Click here if you don’t see subscription options
James L. ConnorApril 26, 1980

The U.S. Government's official position toward El Salvador is badly misguided. Of that I am now convinced. Prior to March 30, I would not have said this so confidently. But that day I got a fresh perspective on the question as I huddled with 4,000 terrified peasants inside San Salvador's cathedral while bombs exploded and bullets whistled outside in the plaza where we had gathered to celebrate the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

The funeral ceremonies started calmly on a beautiful, but hot day. A procession of some 30 bishops (from England, Ireland, Spain, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and the United States) and more than 200 priests wound its way through eight or ten blocks of the city from the church where we had vested to the cathedral. Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks, many of them listening to a radio broadcast of the event on their transistor radios. We had been assured that the day would be peaceful and free of "events." The Popular Front, including the far left, had covenanted to observe nonviolence in honor of the archbishop, and it seemed unthinkable that the hard-line right would desecrate this moment unless first provoked.

At first, all went as promised. The bishops and clergy processed into the cathedral through a side door, went out the front door to salute the altar set up in front of the cathedral, and then moved to our assigned places. The clergy remained inside the front door of the cathedral while the bishops stood outside on the altar platform and faced the square. The entire plaza was filled in of more than 100,000 persons, and thousands more spilled over into the side streets leading to it.

All went peacefully through a succession of prayers, readings, hymns until the moment in his homily when Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada of Mexico, the personal delegate of Pope John Paul II, began to praise Archbishop Romero as a man of peace and a foe of violence. Suddenly, a bomb exploded at the far edge of the plaza, seemingly in front of the National Palace, a government building. Next, gun shots, sharp and clear, echoed off the walls surrounding the plaza. At first, the cardinal's plea for all to remain calm seemed to have a steadying impact. But as another explosion reverberated, panic took hold and the crowd broke ranks and ran. Some headed for the side streets, but thousands more rushed up the stairs and fought their way into the cathedral.

As one of the concelebrating priests, I had been inside the cathedral from the start. Now I watched the terrified mob push through the doors until every inch of space was filled. Looking about me, I suddenly realized that, aside from the nuns, priests and bishops, the mourners were the poor and the powerless of EI Salvador. Absent were government representatives of the nation or of other countries. The ceremony had begun at 11 a.m. and it was now after noon. For the next hour and a half or two, we found ourselves tightly packed into the cathedral, some huddled under the pews, others clutching one another in fright, still others praying silently or aloud.

The bomb explosions grew closer and more frequent until the cathedral began to shudder. Would the whole edifice collapse? Or would a machine gunner appear in a doorway to strafe the crowd? A little peasant girl named Reina, dressed up in her brown-and-white checked Sunday dress, clung to me in desperation and pleaded, "Padre.”

We lived through that horror of bombs, bullets and panic, now dead bodies were being carried into the cathedral from outside, for nearly two hours. At certain moments one could not help wondering if we would all be killed. At the same time, I was already asking myself, "What is going on here? What is this experience telling me about the debate between Archbishop Romero and the U.S. State Department?"

Eventually, the bombing and shooting subsided. The papal nuncio to El Salvador received assurance by phone from some government source that it was safe for the people to leave the cathedral. Gradually, we filed out into the street with hands raised high above our heads, according to instructions, so as to assure any potential snipers that we were unarmed.

Later in the afternoon, back at the Jesuit residence where I was staying, we listened by radio to the Government's official account of the incident. The entire affair, the statement explained, was the work of leftist terrorists. Our own experience had given us, of course, a different picture.

The reaction to the official account was the same at a meeting called for 5 p.m. at the local seminary. The bishops and other visiting church leaders who had assisted at the funeral were asked to share information on what people had seen and how they understood it. The general conclussion from this discussion was a direct contradiction of the Government's official interpretation of the event. Eyewitnesses stuck to their report that the first bomb had come from the national National Palace, a building abutting the Plaza and to which only "official" access was possible. People had seen shots fired from the National Palace at the leftists, not by them. All of us knew full well that we had not been held captive in the cathedral by leftist terrorists, as the official version had it, nor had any leftists attempted to make off with the archbishop's body.

In other words, the Salvadoran government's information release was simply a fabrication. A statement to that effect was signed, in fact, by 22 church representatives, including myself, who had been present at the funeral and its sequel.

Beyond these matters of fact, a series troubling questions remained as one tried to fathom the logic of the Government's attempted interpretation: Why had it taken the militia, some of whom are known to have been stationed only blocks away, so long to appear on a scene of bombs blasting and guns firing? Who would most like to see the common people and the clergy terrorized?

The next day, on the flight home from San Salvador, I began to puzzle together the bits and pieces of what I had seen and heard about El Salvador in the past three years as well as over this tragic weekend. In a sense it became a choice between Archbishop Romero and the U.S. State Departrment.

My conclusions run along this line: In EI Salvador, governments come and go. Be it a military dictatorship or a civilian-military junta in form is of little consequence because the real power behind the throne remains the same. It is the wealthy oligarchs who consistently control the government, the police force, the judiciary, the militia, the media and with much more limited success, as events indicate the church.

Given this history, it is easy to understand why the oligarchy would violently reject the campisino's claim to land reform, to political organization, to participative democracy, to freedom of ownership and association, to education, housing and a just income. These moves would undercut its power base by restructuring a society that in a way seems almost a 1980'S throwback to feudalism.

As a matter of fact, however, such form measures are exactly what the poor of El Salvador have begun to recognize their right in ajust society. Along with heightened awareness that mass med have brought of the gap between the grinding poverty and the wealth of a few families has come a new sense of their God given dignity and rights as human beings. And this second awareness has come through exposure to the message of the Gospels, by the teaching of priests, nuns and lay catechists who draw heavily on the documents of Vatican II and the material pronouncements associated with episcopal conferences of Medellin and Puebla. Step by step in their reading of Good News, the poor have been led through an analysis of their sociopolitical situation to recognize the forces that unjustly affect their lives. Despite charges of being Marxists, they call out for redress.

The response of the powers-that-be in EI Salvador continues to be a series of empty gestures toward reform through puppet governments (made largely, one suspects, to soothe U. S. sensitivities and to insure continued U.S. aid) and more insidiously by far, a simultaneous increase in brutal repression and intimidation of the poor through torture, murder, acts of terrorism aimed at tearing the heart out of any desire for human rights.

Social analysis, they say, depends basically on your starting point: from where and with whom you view the social situation. As I sat huddled in the San Salvador cathedral with thousands of terrified peasants, I found myself vieving the Salvadoran social situation with the poor and from their perspective of weakness, terror and oppression. I was given a vivid experience of the power of evil that can permeate the institutions and behavior of who fight to uphold an unjust system. That experience helped greatly to sharpen and put disparate pieces in order.

The U.S. Government maintains that support of the present junta in El Salvador is the best guarantee of peace (whose peace?) and stability (again whose?), whereas I know I that to support the government militarily is, in effect, to support the dominance and the aggression of the oligarchy. It is to maintain institutionalized violence. We are not, therefore, guaranteeing peace, but are continuing the silent, inexorable warfare of an elite over the peasants whose death toll was over 900 in the past 90 days. Even if there were no actual bloodshed, we are effectively denying access to basic human rights to millions of peasants by supporting the continuance of a social situation which is basically unjust, whatever the personal convictions or rationalizations of its upholders.

In choosing to sustain this situation, our Government is failing in political assessment and moral sensitivity.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

Last year, the Jesuits pledged to raise $100 million to support the work of the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation. Yet, according to Joseph M. Stewart, the president of the foundation, progress has been far too slow.
J.D. Long-GarcíaAugust 18, 2022
The recent expansion of Arizona’s school voucher program will make it easier for Catholic schools there to fulfill their mission.
The EditorsAugust 18, 2022
Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego asked in the July/August issue of America whether synodality could “become a deeper element of Catholic life in the United States?” Our readers had a lot to say.
Our readersAugust 18, 2022
We are not in ultimate control of our faith journeys, any more than we control our ultimate destinies.
Matt Malone, S.J.August 18, 2022