Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 162 | Enero 1995


El Salvador

Archbishop Rivera y Damas: Wit the Light of Bishop Romero

Bishop Rivea y Damas died before his country has seen a solid peace. Until his last days Rivera stayed alert. Until the end he followed the tradition he inherited from Bishop Romero.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

On November 26, 71 year old Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas died unexpectedly in San Salvador. A massive heart attack early that Saturday morning left the archbishop only able to tell his auxiliary bishop, Gregorio Rosa Chávez, that he did not feel well. Minutes later he could not speak at all and shortly afterward he died. During the eight days his body lay in state, the Salvadoran people demonstrated their love for their pastor, a worthy heir to the much beloved Bishop Romero.

His Last Joy: Monseñor Romero a Saint

Archbishop Rivera held what would be his last mass on November 20. It was the celebration of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the liturgical year. Much of Rivera's life was an open book that he read to his people on Sundays. On this occasion he told of the long trip he had just made through Italy and Canada.

In Italy he had attended the Inter Religious Dialogue at the inauguration of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. And he had seen the Pope. He had also searched out and greeted some of the 10,000 Salvadorans living in Milan, the majority of whom work as domestic help. In Turin he asked Don Bosco, founder of his religious congregation, the Salesians, for light to guide the Salvadoran people. In Hamilton, Canada, he celebrated the fourth anniversary of the martyred Jesuits from the UCA on November 16. It was the first time he had not done it in El Salvador. He told all of this in his homily that Sunday.

Rivera, inspired by a vision of his martyred predecessor at the altar, also spoke of other things that day. He told of the process to beatify Monseñor Romero; while in Rome he had recommended to various experts that they accelerate the process. Hours before Rivera's death, as Rosa Chávez later related, he was overjoyed by news that the Pope had announced plans to beatify Monseñor Romero before the year 2000.

The Way or The Life?

In the tradition of Monseñor Romero, Rivera always commented on key national events in his homilies the pinnacle of the Sunday service. On November 20, Rivera's comments were directed to the month's most important event: the brutal repression of the bus strike in San Miguel by the National Civil Police and the Army, leaving 3 dead and 20 injured.

In his homily Rivera asked if all peaceful methods had been exhausted before ordering the army in, a clearly unconstitutional act for which President Calderón Sol had immediately taken public responsibility. Just days later, the Human Rights Prosecutor categorically declared that no, they had not been exhausted and no attempt had even been made to use them. Rivera had gone direct to the heart of the matter: "What was more important: clearing the road or respecting every citizen's right to life?" He also denounced the police confiscation of a journalist's video and its later return with crucial footage altered. "It will not be easy to establish the truth," said Rivera, "but the authorities' first obligation is the full truth even if the National Civil Police and the Army come out in a bad light."
Rivera went even farther: "Here we had a 'Truth Commission,' a 'Joint Group' that investigated the irregular armed groups, but the truth was not respected. We fear truth and because of that our peace process is failing. Where there is not truth and there are lies, peace totters. The reign of truth and life is what we should be working for so that truth will rule among us, together with respect for life. Although the conflict has passed, people continue to be killed and this goes against God's plan, the reign of grace."
These were the central themes of Rivera's last homily: Romero, and truth and life in El Salvador. Not in the abstract, but in concrete reality: the new police, the Army, demilitarization or remilitarization in the country, the death squads, the peace accords and their fulfillment or breakdown. At the end, he acknowledged the message of US bishops that are fighting Proposition 187 against undocumented immigrants in California. The US bishops called the proposition inhuman and contrary to the country's cultural roots.

Good Shepherds for 55 Years

In these last public words, Rivera remained as coherent as his two exceptional predecessors: Luis Chávez (1939 77) and Oscar Romero (1977 80). With Rivera, these have been 55 years of "good shepherds."
Undoubtedly El Salvador's situation will be influenced by the new archbishop to be named by the Vatican. The poor, those who were refugees, the repopulating, flocked to Rivera's body, which was displayed for eight days in the Sacred Heart Basilica. During the war years, Rivera took on the people's pain and hopes. "With this people," Romero had said, "it is not hard to be a shepherd." Undoubtedly, this people now merits another good shepherd, to give continuity to the pastoral tradition that is so important in Central America.

This people needs the presence and reflection of a good shepherd to accompany its journey through the country's scandals, such as those of November and so many other months. Two ministers accused of corruption from Housing and Agriculture resigned; the Christian Democratic Party suffered another split; the ERP left the FMLN, and the RN might also leave; and the value of human life was yet again undermined with the strike repression.

Saint Nicholas and Von Galen

In a recent edition of the weekly Orientación, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas recalled that his consecration as bishop 34 years ago was marked by "the perspective of God and of the poor." On that occasion, another bishop, Monseñor Valladares, offered the example of Saint Nicholas, the bishop of the poor. Later transformed into the legendary Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas dedicated his life to what Valladares called "God's preferred." Valladares also evoked the figure of Von Galen, bishop of Munster in the Nazi era, whom the people called the "Lion of Munster" for courageously refusing to treat Hitler as a messiah and not accepting the Nazis' religious justification for carrying out their racist nightmare. Von Galen became for Rivera a model of the prophetic bishop.

As auxiliary bishop of San Salvador for almost two decades, Rivera helped Archbishop Chávez to assimilate Vatican II and the Medellin Conference, its creative application in Latin America. In that long period, Rivera earned the appreciation of Catholics like Guillermo Ungo who worked for social justice, and became a threat to the minority of Salvadorans who hid behind their wealth and power and proclaimed their "friendship with God." When Chávez resigned in 1977, many hoped the post would be given to Rivera, but the Bishops' Conference and the Papal Nuncio feared doing so.

The post was instead given to Monseñor Romero, a conservative and a friend of the "pious" rich. Transformed by the Christian communities, the poverty of his people and the martyrdom of his prophetic priests, Romero, a pastor and theologian in the tradition of the great fathers of the Church, was ultimately assassinated. Once again it was Rivera's turn and, although the system had no confidence in him, he had to at least be appointed administrator of the archdiocese for a few years. By not naming him archbishop, those who feared him could still withdraw him if he began to act or even appear too committed.

Rivera lived through the awakening of the poor in El Salvador. He saw them acquire dignity, take on historical responsibilities and build and consolidate popular organizations. He saw them become the main victims of the terrible repression that aimed to limit support for that final decision that the war also fought mainly by the poor represented. Rivera witnessed the migration of thousands and thousands of Salvadorans to the United States and the massive internal displacement of people seeking refuge. He was named as arbitrator at the beginning of the dialogue to end the war. Throughout his people's difficult pilgrimage, Rivera always had words that came "from the perspective of God and of people."

Before the Elections

For Rivera, 1994 was a sort of pastoral summit, the coronation of a coherent trajectory. The beginning of the diocesan process that will culminate with the beatification of Monseñor Romero gave his heir, Archbishop Rivera, a new spiritual energy. If in the first years of his religious service his inspiration came from Saint Nicholas and Von Galen, it is in the martyred bishop that he definitively saw "the inspiration and light that illuminate the country's paths," as he confessed in his homily on March 6. The various investigations that clarified both Romero's assassination and that of the Jesuits from the UCA encouraged him to reconfirm his commitment to the truth.

Rivera was always interested in politics. Throughout his life, he continually supported university students, Ungo among them, in their Christian Democratic or Social Christian options. A central part of his thinking was that the Church, through the laity, should have a Christian influence on history.

When, in March of 1994, he found himself faced with the first free and peaceful elections in El Salvador's history, Rivera clearly demonstrated his Christian options. He based them on the message that the Bishops' Conference had publicized at the outset of the electoral campaign with the title, "Vote thinking of the Future."
On March 6, two weeks before the elections, Rivera spoke more clearly. A conscientious, responsible vote thinking of the future, he said, could not support ARENA, although he did not mention the party directly. He declared in his homily, "How can one vote thinking of the future if one supports those who do not take the peace accords seriously, who do not punish the assassins of Monseñor Romero, those who organized the plot against him and gave the order to kill?"
Rivera knew when he said this that the polls were favoring ARENA. But he sought neither popularity nor to follow the crowd. In his homily, he distinguished between what the polls said "what the population thinks, without judging those opinions" and what the church should do "promote opinions in accord with the Gospel." He spoke the truth to the people, without being careful of who would come to power and despite the threats that the probable power held over his head. That is the act of prophecy.

D'Aubission Killed Romero

"Whether they like it or not," he added before the elections, "the shadow of this crime [Romero's assassination] follows those who, despite the passage of 14 years, are still unrepentant, idolizing the man who wanted to resolve El Salvador's problems with blood and fire [ARENA's Roberto D'Aubisson]. We have already forgiven him, but we cannot silence what the Truth Commission proved and presented before the whole world. El Salvador's future cannot be built on lies, arrogance, corruption, hatred and injustice. The voter with a conscience knows this is so."
Throughout 1994, which was to be the last year of his life, Rivera made a notable pastoral and prophetic effort so that the Truth Commission's investigations would not be forgotten. That was prophecy. To fight to maintain alive historical memory in El Salvador is to work against the flow. The majority want to forget; some to assure impunity and maintain the system, and others out of weariness. But erasing the past allows the possibility of injustice and similar crimes in the future. Rivera understood, however, why many poor people voted the way they did and gave the following interpretation; they voted "with their stomachs."
On May 10, two months after the elections, Rivera again referred to D'Aubisson in his Sunday homily. ARENA had won a clear electoral victory and El Diario de Hoy was publishing articles that obscured the figure of Monseñor Romero and recommended to the Vatican that Archbishop Rivera be substituted and retired. In this context, Rivera evoked the Christian Creed. "One cannot speak of Monseñor Romero and his pastoral work," he commented, "without mentioning D'Aubisson, just as one cannot speak of the passion of Christ without mentioning Pilate, Judas and Annas and Caifas. Romero lived in the midst of persecution. In the face of these actions [the assassinations of Fathers Rutilio Grande and Alfonso Navarro], Monseñor Romero discovered his mission as prophet and became the voice of those without a voice until he was finally silenced. It was D'Aubisson who gave the order to kill him."
For Rivera, those who want the horrendous criminal past of the current ARENA leaders to be forgotten also want the death squads to continue without being investigated or dismantled, thus keeping all those who promote justice under permanent threat. Those who want this amnesia are those who tolerated that Romero be spoken of, but only in the abstract. They can even accept that he may be made a saint, but only in 50 years, when remembering his life and those who killed him will no longer have historical incidence in El Salvador.

Impunity and Corruption

During the difficult elections for the Supreme Court of Justice, Rivera said in his homily on July 3, "The violence will only be stopped if the law is applied firmly and impartially." He asked that a person be put at the head of the Court "who, in addition to not depending on orientations from the governing party, has the courage to combat all impunity." And on July 10: "Given that this is the month of the journalist, I think it important to point out one of El Salvador's greatest problems: the lack of memory of so many horrible incidents from the past."
In September, Rivera reflected on a text from the Book of Wisdom that speaks of God, the just and the wicked, to remind "the wicked" that they killed Romero and Ellacuría to silence them. They are also the ones who harassed Don Samuel Ruiz in Chiapas and the new Archbishop of Guadalajara, Don Juan Sandoval, because he does not believe the official versions of Cardinal Posadas' accidental and unintentional death. Rivera mentioned that the assassination in 1993 of Military Bishop Vicariate of El Salvador Juaquín Ramos, "has a profile of international crime. Monseñor Ramos also made some people feel uncomfortable, and doubtless one of these people got him out of their way. We will continue our campaign to find the truth in this case, to cause another defeat to impunity, which sadly continues to pompously surround us."
Corruption also worried Monseñor Rivera, always from the perspective of the poor. "The saddest part," he said in his September 25 homily, "is that stealing from the state, misdirecting funds and all kinds of fiscal corruption, take resources away from social investment. Corruption at high levels is paid for by the poorest."
He also spoke in September about the Haitian boat people and the Cuban raft people. There should be no discrimination, he said, rejecting some based on their poverty and accepting others based on political commitments with the United States.

Shortly before his death Rivera addressed the political upheaval in El Salvador's three most important parties: ARENA, the Christian Democratic Party and the FMLN. "At first glance," he said on October 9, "one might think it is just a readjustment to the new reality. A more careful look discovers a disturbing fact: the credibility crisis that the political institutions are suffering right at this moment when their role is so crucial. If the political leaders do not show that they are seeking the good of the nation and not their own interests, people will be tempted to think that democracy is only a facade. From that to resolving problems violently is only one short step."

To Die for Justice

In October the country was moved by an inexplicable event: drug traffickers caught in the act were freed by a judge who claimed that there were procedural irregularities, and the Public Prosecutor did not appeal the sentence. Rivera denounced this on October 30: "We don't want our judges killed, but they should be willing to die for the cause of justice." The scandalous event gave him a reason to evaluate justice in El Salvador. He demanded rectitude so that criminal cases be investigated in the courts until all information is gathered. He denounced that no results had been seen from the new Supreme Court. He noted that the magnitude of the frustration produced by the case of the drug traffickers could mean that all investigations against corruption would be closed, which would be horrendous. And, offering concrete examples, he pointed out that "in open opposition to the peace process, there are still death squad style assassinations and human rights violations by the authorities."
A common thread runs through all of Archbishop Rivera's statements in 1994. The peace process cannot remain a formality. The cause of the war unsupportable repression as the only response to the majority's aspirations must continue to be denounced. One cannot transform into idols those assassins who serve capital and individualism. Surface changes cannot be permitted when the roots remain the same. To achieve true change, the "memories of fire" must be kept alive through the memories of the martyrs, especially Monseñor Romero.

Arturo Rivera y Damas now accompanies, together with Oscar Romero, the tenacious journey of the Salvadoran people.

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