Alicia Sevilla sings in tribute to St. Oscar Romero during a dinner held in Portland March 30, the 39th anniversary of the archbishop’s tragic funeral in San Salvador.
Alicia Sevilla sings in tribute to St. Oscar Romero during a dinner held in Portland March 30, the 39th anniversary of the archbishop’s tragic funeral in San Salvador.
As a boy walking the streets of San Salvador, Edilberto Valladares heard the pleading voice of Archbishop Oscar Romero sounding from radios in every home. In the late 1970s, the archbishop, once a bookish churchman, had evolved into a feisty advocate for El Salvador’s poor. Archbishop Romero spoke up for the disappeared. He called politicians to task. He opposed U.S. military aid to the regime. The people loved him.

But right-wing leaders feared and hated the archbishop. One power broker ordered an assassination, and on March 24, 1980, a rifleman shot Archbishop Romero in the heart during Mass.

The mourning nation held a massive funeral on March 30, but snipers began to shoot into the crowd, killing dozens. Valladares remembers his shocked grandmother running home from the Mass barefoot. Like many, she dashed so suddenly to escape whistling bullets that she left her shoes behind.

“Archbishop Romero was the shepherd and during these very hard times, he was the prophet,” Valladares, a member of St. Paul Parish in Silverton, said at a Portland commemorative dinner held 39 years to the day after the tragic funeral. About 350 people from Oregon’s Hispanic Catholic community attended. Pope Francis declared Archbishop Romero a saint in the fall of 2018.

‘Homage to Romero’

Guest of honor at the Portland meal, held at the Sentinel Hotel, was Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez, an auxiliary bishop of San Salvador who was a close ally of Archbishop Romero. Pope Francis in 2017 bent a few rules to name the assistant bishop a cardinal.

“It was an homage to Romero,” Cardinal Rosa Chávez said of his elevation during a Portland press conference earlier in the day.

Keeping up Archbishop Romero’s mission to speak the Gospel to the powerful, and using some choice words from Pope Francis, the cardinal urged President Donald Trump to build bridges, not walls.

“We are all migrants. We are all pilgrims. We are all seekers of God,” the cardinal said.

As for social media, the cardinal urged all politicians to spread not hate and mistrust, but “a global communion of solidarity.”

The cardinal’s visit came as President Trump cut aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, home of many migrants who are coming to the U.S. border to escape violence and poverty in their countries.

The cardinal, 76, said that caravans of migrants trekking north from his country are mostly families suffering from gang violence that was exported from Los Angeles to El Salvador. “Many people walk because they are afraid in their country and they don’t see any future,” he said.

Speaking through an interpreter, the cardinal called Archbishop Romero “an icon, a beacon” for Latino Catholics and an “inspiration for the migrant people.”

A voice for the poor

The dinner and visit were organized by Abba Magazine, a bilingual publication based in Hillsboro that focuses on Catholic spiritual life. Founder of the magazine is Jaime Sevilla, former Hispanic ministry leader at St. Pius X Parish in Portland and a native of El Salvador.

“Archbishop Romero for me is the shepherd who always walks with his people,” said Sevilla. “He even gave his life for their liberation and sanctification.”

At the dinner, Sevilla lauded Cardinal Rosa Chávez for sustaining the legacy of Archbishop Romero and “also fighting for social justice and for human rights for the poor people of El Salvador and all the church.”

Among the cardinal’s many projects is a school for poor children. The Portland crowd took up a collection for the students.

Also visiting was Bishop Elias Samuel Bolaños, bishop of the Diocese of Zacatecoluca, El Salvador. He reported a vocations boost in his region, where a new seminary is being built. The curriculum will include the ideas and spirit of Archbishop Romero.

Constant conversion

The future Cardinal Rosa Chávez was a 14-year-old seminarian when he met young Father Oscar Romero. They later became close friends. When Archbishop Romero was named to lead the Archdiocese of San Salvador in 1977, he appointed then-Father Rosa-Chávez as director of communications. “I have beautiful memories of him,” the cardinal said.

When asked about the ostensible change Archbishop Romero went through in the late 1970s, Cardinal Rosa Chavez downplays the notion of sudden transformation. “He lived in a permanent state of conversion,” the cardinal said of his friend. “He would tell people that he was going through an evolution based on circumstances. He found a persecuted church. They were killing priests. They were lashing out at the people. He was called to defend the church and the people.”

Cardinal Rosa Chávez said now, decades after the death of the saint, it takes continual work to make sure the church continues to be a church that is at home on the streets and in the fields where Jesus is needed most.

“Jesus is in the suffering people,” he said. “Society invites us to be individualists, egoists. It is a terrible temp-tation.”

Forgiveness and joy

Cardinal Rosa Chávez recalls the day of the assassination. He had just finished Mass with seminarians when someone handed him a message saying the archbishop had been wounded. He rushed to the hospital and found the lifeless body, still in priestly vestments, lying on a stretcher with a serene expression.

For all his anguish, he was grateful his friend died at the altar and not in one of the many awful ways death squads had of dispatching their enemies.

Cardinal Rosa Chávez is a leading force behind a proposal to make Archbishop Romero a doctor of the church, a title reserved for those saints who have had a particularly strong impact on Catholic teaching and thought.

Asked what gifts the Latin American church, including Pope Francis, brings to the worldwide church, Cardinal Rosa Chávez beamed.

“In the United States, there are many books, many studies, many words,” he said. “But people want the witness of Jesus reflected in other people. And that is Pope Francis. He is a pope of gestures, and a gesture is worth a thousand words. It is a way for people to come to believe in any corner of the world. The Latin American church seeks to offer actions that speak of forgiveness and joy.”