In the summer of 1992, I received the opportunity to participate in a church-sponsored trip to El Salvador. The Salvadoran civil war, which had devastated the church as well as the wider society, had just ended earlier that year.
Our purpose was to be present with the people whom we would encounter, with an attentiveness to how we might participate in the process of developing a mutual, reciprocal relationship between the St Cloud area and the community of Tenancingo that we were visiting.
In the years prior to this journey, I had heard and studied a number of stories about the Catholic Church in El Salvador. I was familiar with the courageous, compassionate lives of the four women who had been martyred on Dec. 2, 1980 — Sister Ita Ford, Sister Maura Clark, Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan (a lay missionary) — dramatized in a movie “Choices of the Heart.” That film also contained scenes illustrating the prophetic life and voice of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and his assassination while saying Mass on March 24, 1981.
A movie dramatizing Archbishop Romero’s life was released in the summer of 1989, and I was struck by how his faith journey was deeply shaped by the lives and witness of countless faithful people in the Salvadoran church. Some, like Father Rutilio Grande, were priests whom he knew — those who recognized the call of the Gospel to address the suffering and injustice that permeated the society and whose faithful efforts to respond often yielded arrest, torture and even death.
Many others were lay people whose names we may never know, but whose witness was just as vital.
Later, in November 1989, came the news of the massacre by the Salvadoran military of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celina.
With those stories and images in my head and heart, I traveled that summer to El Salvador.
The trip was a profound experience. Our host families in Tenancingo showed such hospitality and graciously shared the stories of and hopes for their community. I was struck by the beauty of the Salvadoran countryside. And I was deeply affected by my encounters with the places and people about whom I had previously heard.
It was truly moving to stand in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital, the site of Oscar Romero’s assassination.
It was also moving to visit the apartment nearby in which he lived — a very simple, humble space — and to see the vestments he was wearing when he died, still containing the blood stains, hanging in the closet behind glass doors.
But it was our encounter with a group of lay catechists that impacted me the most.
At that time in my life, I had been involved in positions of ministry within the church. (I had spent several years as the coordinator of youth ministry at the St. Cloud Children’s Home and then had begun teaching in the theology department of Cathedral High School.)
Now I was face-to-face with people who were also involved in lay ministry, but whose work and lives involved very different conditions.
I did not ask their ages, though I suspect they were not much older than me. I did not inquire about their formal training for their positions, as I sensed that would not really be relevant.
What I did ask during the course of our delegation’s conversation with them was, “Were you ever threatened during the civil war for engaging in your ministry?”
“Of course,” they replied.
“Why did you continue doing it?” I asked.
“Because,” replied one woman who looked me straight in the eye, “I believe that, if I am killed for doing this work, someone else will come along and pick up where I left off. Isn’t that what Jesus said it was going to be like?”
Stunned, I remember thinking, “Yes, but I didn’t think he was that serious.”
Later I asked her another question: “If you could preach in my congregation back in St. Cloud, what is a biblical passage that you would draw upon in your reflections?”
She was speaking in Spanish, and the conversation was being translated, but I knew enough Spanish to recognize immediately the passage to which she referred:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her spouse. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. God will dwell with them and they will be God’s people, and God will always be with them. God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.’ The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ Then that one said, ‘Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true’” (Revelation 21:1-5).
I did more than recognize the words. It was a passage that was one of the key scriptural texts that I always used in my classes with students in order to point out that the biblical vision of the reign of God was not just a description of the kind of existence we are promised after we die, but the kind of life that God is actively engaged in bringing about in the world now, inviting us to participate in the process of creating.
So I knew that passage, and I believed its message.
But I had never met anyone whose understanding of and trust in it flowed through every fiber of her being.
I returned home changed and changing; and I am still affected every time I recall that encounter.
As we approach the Catholic Church’s celebration of the sainthood of Oscar Romero, I reflect on and pray about all of these encounters. And I wonder about what they mean for us.
How is it that we “pick up where they left off” — in our work and in our lives?
Kevin LaNave is a member of St. Paul Parish in St. Cloud and is a member of the core group of the Central MN Catholic Worker community