El Salvador's new prelate betrays hopes of the poor


IRISH visitors to El Salvador in the 1980s were personae very much no gratae, to the immigration authorities at least. I had no problems with my UK passport, but colleagues from the Republic were always subjected to delays, especially if they were Catholic priests.

The sole cause of this official displeasure was Dr Eamonn Casey, then Bishop of Galway. On March 31st, 1980, he joined dozens of other prelates attending the funeral of the saintly archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

In spite of massive government intimidation, thousands of Salvadorans - stunned by the assassination of their pastor a week before - packed the concrete cathedral and spilled onto the main plaza to bid farewell to the only bishop in the country unafraid to call a massacre a massacre, and prepared to beg the US president to stop sending military aid to the Salvadoran army.

The funeral ended in a bloodbath. Before the coffin could be carried to the cathedral crypt machine gunners fired on the crowds. Bishop Casey was an eye witness to the murder of dozens of mourners. He saw the snipers operating from the safety of the presidential palace. He witnessed the panic of those who fled.

His eyes scanned a plaza strewn with cheap plastic shoes abandoned by the mourners, a plaza reddened by pools of fresh blood soon to be hosed hastily away before the embarrassing arrival of camera crews.

Like the doubtful Thomas of the Gospels, the Irish bishop had put his hands into the wounds of Christ seeing is believing, and the unvarnished evidence of an eyewitness is unchallengeable.

Over the next weeks Dr Casey spent his immense energies in making known in Washington, the UN, and the capital cities of Europe - the barbarity of the Salvadoran government and the sheer brutality of its army.

IRISH missionaries in Central America, hassled by spiteful bureaucrats, paid a small price or his prophetic denunciations, and all of us who worked in similar situations (I was then in Peru) thanked God for Bishop Casey's tirelessness in the cause of truth.

In the 17 years following those awful events at least 70,000 Salvadorans were killed by the army or forcibly `disappeared'. Archbishop Romero is set for canonisation, and the exiled Bishop of Galway suffers the opposite fate of demonisation.

In the archdiocese of San Salvador a new prelate presides over the Catholic Church. Archbishop Fernando Sa'enz Lacalle was by any standards a most unlikely and unhappy choice as successor to Oscar Romero and to Arturo Rivera Damas (who died unexpectedly just over two years ago).

A member of the secret world of Opus Dei, military chaplain to the armed forces and a Spanish citizen by birth and upbringing, he brings to his new job the worst possible qualify cations.

Early last month the Catholics of this populous archdiocese woke up to the extraordinary news that their pastor had accepted the highest military rank this country can offer brigadier general.

The same, largely unpurged army, proven guilty of atrocities comparable with anything in Central Africa, Bosnia or Chechnya, has bought the complicity of the country's highest ranking ecclesiastic. The price of the purchase is publicly known a monthly salary of 30,000 colonies (poor Judas Iscariot only got a one off payment of 30 pieces of silver), equivalent to nearly US$4,000.

In the shanty town parish of Cristo Rey my Scottish colleague, Father Tim McConville, organised a survey of our 500 or so Mass goers. Over 93 per cent thought the archbishop should immediately resign his military rank.

SOME of the comments on the survey papers are unpublishable, but others declared: Five families could live on his "fat salary." "Where was he when my son was killed by the soldiers?" "Why can't we have a bishop from our own country?" "They're turning the clock back to colonial days! "What about the preferential option for the poor?" "Are they taking a siesta in the Vatican?" "His hands are dirty. He's not fit to give out Communion." Several parishioners quoted the Gospel soundbite: "No man can serve two masters."

Nobody can sensibly deny the need of the military far pastoral care. Most of us working in Latin America would in fact consider it a very high priority. But we surely have the right to question whether military chaplaincies and bishops to the armed forces are the best way to go about it, above all in countries where overpaid generals have come to be loathed and jack booted sergeants feared by the mass of ordinary people.

Insensitivity to local needs seems to be a characteristic of these final years of the present pontificate. Nowhere is this more obvious than in recent episcopal appointments.

At the level of working class parishes or - better expressed - of parishes where properly paid work is a pipedream for the majority, the lack of prophetic voices among the bishops is a great liability. When the laity are exposed for too long to the rancid odour of hypocrisy, then indifference and sectarianism become inevitable. "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds."

The memory of Archbishop Romero, recalled each year on March 24th, the date when he was gunned down in a hospital chapel while celebrating Mass, is happily a fresh memory.

Perhaps we don't deserve too many saints and martyrs in one generation. Maybe the six million people of this tiny Ulster sized republic now have the courage to call their new pastorgeneral to account for his betrayal. After all, doubt, denial and betrayal are all essential elements in the Easter story, as is resurrection.

But I would like my parishioners to know Bishop Casey. {CORRECTION} 97032100105