Church Seeks Way Amid Shifts in El Salvador


Rogelio Ponseele and Fernando Saenz Lacalle arrived in El Salvador a generation ago, at a time when idealistic young priests from all over Europe were committing themselves to ministering to the poor of Latin America.

Their lives over the ensuing years chronicle the passage of the Roman Catholic Church through its tumultuous period of repression and war to today’s unreconciled peace.

Spanish-born Saenz Lacalle took Salvadoran citizenship, became an army chaplain and joined the influential and conservative religious organization Opus Dei. Six months ago, at age 63, he was named archbishop of San Salvador, the highest church post in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.

Ponseele remained a Belgian citizen, but despite death threats for his work in the San Salvador slums during the 1970s he did not leave El Salvador. Instead, he followed the leftist guerrillas fighting the government into the hills of Morazan province, where for 12 years he baptized children, married couples and celebrated Mass in the midst of daily bombings.


Today, he is a 56-year-old priest without a diocese, desperately hoping that some brave bishop will take a theological refugee under his wing.

The shifting fortunes of Saenz Lacalle, who during this country’s war was the obscure rector of a provincial university, and Ponseele, a folk hero whose biography, “Life and Death in Morazan,” became a classic of rebel literature, are indicative of the church’s changing role not only in El Salvador but throughout Latin America.

Clergymen are under pressure from the Vatican to curb their political activism, which in many countries dates to independence movements that priests led. They may hold office only in exceptional circumstances, and when their writing is considered too political they are censored, as in the case of Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian Franciscan who left the priesthood three years ago, partly because of Vatican censorship.

That is a marked change from the situation Saenz Lacalle and Ponseele faced when they came to this country. Then the archbishop of San Salvador was Luis Chavez, who for nearly four decades was one of the few forces that could curb the power of El Salvador’s military dictators.

When Chavez died in 1977--a decade after Saenz Lacalle became a Salvadoran citizen and seven years after Ponseele arrived--a conservative bishop who had repeatedly condemned “politicized priests” replaced him.

Over the next three years, Archbishop Oscar Romero surprised everyone by his outspoken demands for justice and respect for human rights. From the pulpit and at weekly news conferences, he denounced wrongs.

He came to epitomize liberation theology, a movement that grew out of the 1968 Latin American Bishops Conference in Medellin, Colombia. The conference emphasized the church’s commitment to the poor--and, some inferred, to armed rebellions aimed at correcting social injustices.

Romero’s assassination by rightists in 1980 helped convince dissidents that peaceful reform was not possible in El Salvador, a conclusion that fostered a 12-year civil war.

Romero became the standard by which Salvadoran archbishops are measured. Arturo Rivera Damas, who died of a heart attack last year, and now Saenz Lacalle are being judged by that standard.

“We have come from an archbishop of San Salvador who openly supported leftist politicians to someone who is calling for the reconciliation of our society,” said Julio Gamero, vice president of the Legislative Assembly and a member of the rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena.

“We thank God for the change,” he added.

Not all Salvadorans, however, are grateful.

“We had the privilege of bishops like Chavez, Romero and Rivera,” said Rogelio Pedraz, a Jesuit. “Now come the lean cows.”

Geraldina Arevalo, a 23-year-old rural teacher, wore a T-shirt with Romero’s portrait and the quotation, “Let my blood be the seed of liberty,” to a Sunday Mass by Saenz Lacalle.

Asked why, she said: “In the first place, I don’t like the new archbishop we have. His ideas are retrograde. He does not say much, and what he says isn’t good.

“And for the sake of Monsignor Romero, who did tremendous work for my country,” she added. “He identified with the people, and that is why they killed him.”

Saenz Lacalle has heard a lot of criticism in that vein since he became archbishop--even though several priests said they have received either instructions from the Vatican or indirect pressure to silence their censure.

“I find that reporters want me to make political or social statements, and I have said that is not my mission,” the archbishop said during a recent interview. “I tend to answer with a moral focus, relying for my basis on the social doctrine of the church.”

In more pressured moments, the white-haired Saenz Lacalle has told reporters to “stop hiding behind the church’s petticoats,” a remark for which he later apologized.

He has refused to comment on tax increases and the government’s economic policy. But the archbishop has Sunday news conferences and has used that forum to speak out against corruption in the new National Civilian Police and to demand that the government fulfill its promises of land reform.

His intent, he said, is to offer constructive criticism that does not undermine Salvadorans’ confidence in their emerging democratic institutions and to place a greater burden for the conduct of civil society on the laity.

“If we priests dedicate ourselves to raising the consciousness of the laity about their responsibility according to God’s law, then we can have a great influence,” he said. “We just need to be humble and turn over leadership to capable laymen.”

That attitude is in keeping with Vatican policy as expressed by Nuncio Manuel Monterio de Castro, the papal envoy in El Salvador. “A priest should be everyone’s priest,” he said. “When he is linked to a political party, even when he is at the altar, faithful from the other party do not see him as their priest.”

Beyond party affiliation, he said, a priest’s political involvement “depends on the historic moment. There are times when one must use all the resources available to call attention to injustice, when one must speak out.

“That is important,” he added, “but sometimes one can accomplish the same end in a more spiritual way.”

Opinions are divided over whether spiritual leadership is all that Salvadorans now need from their archbishop. A survey of 1,211 Salvadorans throughout the country by the Central American University in San Salvador found that 47.5% believe the archbishop should be involved in politics, while 38.2% believe he should not. The poll, conducted in early June, had a 4% margin of error.

But a July poll by Gallup de Centroamerica that asked respondents to choose whether the archbishop should place more emphasis on spiritual needs or politics found that 79% picked spiritual needs.

Many Salvadorans say that to believe the church--and the archbishop--can withdraw from politics is naive.

“We cannot be at the margin of history,” said Rosa Chavez. “Not when the tradition of making history is part of the wealth of [the Salvadoran] church’s heritage.”

For that reason, observers are watching how an archbishop who emphasizes reconciliation will set the example--how he will reconcile his own church, which was deeply divided by the war.

In addition to priests such as Ponseele who lived among the guerrillas, priests and nuns in government-controlled territory were often the targets of death squads linked to the military. Others, including Saenz Lacalle, were high-ranking military officers.

“It hurts me to say this, but perhaps some ecclesiastical environments may be where there is the most difficulty in forgetting the conflict,” Saenz Lacalle said.

The town of Perquin exemplifies that situation: Here, the church is split in three, among Ponseele’s followers, those of a priest designated the local bishop after a peace agreement was signed three years ago and a group of people calling themselves charismatics, who believe in speaking in tongues.

In addition, fundamentalist Protestant churches are gaining force.

The breach is painfully evident on such important Christian holidays as Good Friday and Easter, when each group organizes separate religious celebrations.

“We have tried to promote reconciliation,” Ponseele said. “We have not achieved it, but we are walking slowly in that direction.”

His own attempts at reconciliation with the church hierarchy also have been slow.

After the peace agreement was signed, Ponseele said, he visited the bishop of San Miguel--his diocese--as quickly as possible, in order to be officially instated as a priest in that diocese.

He said Bishop Eduardo Alvarez told him: “I do not know who you are. I do not know what you are doing here. It would be better if you returned to your own country.”

Asked about the conversation, the bishop responded, “Father Rogelio has no faculties in this diocese.” Asked again, he repeated the statement and hung up the telephone.

Saenz Lacalle said that with 120 priests for millions of faithful, El Salvador “needs the [foreign] priests who are here and any others who might come, but it would be better if priests would concentrate on pastoral aspects, which does not mean that they forget social situations but that they face social situations with the church’s social doctrine and give leadership to the laity.”

Ponseele’s hope lies in reports that Morazan may become a new diocese, with its own bishop--perhaps someone more sympathetic.

Saenz Lacalle, meanwhile, is preparing for Pope John Paul II’s visit in February and trying to navigate among the conflicting interests of his congregation.

Many observers say he is already stepping back from his earlier firm determination not to become involved in politics.

“From the first, he tried to separate heaven and earth,” said Dagoberto Gutierrez, a congressman for the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. “But little by little, almost imperceptibly, Monsignor Saenz Lacalle will become more involved with life and life will become more involved with Monsignor Saenz Lacalle.”