El Salvador’s new cardinal pledges to protect the legacy of Óscar Romero

A portrait of Blessed Oscar Romero is seen as Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez of San Salvador, El Salvador, center, celebrates a Mass on July 2 in Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

On Aug. 15, El Salvador will celebrate the 100th birthday of Blessed Óscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador assassinated at the altar in 1980. For newly appointed Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez, the time is right to revive Romero’s legacy in a country still battered by violence and poverty.

Cardinal Rosa Chávez was surprised by his appointment this spring, the result of Pope Francis looking through the ranks and choosing an auxiliary bishop who happened to be a close friend of Romero. On May 21, he announced that he accepted the new title in Romero’s name, and the words hit the headlines of El Salvador’s local newspapers.

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“The press outlined the relation I have with Msgr. Romero, and [my nomination] is seen as a gift to the country and to the church,” El Salvador’s first cardinal said in a phone interview with America. Among the Salvadoran people, parallels between the new cardinal and the martyr were quickly drawn. “The atmosphere [in El Salvador] is full of joy and hope,” he said.

Cardinal Rosa Chávez was surprised by his appointment this spring, the result of Pope Francis choosing an auxiliary bishop who happened to be a close friend of Romero.

Óscar Romero is venerated in El Salvador and throughout Latin America because of his courage, faith and focus on the poor. With the help of the archdiocesan radio station, the archbishop became a national icon in the 1970s, when he defended the country’s most vulnerable people in his broadcast homilies and commentaries. As political tensions rose between left-wing rebels and the regime, Romero’s support for the social gospel kept the pressure on the Salvadoran government. In 1980, he was fatally shot at the altar, marking the beginning of a civil war that left 80,000 dead and 8,000 disappeared. Archbishop Romero was elevated to the status of a martyr in 2015.

Cardinal Rosa Chávez was a loyal friend to Romero in life and in death. Their relationship started when the former became Romero’s assistant at the San José de la Montaña Seminary in 1965. Cardinal Rosa Chávez has followed Romero’s pastoral footsteps ever since.

The cardinal plans on using his influence to prod Salvadorans to follow Romero’s example of faith and resilience to heal the country’s wounds. Because of persisting gang violence, El Salvador ranks second in homicides worldwide, and its politics remain divided.

“[Thanks to my nomination and friendship with Romero], the country has regained the eagerness and strength to fight in our very difficult situation,” the cardinal said, “the barbaric violence that keeps robbing lives every day in the midst of poverty, intolerance and lack of dialogue.” Along with Pope Francis, the cardinal strongly believes that Salvadorans should embrace Romero’s teachings to climb out of the abyss the country has fallen into.

Along with Pope Francis, the cardinal strongly believes that Salvadorans should embrace Romero’s teachings to climb out of the abyss the country has fallen into.

To better consolidate Óscar Romero’s legacy, Cardinal Rosa Chávez also strives to pave the way for his canonization. With this in mind, he organized a three-day pilgrimage to the martyr’s birthplace, which started this past weekend, with the aim of liberating El Salvador from its paralysis. The march embodies the people’s belief in Óscar Romero’s sanctity, the cardinal said, and represents a call for hope over anguish. “We are now mobilizing all El Salvador to reach peace in the country,” he said. “What seemed impossible before is now possible through Romero.... It is what we needed.”

Cardinal Rosa Chávez’s commitment to improving El Salvador’s sociopolitical conditions is not new; he had been engaged in political debates long before he became cardinal, albeit less publicly than his mentor had. Early in his career he helped end El Salvador’s civil war, and 25 years later, he is expected to be a healing presence in a violence-ridden society that has not fully recovered from the war’s violence.

“In El Salvador, it is considered normal that the church is present in the public debate and in people’s hearts, and that it provides guidance in hard times,” the cardinal said. “Martyrs, and especially Msgr. Romero, give credibility to the church, which wants to write a new narrative for our country.” With the pope just one phone call away, the cardinal’s words and actions could carry more weight and “[the voice of the church] might be a little strengthened,” he acknowledged.

In an interview with the online newspaper El Faro, the historian Roberto Turcios said Cardinal Rosa Chávez is the priest with the most political authority in El Salvador—he has participated in almost all political mediation initiatives, whether they be high- or low-profile cases. Cardinal Rosa Chávez offers carefully balanced opinions on controversial topics such as gang warfare, abortion and poverty. He said that his first priority is tackling violence, “which is what worries people the most.” The cardinal wants to be, like his mentor, a pastor delving into the country’s social fabric, working for a church of the poor and engaging in sociopolitical issues.

The celebration of Blessed Romero’s centennial on Aug. 15, which completes the three-day pilgrimage, is the first step in a series of efforts to rekindle the martyr’s memory. Not only does the commemoration bring joy to the new cardinal on a personal level, “it will also be a culminating moment of faith,” he said. “It represents a new phase for the Salvadoran church.”

For the cardinal, Óscar Romero’s legacy is the remedy to heal El Salvador. “I wish that his memory were consolidated and that it would inspire new pathways to reach the country we long for, a country that is peaceful, just, supportive and fraternal. And I wish that the people became stronger as well. That is what we all yearn for and I wish that [Óscar Romero] would help us get there,” he said.

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