Jorge Lara-Braud, a native of Mexico, has served as an assistant general secretary for the U.S. National Council of Churches and as director of the Council on Theology and Culture for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.). He currently teaches at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis May 12, 1980. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.
"Christ has been killed again. But he will rise again."
There were about fifty of us church "dignitaries" from about twenty countries, including representatives from Latin America, Europe, and the U.S., flying into San Salvador on Palm Sunday weekend to honor our friend and mentor, Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, assassinated the previous Monday while saying Mass.
Despite the nature of the occasion, there was something of a nervous joviality as we greeted one another in the processional lineup. No one was unaware that the funeral posed its own dangers. There would be more than a hundred thousand people attending. The government, we knew, was not in control of its own military and security forces. The manner of the archbishop’s dying had shown once more that assassins were on the loose, professional killers for whom nothing was sacred.
Why go to such a country, to such a funeral, at such a time? I assume that as with others, many of whom, like myself, had become close friends of the archbishop during the three brief years of his leadership, the call to honor his memory was stronger than the hovering sense of possible mass violence. Perhaps some were simply "assigned" by a higher-up who chose not to go. In any case I had learned to treasure this gentle prophet who had brought faith and hope to millions in a country where resignation and despair had become a way of life.
And so, on a radiantly brilliant day, the Mass began in a bit of disarray. An altar was improvised at the top of the stairs leading to the main entrance of the old, unfinished cathedral adjacent to the National Palace, headquarters of the government. Archbishop Romero’s coffin had been placed at the foot of the stairs, protected by a six-foot metal fence. I stood at the altar beside the pope’s representative, Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada, archbishop of Mexico City.
The plaza was jammed with the archbishop’s flock -- mostly poor people on whose behalf his voice had been so compelling. They were there, I presume, for the same reason as we friends from abroad: The call to honor his memory was greater than the danger they perceived. Fifteen minutes after the Mass began, I saw an orderly column of some five hundred enter the plaza, marching eight abreast behind banners that identified them as representatives of the huge coalition of popular organizations called "La Coordinadora Revolucionaria de Masas." These were the famous "leftists" one reads about, whom the archbishop loved and sometimes rebuked. The crowds in the plaza cheered and made way for the marchers as they filed by and laid a wreath at the coffin. Then, still calm and orderly, the column withdrew.
As the Mass continued, Cardinal Corripio paid tribute to the martyred archbishop. Just as he was paraphrasing an oft-heard teaching of Archbishop Romero -- "Neither truth nor justice can be killed by violence" -- he was stunned speechless, as were we all, by the thunderous detonation of a bomb.
The explosion occurred at the far corner of the National Palace. I stared open-mouthed at the palace and saw leaping fire and thick fuming smoke as if the pavement were aflame. The crowd stampeded away from the palace. There was the immediate sound of some return gunfire. Like a massive wave, thousands headed for the only possible shelter, the empty cathedral behind us. Some trying to climb the fence were killed as others in panic trampled over them. The chief liturgist grabbed Cardinal Corripio and me by the arms and hurried us into the safety of the cathedral as waves of people thronged behind us.
Moment of Crisis
What does one think in such a situation? My first thought was of a radio or television news bulletin in the U.S. which my wife would hear in horror before I could phone her myself. I did, however, get hold of myself. I was going to need all the serenity I could muster. Because I was wearing a doctoral gown and a hood, I knew people might mistake me for a prelate as they searched to he consoled.
People continued to pour into the cathedral. It is relatively sma1l perhaps half the size of Riverside Church in New York. It cannot comfortably hold three thousand, standing, and by the end of a half-hour’s warfare outside, more than five thousand had packed into it, with more still pressing their way in. People were standing on every available surface, including the main altar. There was no room to bend; eventually, there was barely room to breathe. The building shuddered with bomb blasts. Its awful, reverberating acoustics magnified the sound of gunfire; and all of this was heard above a din of cries and prayers from every direction. The smell of war wafted in. I kept panic away by looking after my neighbors, praying with them and speaking calm words of comfort (some learned from the archbishop).
All my life I have been a pathetic "claustrophobic." Being trapped in a small space has been my private nightmare. And yet, in the cathedral of San Salvador at the funeral of the archbishop, though people were dying of asphyxiation, I was strangely calm. My lifelong dread had come true, and I was going through it feeling only a numb rage at the perpetrators of this violence.
Cardinal Corripio, at the right of me, and I were in the second row of humans from the side wall. To my left, in the row behind me, was a woman who had been pleading with God. She had also begun to die. I could just turn my head, but nothing else; there was simply no way to bring her relief. As a Presbyterian layman I improvised what I thought was the Catholic church’s rite for the dying. "Your sins are forgiven, go in the peace of God," I prayed. She did die, but there was no room for her to fall down. In some cases, people could manage to inch up the body of a person who had fainted or died and carry it on their hands overhead, but to where, one could not know.
All the dead in the cathedral, I later saw, were women: shorter, slighter women. Trampled or asphyxiated. I trust all of us in the U.S., especially the feminist, will not forget this group of San Salvadoran martyrs.
Then, suddenly, astonishingly, over the bombs and guns and prayers, we heard the sound of cheering. Something else was being carried by hands over heads. It took a while for this object to come into my view, but a chant that was joined by everyone in the cathedral announced its coming: "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido. El pueblo unido jamás será vencido." ("The people united never shall be vanquished. The people united never shall be vanquished.") What the chant was announcing, I eventually could see, was the coffin of the archbishop, held aloft by fingertips, making its perilous way into this sanctuary of faith and terror, to its final resting place. Despite the violence outside, a group from the cathedral had gone out and down the steps to retrieve the coffin.
Even in death, the archbishop transformed despair to courage. How he was honored! People died to give his body, his memory, his faith, room where there was no room. Indeed: "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido."
At long last the violence outside ended. It had lasted about an hour and a half. We waited long after the ending to venture out.
We dispersed, but not before pausing to honor the lineup of our cathedral dead. All women. Many other corpses were picked up off the plaza by the Red Cross. As I left with my hands over my head and a sick feeling, I looked at a terrified boy sobbing. His mother was one of the dead women.
That night, we church representatives from around the world met again at the chancery building of the archdiocese to talk over what we had seen. About thirty of us were still in the city. We all had a chance to describe what we had seen. Since we had been scattered throughout the cathedral and outside, among us we were able to piece out to our satisfaction what had happened. This was indispensable. Beginning at 4:30 P.M. the government had begun broadcasting its version of events over a radio network. According to the government the "leftists" of the Coordinadora Revolucionaria had begun the shooting upon arriving, with the intention of stealing the archbishop’s coffin and holding the dignitaries hostage in the cathedral. That official version also asserted that since the night before all military and security forces personnel had been confined to quarters.
Our own evidence pieced together as eyewitnesses was a total contradiction of the government’s falsehoods. We agreed to put that in writing. All still present signed the statement. Then, as we were about to adjourn, we received a request for an interview with the five top leaders of the "leftists" on whom the violence was being blamed. We agreed. We asked them to describe what they had seen. They did. I asked them if they had carried weapons to the funeral.
"Yes, some of us did," they answered, and named the kinds and numbers of guns they had carried and the kinds of bags of kerosene they used for firebombing. "We are the most sought-out targets now," they said, "and we do not go anywhere any more without being prepared. We will not willingly be killed without a fight." They also described a strategy they use of overturning cars and burning them by throwing their bags of kerosene, to set up smoke screens against oncoming attacks.
What was remarkable about all of this is that their account -- both what they volunteered and what they said in response to our questions -- differed in no way from what we had pieced together among ourselves previously.
Official Version Prevails
The next day we were to find a radically different account given in newspapers: Salvadoran and U.S. newspapers. Sadly, the Salvadoran junta’s account was evidently appropriated by U.S. Ambassador Robert White. Even more sadly, major U.S. newspapers apparently got much of their version from the same sources used by the ambassador, who was not present at the funeral.
One of the last things the archbishop did was to write President Carter pleading that no U.S. military assistance be granted to the Salvadoran Junta. I have just learned of the vote of the House Subcommittee on International Operations. By a vote of 6 to 3 it is recommending an appropriation of $5.7 million.
Can I be forgiven if I regard the majority vote as blasphemy? I hope other Americans will agree. Archbishop Romero literally gave his life for peace. A Mexican bishop said to me as we left the cathedral, "Christ has been killed again. But he will rise again." I believe that. If I didn’t I would despair.