Salvadoran priest remembers ‘the Romero that I knew’
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
BELTON — Father Miguel Vasquez Hernandez knew the four U.S. women missionaries who were raped and murdered by Salvadoran National Guard soldiers in December 1980.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
El Salvadoran Father Miguel Vasquez Hernandez speaks in the sanctuary of the old St. Sabina Church in Belton March 20 about his friendship with Archbishop Oscar Romero.
As a newly ordained priest, he served the same poor in the same area of the country as did Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donovan.
Father Vasquez also knew the six Jesuit professors at Central American University, who were slain execution-style on the campus in November 1989. They taught him when he was a seminarian nine years earlier.
But Father Vasquez also knew very well San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down as he was celebrating Mass on March 25, 1980.
Like all bishops, Archbishop Romero took a special and personal interest in his seminarians, Father Vasquez told nearly 100 people at the annual memorial, held this year at St. Sabina Parish, for the archbishop who has become a symbol of service to the poor to the point of sacrificing life.
“When they killed Archbishop Romero, I devoted myself to working with the poor and the refugees,” Father Vasquez told the gathering March 20.
Now the pastor of San Bartolome Parish in an area outside of San Salvador that was hit hard by the civil war that raged through the 1980s, Father Vasquez said that Archbishop Romero remains alive in the people he serves.
Father Vasquez said Archbishop Romero was murdered only a few weeks before he was to ordain Father Vasquez and his seminary classmates.
“In his last homily, he said that four young men are about to be ordained, and that he couldn’t wait for the end of May” — the ordination date, Father Vasquez said.
Archbishop Romero not only gave his heart to the poor, he gave nearly all his material possessions.
Several times, he was offered a house to live in, replacing his tiny apartment.
“Once he was asked, ‘How can you live in a small room?’ He said, ‘This is a palace compared to what my people have,’” Father Vasquez recalled.
On another occasion, Archbishop Romero was given a new refrigerator as a birthday present. He accepted it with joy and gratitude because that gave him the opportunity to give it to a nursing home without a refrigerator that served the elderly poor.
“This is the Romero that I knew,” Father Vasquez said. “He couldn’t say no to them (the elderly poor) because he saw that they were so close to God.”
As he spent hours directly ministering to El Salvador’s poor in the midst of political repression and upheaval, Archbishop Romero would also spend hours on his knees in prayer, Father Vasquez said.
“There is a chapel in the seminary. Archbishop would spend hours and hours in that chapel, where we would find him in prayer,” he said.
“He was a transparent man,” Father Vasquez said. “He didn’t hide anything. He said Mass at the seminary every Sunday, and I can still remember his homilies. Then he would stay, talking to all of us.”
Archbishop Romero particularly saw in the young of El Salvador the nation’s hope.
“He gave young people the mission to be friends of Jesus,” Father Vasquez said. “He said the youth and the poor are the hope of El Salvador, and El Salvador has a lot of hope because it has a lot of young and poor people.”
Archbishop Romero often spoke of the need for courageous, young, faith-filled priests, as he did two days before his final Christmas at a liturgy in which Father Vasquez and his classmates received the order of acolyte.
“He said that we are going to give this order to young men who have hopes to liberate our people with the values of the Gospel,” Father Vasquez said. “He said that faith has to carry us to justice, and justice has to take us home to faith.”
Archbishop Romero told his seminarians that day to avoid political ideologies, and to keep the minds clearly on Christian ideals.
“He said that ideology just gets us in tangles,” Father Vasquez recalled. “He said that when we see through that to the values of the kingdom of God, then we find more power than in any earthly ideology. He said that the church should not be an expert in human politics, but the church should be an expert in humanity.”
Archbishop Romero’s words live because they were the words of a prophet, Father Vasquez said.
“Thirty years later, we can still hear his words as if he spoke them yesterday,” he said.
“He still invites us to conversion, and he still invites us to Jesus,” Father Vasquez said.
“He invites us to permanent conversion, to a new commitment where we become people with new hearts,” Father Vasquez said.
That’s where the biggest miracles of Jesus Christ can be found, the archbishop often said.
“The biggest miracles happen in the human heart,” Father Vasquez said. “Archbishop Romero is still alive today to resurrect our commitment and our hearts. There is still life, Christian life in El Salvador, and we still pray to him to ask him for that life, and for peace and justice in El Salvador.
“He still calls young people to our historic commitment as a church. He still says, ‘You have the strength to defeat evil.’ He still tells us that when a society moves away from God, it fails. But when a society walks with God, it will succeed,” Father Vasquez said.
“Thirty years later, Archbishop Romero still feeds our hope,” the priest said. “He is still the prophet who walks with us.”