Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed while celebrating mass in his decrepit old cathedral in San Salvador on March 24 1980.
Four years earlier, Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest in the dusty terror-stricken town of Aguilares, was gunned down by right wing terrorists as he drove through the sugar fields of his little parish.
Last autumn, three Roman Catholic nuns and a church worker, all Americans, were raped, tortured and murdered - then buried in a shallow grave outside El Salvador's capital city.
Since Father Grande's murder, hundreds of priests, nuns, brothers and church workers have been tortured, beaten or murdered. It has now become an act of courage for peasants and workers to attend mass.
There is a campesino saying that if Christ were to arrive in El Salvador's new international airport, he would not make it into the city. Instead, his body would be found in a shallow grave by the side of the road and authorities would report no record of anyone with that name passing through customs.
In all probability, the ruling junta would insist that he was a Communist, Jesuit or some other person trying to 'destabilize' the country.
In neighbouring Guatemala military persecution has made it almost impossible for the Roman Catholic Church to operate in a traditional manner. Seven priests have been killed in the last two years. The Bishop of Quiche Diocese and President of the Guatemalan Episcopal Conference, Juan Gerardi, was forced into exile after narrowly escaping assassination. Missionaries from Spain and elsewhere have been forced to leave because of military persecution - including the bombing of monasteries and converts.
In most of Central America, clergy face the endless choice between life and death. Can they best serve the people by staying behind as witnesses, thus risking death? Or by following the refugees and exiles to Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Mexico? Most choose to stay with the campesinos and with the grassroots congregations which meet together to pray, study the Bible and use Christian principles to improve their lives.
Popular propaganda says the revolution in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America is Cuban inspired. But most of the peasants with whom I spoke last year see the revolution as inspired by the gospel. The peasants say they are not revolutionaries. But they would occasionally like meat to eat or medicine for their children or to be free from fear of the soldiers.
Most of the peasant organisations in El Salvador began in the 1960s when small groups of devout Roman Catholic laity, guided by their priests, began to organise themselves into grass-roots congregations. It was not long before their leaders were harassed, beaten and tortured. The repression quickly escalated and whole families were driven from their homes simply for attending mass or Bible study reflections.
Guatemalan and Salvadorean right-wing death squads place Jesuit priests and brothers, Roman Catholic nuns and Protestant pastors at the top of their death lists. They charge that the Church is teaching the campesinos not Christianity but Marxism. Those who preach justice and threaten the status quo are seen as subversive.
The traditional view of the Church in Central America is that it exists to bless the activities of the tiny oligarchies and the military.
Such traditional bulwarks of the establishment include the Archbishop of Guatemala City and at least four of the six bishops in El Salvador. They argue that the Church should celebrate mass, hear confessions and prepare the peasants and workers for a better life in another world. They preach a gospel of conservative values which keeps peasants tied to a system of inequality developed over centuries.
As a result many peasants now side with guerrillas who claim that progress can no longer come to Central America except through violence and conflict. 'I know that Jesus Christ drove the money-changers from the temple with whips. I believe that we peasants have the duty to imitate Christ here,' I heard one peasant say. All over this area, from Panama to Guatemala, the grassroots clergy including priests, nuns, catechists and lay people have broken with tradition to arm the peasants with a new sense of dignity and self-worth.
And as the Church's support of the compensinos grows stronger so does the repression. Schools have been sacked and bombed, priests and nuns repeatedly receive death threats and the mutilation and killings continue. Apostolic Administrator Arturo River y Damas, Romero's replacement, has to contend with an increasing spiral of violence. Police have searched the Archdiocese's radio station and Damas' own home has been bombed repeatedly.
Besides the split in the Church hierarchy the situation is complicated by misguided or uninformed Vatican officials. Their primary source of information on Central America is the conservative Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio. President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, Baggio fully supports the expulsion of foreign priests and the brutal regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador. Cardinal Mario Casariego of Guatemala also officially supports the country's military rulers.
The paramilitary death squads like ORDEN and the soldiers are more active where peasants are well organised. One Sunday, when I was in Aguilares with a Jesuit priest and a sister, we went to visit a small canton, a cluster of adobe huts around a small clearing in the bush. As members of the Christian Federation of Salvadorean Peasants the people had been terrorised often. Mass was said and the people slowly collected to receive the sacraments.
The priest dedicated the Eucharist to all those who have given 'their lives and their blood, the best they had to give, to God for justice in this land They are our evangelists. They taught us that once people taste liberation, no gun can ever kill it.'
He talked about suffering and injustice. He reminded the peasants that Father Grande use to tell them how to 'put feet on the Gospel' to make the Gospel more than just words.
The sermon was vintage 'liberation theology' - it spoke of the struggle of the poor for a better life. Later on, after the communion and baptism of small babies, some of the peasants told me what 'putting feet on the Gospel' meant to them.
'It is a new kind of thinking for us,' they said. 'In the old days, the priests came and talked about God, as though he were in heaven doing everything for us. Our job was simply to pray and accept whatever happened.'
But Father Grande taught that you can't change sin unless you work against the system of injustice that killed our fathers and our grandparents and starves our men and women so they die very young. 'We are sinning if we allow ourselves to be mistreated just because someone is rich or powerful. Rooting out the cause of suffering and injustice is putting feet on the Gospel.'
In Central America, in the thousands of villages and cantons around the region, there are two churches. There is the official Church and there is the 'Church of the Poor'. The Church of the Poor stands openly and wholeheartedly with the people. The official Church is timid, conservative and uncertain of its mission.
But the Church of the Poor is relevant and it is the Church which has taken a clear position on behalf of the downtrodden of Central America. It is the Church of Father Grande, the Church of the American nuns, the Church of Archbishop Romero and the Church of millions of ordinary people.
Hugh McCullum is editor of Canada's United Church Observer.
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