It is 30 years ago this week that a sniper killed Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero with a single bullet that exploded through his heart as he said mass. Romero may someday be declared a saint. Certainly he was a hero. Like many of the priests and nuns I knew in Central America in those days, he expressed a nobility of purpose protecting the poor and the powerless—a way of living and working that risks being forgotten amid the scandals of the Catholic Church today.
That night of March 24, 1980, there were only a few families in the little Divine Providence Church at the cancer hospice where the archbishop chose to live even after he was elevated to the highest clerical position in his country. He raised the sacrament above his head: the wafer and the wine, the body and the blood of Christ whose sacrifice helped show the way toward "concepts of justice and peace" for the suffering Salvadoran people, he said. The sharp crack of the rifle echoed outside in the dark. A car drove away. Romero lay dead before the altar.
I had interviewed the archbishop a few weeks before. He had been good-humored and philosophical about all the threats against him by Salvadoran right-wingers who claimed he was helping communists. I had heard Romero's powerful sermons in the cathedral of San Salvador, where the raw concrete walls had been left unfinished as a sign that grandeur was not the church's priority. All of us reporting there knew he would be killed. He knew he would be killed. The week after Romero's murder I attended his funeral, where gunfire and bombs set off a panic in the crowd of tens of thousands and at least 35 people died. I had never been so scared in my life, but I drew some strength from Romero's memory. I had never met a man so brave.
Romero had been an unassuming priest in a lackluster, mostly conservative clerical hierarchy. But as archbishop he proved to have in quiet abundance the courage, the conviction, and the conscience to transcend his past and to speak, truly, for the victims in society. El Salvador was on the verge of civil war. Left-wing activists and guerrilla groups wanted to overthrow a government dominated by big landowners and the military. A coup had installed a divided junta, and right-wing death squads ruled the night, murdering anyone that they deemed "subversives"—politicians, labor organizers, priests, and defiant campesinos, or peasants, demanding a share of the land. The death squads and those in the military who supported them were ready to repeat "La Matanza," the massacre of peasants that crushed a rebellion in the 1930s. Romero opposed the violence and dared to take upon himself the enormous risks that implied.
Pope Benedict XVI may yet find such courage as he confronts the pedophile scandals that have, in his words, "obscured the light of the Gospel." Perhaps this seems a different kind of issue, a different kind of bravery. But what's required is a wholehearted identification with the victims, even when, in this case, they are victims of the church. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporterhas written that the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger underwent a kind of transformation early in the last decade when he realized the true extent of the problem. "As late as November 2002, well into the eruption [of the pedophile scandals] in the United States, he seemed just another Roman cardinal in denial," says Allen. "Yet as pope, Benedict XVI became a Catholic Elliot Ness—disciplining Roman favorites long regarded as untouchable, meeting sex-abuse victims in both the United States and Australia, embracing 'zero tolerance' policies once viewed with disdain in Rome, and openly apologizing for the carnage caused by the crisis."
Well, not quite. In his letter to the Irish, Benedict's tone was tough on everyone but himself and the Vatican leadership. When he wrote, "God's justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing," we might have expected a mea culpa. But he went on to call on others to "openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God's mercy." (My emphasis.) Surely such prescriptions ought to apply to all the cardinals and bishops under whose jurisdiction known pedophile priests at one time or another found protection. Ratzinger himself ran the Munich archdiocese where that happened in the 1980s. But the pope's letter was not a mea culpa, it was a sua culpa—somebody else's fault.
Benedict thrust the blame for scandals on "inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life." Seminaries don't give enough "human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation," he said, and there is a "misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church." Fair enough. But Benedict also took a swipe at modernity—or, as he put it, "fast-paced social change"—and said the Second Vatican Council had been "misinterpreted" to avoid imposing penalties for "canonically irregular situations," a grating euphemism for criminal child abuse. The Pontiff has descended from the ivory tower of the Vatican now and then to empathize with the victims who had been dragged into the dirt. But he has failed to acknowledge the essential problem: in the supposedly celibate clergy you have a goodly number of ferociously repressed men who have been given enormous power over little boys and girls and led to believe that if they abused that power—and those children—the hierarchy would cover for them.
What's especially disturbing now is that the many brave, honorable priests and nuns are having their reputations tainted by association with that out-of-control minority and the growing impression that their church is steeped in decadence while their hierarchy is unwilling or unable to cleanse itself.
So let us think for a moment more about those priests and nuns in Central America 30 years ago when, as Salvadoran journalist Carlos Dada wrote in an exhaustive reconstruction of the Romero murder this week on the Central American news site ElFaro.net, "killing 'communists' was a sport."
In the eyes of the death squads' leaders, anyone who spoke out against their violence was a commie. But Romero went further. On Sunday, March 23, 1980, the archbishop addressed his homily to the soldiers, the Salvadoran National Guard and the police, telling them to stop the killing. "In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose tumultuous cries reach to heaven more each day, I beg you, I request of you, I order you in the name of God, cease the repression!" The following night, the murderers hit Romero.
The death squads had killed priests before, but now that the archbishop had been taken out it was open season on the men and women of the church. (They got little support from Pope John Paul II, whose Polish roots made him profoundly anticommunist and who viewed some of these priests in Latin America with suspicion. Ratzinger, eventually the Vatican's doctrinal enforcer, had little patience with their so-called liberation theology.) Almost 10 years after Romero was killed, in November 1989, members of the Salvadoran army slaughtered the rector of San Salvador's Jesuit university, five of his colleagues, and his housekeeper and her daughter.
The incident that attracted the most attention in the United States, however, was the torture, rape, and murder of four American women—three of them nuns and one a religious worker—in rural El Salvador one night in December 1980.
I had known them slightly and I went to their funeral expecting a huge outpouring of grief from the crowd. But what I found was a kind of festival of joy among people who truly believed in their God and in Heaven. They were exalted by their faith in Jesus Christ—by the message of love and compassion these women and their church had brought—and one of the folk-music hymns from that day has always stayed with me. Sung in Spanish, it would translate as "What happiness when they told us, 'We are going to the house of the Lord!'"
Today, in the aftermath of so much sleaze and scandal, it is good to remember this Catholic Church of courage and joy as an example not only of what was, but what might be again.
Christopher Dickey is also the author most recently of Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force - The NYPD,chosen by the New York Times as a notable book of 2009.