As she made the rounds as a CARE volunteer in this impoverished town, she remembered the time she offered to start a parish program to help gang members. Her priest suggested that she devote her energies to Easter week decorations instead.
"The church has to come down from heaven to the reality on Earth," Amaya said. "It's not filling my spiritual needs, and I am looking for an alternative."
Former priest Miguel Ventura doesn't much mourn the pope's passing, either. The diocesan cleric left the church during El Salvador's 12-year civil war, in which he was captured and tortured by military forces because he had organized peasants to demand social justice.
"The arrival of Pope John Paul II was a step backward for El Salvador," said Ventura, who has married and now practices his own, unsanctioned brand of Catholicism as a pastor in poor eastern El Salvador. "He imposed the authoritarian model on the Latin American church and didn't have an open vision."
In this rare interregnum before the College of Cardinals meets to select John Paul's successor, Amaya and Ventura spoke of a disenchantment felt by many Catholic lay people and clergy in Latin America.
Although the late pope promoted freedoms and denounced war and globalization, he clamped down on a movement called "liberation theology" — and in so doing alienated Catholics who wanted the church to take a more active role in "liberating" the poor from misery and oppression.
This country reveres the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down by a right-wing death squad while celebrating Mass in 1980. Romero, who spoke out against poverty and repression, has been adopted as liberation theology's foremost martyr, and few Salvadoran activists interviewed last week expressed affection for the pope. Fewer still held out much hope that his successor will rejuvenate the activism they view as central to faith and social progress in the developing world.
"The church has another way of thinking now," store owner Norma Gomez lamented as she stood outside San Salvador's cathedral last week before a Mass commemorating the anniversary of Romero's assassination. "The pope wasn't with us in our time of crisis, and I don't expect the next one to be any different."
There are scattered signs of a revival of liberation theology, responses to the desperate conditions of the poor that cry out for activism. A Honduran priest has assumed leadership of an environmental movement in an area of that country devastated by deforestation. Myriad communal groups in Brazil observe the tenets of liberation theology, many of them in the impoverished northeast. Priests are in the thick of the indigenous rights movement in Colombia.
But the composition of the College of Cardinals, the vast majority of whom were appointed by John Paul, makes it unlikely that the church will reembrace liberation theology as a matter of doctrine.
In its heyday in the 1970s and '80s, liberation theology sought to combine decentralized Catholicism with leftist movements for social change, to bring God into the fight for justice on Earth.
Central to the doctrine were so-called "base communities" — the small communal groups that clerics such as Ventura organized to promote self-awareness and activism.
But soon after his election to the papacy in 1978, John Paul became alarmed by what he said were similarities between some elements of liberation theology and Marxism. He saw links between the groups and the participation of some Latin American clergy in political parties, government, even guerrilla armies.
Defenders of the theology say the vast majority of priests, catechists and lay people who practiced it were apolitical and nonviolent, that John Paul's stance was influenced by his upbringing in Eastern Europe, where communism and its Marxist underpinnings were the overriding demons.
"The pope was listening to those who were portraying liberation theology in caricatures — priests with guns, Marxists — and they just weren't accurate," said Dean Brackley, a theology professor at the Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador.
In any case, the new pope soon moved to quash liberation theology's dynamics, without officially declaring it taboo. In Brazil, the pope fired Archbishop Helder Camara, the "red bishop," and replaced him with an archconservative in Brazil's needy northeast region. He curbed the influence of Sao Paulo Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, a strong proponent of base communities, by carving up his archdiocese in 1989.
"We were not understood," said Arns, 83 and now retired, adding that many Catholics became disaffected under the late pope. "A portion of the lay leadership was lost."