries out, “Lord, how long?” And then too what creeps into my mind is the little fear or big, that when it touches me very personally, will I be faithful?

But despite everything, they stayed and continued to serve the poor and to comfort those displaced by the violence of government forces and death squads. Fear did not hold them back.

The Gospel for this first Sunday of Advent is filled with images of fear: “People will faint with fear at the mere thought of what is to come upon the world…” (Luke 21: 26)

I live in the country with the highest murder rate in the world. I hear of deaths and killings. In 2009, a few months before the coup when some US citizens were fearing an invasion (from where, I don’t remember), I was asked if I would leave. No, was my response, since this is where I am called to be.

I am aware of the dangers here and take precautions, but I’m not filled with fear. In fact, I feel secure, especially in the countryside where I find people so willing to help.

Even here in the city of Santa Rosa de Copán, I am amazed at some things that happen to me. Last Thursday when my car broke down near my house, three guys passing by stopped to help. One said he would try to start it and did. Somehow he knew me – though I don’t know where. I have so often depended on the kindness of strangers and friends.

Last night I looked at the recording of the virtual town hall from the US Embassy in Honduras. What a contrast to my experience last Thursday night.

Concerns of security were great among those who e-mailed in questions to the Embassy, but mostly in terms of themselves and groups from the US. I noted no concern expressed for the thousands of Hondurans killed each year, though I don’t doubt that many are concerned.

Our concern for our own security can blind us to the insecurity of the lives of the poor and marginalized.

Will I leave here? Only when I feel God calling me elsewhere.


Jean Donovan said it well, in a letter, shortly after the Peace Corps left El Salvador:

Several times I have decided to leave—I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of adult lunacy…. Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.

Honduras today is not like El Salvador of 1980 and in my five years here I have never contemplated leaving. But the children and the people I work with keep me here and give me a great sense of security, because here, in the poor, I have found God present in an extraordinary way.

Learning Thanksgiving from the Poor

I think I first really understood what gratitude is when I lived for several months with the poor in 1992.

On a sabbatical from my work in campus ministry in Ames, I spent six months in the parish of Suchitoto, El Salvador, assisting the work of the Salvadoran pastor and the five US sisters who had served there during the war.

They asked me to help in the farthest region of the parish, a four hour walk from Suchitoto. There I had the blessing to stay with Esteban and Rosa Elbia Clavel who had turned the ruins of cattle stalls into a house for their many children. So that I wouldn’t put anyone out of a bed I brought a hammock to sleep in.

The community was new, mostly of people who had fled the war and had found this land unused and abandoned. Esteban and his family had fled to Honduras during the civil war after he, a delegate of the Word, had received a series of death threats.

The house was small but the family was so open to my presence among them.

Every morning I would awake with Esteban calling on his daughters to get up and walk about 30 minutes to get water.  The food was simple – tortillas and beans, often too salty, but it was shared. (I usually brought some vegetables or fruit to share whenever I came.)

The house was adequate but during the rainy season the water seeped under the door and passed under my hammock.

In the midst of this, I woke up many a morning with three words on my lips and engraved in my heart – ¡Gracias a Dios! Thanks be to God!

Some of this, I know, was due to the love I received from the Clavel family as well as from others in the parish.

But it was in the midst of poverty that I really discovered what thanksgiving is – a sense that all is gift, that God is good even though the situation may be horrid, and that all is gift.

I did not need things, nor even an education, to be able to give thanks. All I needed was to recognize the love of God all around me, which I found most in the love of the people I lived and worked with.

Since that time I have had a deeper understanding that our spirituality must begin with gratitude, with giving thanks.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of liberation theology, put it well in We Drink from Our Own Wells:

In the final analysis, to believe in God means to live our life as a gift from God and to look upon everything that happens in it as a manifestation of this gift.

All is gift.

All is grace.

¡Gracias a Dios!