Thursday, March 29, 2012

Monseñor: The Last Journey of Óscar Romero

I was privileged to receive a screening copy of this heartrending documentary about the life of the late Archbishop Óscar Romero. I was in my last year of high school  in 1980 when we read of his death in Newsweek. At the time it was one more death in an endless bloodbath in El Salvador that somehow our country was involved in. I understood a lot more about the situation when I later viewed 1989 movie Romero, starring Raul Julia. It was an excellent film but one which deeply depressed me for the horrors it portrayed. The new documentary, released by First Run Films, does not skimp on the tragedy which befell the people of El Salvador, but amid the nonfiction accounts of unspeakable atrocities is the actual voice of the brave Archbishop, along with footage of him walking fearlessly and calmly among his suffering children. His gentle, reassuring voice and manner filled me with the same hope that he once gave to his people.

According to CD Universe:
In El Salvador in the late Seventies, one man was the voice of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the Disappeared - all struggling under the corrupt Salvadoran government. Appointed Archbishop in early 1977, Monsenor Oscar Romero worked tirelessly and in constant personal peril until the day he was assassinated in March 1980. Romero broke off ties with the military and aligned himself with the poor, delivering messages of hope in weekly sermons which became national events. Encouraging direct action against oppression, Romero's speaking impacted political events in El Salvador that still have meaning to this day. With rare recordings and film footage from Romero's own collection and a wide range of interviews from those whose lives were changed by Archbishop Romero, including church activists, human rights lawyers, former guerrilla fighters and politicians, Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero is a timely portrait of one individual's quest to speak truth to the rich and powerful forces which dominated his government.

Filmmakers Juliet Weber and Ana Carrigan present this documentary profile of Monseñor Óscar Romero, the brave soul who dared to defend the oppressed and disenfranchised people of El Salvador in the late 1970, and paid the ultimate price for standing up to a corrupt government. As the Salvadoran government grew increasingly tyrannical, Romero turned his back on the military, encouraging his followers to fight for their freedom in a series of empowering, impassioned sermons. In March of 1980, however, that powerful voice of hope was forever silenced by an assassin's bullet. Now, his legacy lives on as Weber and Carrigan present vintage footage taken from the archbishop's personal archives, and offer interviews with the Salvadoran people whose lives were forever changed by both his bravery, and his inspirational message of hope.
As Alma Guillermoprieto writes in The New York Review of Books:
Archbishop Romero made a long journey to arrive at his death. Hardworking and conscientious, he rose through the ranks and eventually became bishop of the diocese of Santiago de Maria, maintaining all the while a strict distance from Liberation Theology and what he called the left’s “mysticism of violence.” By then, however, the insistent defense of human rights by the new generation of radicalized priests and nuns, and the murderous government’s determination to violate those rights, particularly in the case of the landless peasantry, had created a small army of conscripts for the guerrilla organizations, which promised an equal and just world order born of socialist revolution.

During the presidency of General Arturo Molina (1972–1977), the army and security forces were essentially transformed into death squads: Romero watched in horror as campesinos in his parish were displaced, threatened, terrorized, and, increasingly, shot, stabbed, or hacked to death by underfed, underage soldiers wielding machetes against their own kind. He began speaking out against these atrocities and received his first death threat (from General Molina himself, who wagged a finger at him and warned that cassocks were not bullet-proof). And then, in 1977, just weeks after Romero had been ordained archbishop, the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, a close friend of Romero’s who had been organizing landless peasants, was shot down on a country road along with two of his parishioners.

All Romero’s contradictory feelings about Church and duty, repression and human dignity, his native distrust of radicalism and politics, his caution and, no doubt, his fear, appear to have resolved themselves at that moment. With the same methodical determination that seems to have characterized his rise to the archbishopric, he spent the next three years organizing human rights watchdog groups, asking President Jimmy Carter to suspend military aid to the murderous junta, and speaking out—plainly, but never unreasonably—against the government. “It is sad to read that in El Salvador the two main causes of death are: first diarrhea, and second murder,” he would say. “Therefore, right after the result of malnourishment; diarrhea, we have the result of crime; murder. These are the two epidemics that are killing off our people.”

...Those were the days before the Internet or even faxes, and the lone opposition newspapers, El Independiente and La Cronica del Pueblo, were more or less gagged. The murders and disappearances carried out by death squads, army officers, and a notorious security force called, for inexplicable reasons, the Treasury Police were unreported, but Romero took to reading a detailed account of the week’s brutalities. The sermons were broadcast over the Catholic radio station, and campesinos all over the country gathered around a radio to listen to them. So did the military.

The once conservative archbishop, who had been trained and nurtured not in his homeland but in Rome, became the government’s most visible opponent. Later he would say that when he saw the corpse of Father Rutilio Grande a few hours after his murder, he thought, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”
The new film carefully explains the history of events, tracing the path which the Archbishop had to walk to his death. It was not walked in vain, for not only did Monseñor Romero give glory to God and hope to his people, but he is even now a vehicle of grace to the world.



julygirl said...

The U.S. government was so intent on keeping the area from becoming another Cuba it ignored the death squads and other atrocities. The policy continued into the Reagan Administration.

The North Coast said...

I have always revered the memory of Archbishop Romero, though I am not Catholic myself.

We were supporting the junta in El Salvador for the same reason that we ordered the hit on Allende in Chili and installed Pinochet in his place, and for the same reason we supported Castro's predecessor in Cuba, Batiste. We supported them because a significant political faction in this country wanted the cheap semi-slave labor, and access to the mineral and agricultural wealth of these countries. We felt that right-wing juntas that ruled with an iron fist would be more apt to our hand than democratic republics where the population had rights.

Fighting communism was only an excuse, and needless to say, our support of psychopathic tyrants only pushed more countries, like Cuba, to look to the USSR for support. They found out about the USSR and how wonderfully humane THEY were, I suppose.