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The Embattled Pope wore Archbishop Romero’s blood soaked rope belt as he announced his canonization. Father Roy Bourgeois brings the reality into context

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

In 1980 there was a deep unrest in El Salvador. The U.S. was backing the oligarchs and the army junta that seized power in its war about to happen with the FMLN, the revolutionary guerrilla group seeking to overthrow the dictatorship. One of the men who publicly stood up to the dictatorship, a government that was known for murdering and torturing opponents, was Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was assassinated on his pulpit the day after giving a sermon denouncing the dictatorship, and calling on the United States to stop supporting the junta.

This week, Pope Francis canonized Archbishop Romero, who was a liberation theologist and anti-capitalist who was assassinated with full cooperation, or at least working knowledge, of the United States government. When Pope Francis announced that Romero was about to be canonized, he was wearing the bloodstained rope belt that the Archbishop was wearing when he was gunned down inside his cathedral.

In our conversation today we’ll explore what it means for this embattled Pope to canonize Romero, and why in the same breath he did so for the arch-conservative Pope Paul VI. And as importantly, look back at our history; the School of the Americas, the wars our nation promoted in Central America, and what all that says to us today.

Our guest is Father Roy Bourgeois, founder and president of the School of Americas Watch. And welcome back to The Real News, Father Bourgeois, good to have you with us.

FR. ROY BOURGEOIS: It’s good to be with you.

MARC STEINER: So let’s just start, let’s take ourselves back to history for a moment,1980. What was going on then in El Salvador? Who Archbishop Romero was, and why he stood up, and why he was assassinated. Just give us, take us back, for those who maybe not know the history as well as others.

FR. ROY BOURGEOIS: When I went to El Salvador, I was more frightened there than I was, I was in Vietnam as a young man, when I served the poor in Bolivia for five years and expelled from Bolivia. I’ve never seen anything quite like El Salvador. It really was a slaughter of innocent people. And you did mention that Archbishop Oscar Romero was a real voice for the voiceless. But I must say, like all the majority of bishops and priests and popes, he was very conservative. You know, he had to go through certain experiences. We all do to break our silence, to go through somewhat of a change.

But Archbishop Romero was very silent for some time. But what happened, he began to leave the comfort of his rectory, his humble home there, and went out to listen to the people. He began to see and hear their suffering. And what happened, too, a good friend of his, a Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande, who was working out in the countryside in the campo, was assassinated. And they said Archbishop Romero was really, really affected by the death of his, assassination his friend. And then another few priests were also assassinated. But most of all, it was the poor. He saw their suffering, striving to make a living on a dollar a day. Their kids were dying before their time; most kids were dead before the age of four or five. He began to realise something very important. He said, look, as a bishop I have a voice, I have power. My people are voiceless, they are powerless. And I must speak for them now. I mean, if more- you know, priests and bishops and popes can realize that, but so often they are silent.

But he broke his silence. And when he did, it poked that beehive of the military. Even his fellow bishops very upset with him. Four or five of his fellow bishops supported the military in El Salvador. They were close friends with the so-called ‘fourteen families’ that owned something like 60 percent of the land. And you know, they lived quite comfortably with the wealthy.

But here’s what happened on March 23, 1980. He gave a sermon in the cathedral, his Mass in the cathedral in San Salvador, where he made a special plea to the military. And he said to them, he said, look, I want you to stop the killing. He appealed to them to lay down their weapons, the military. He said, disobey the orders of your superior officers telling you to kill your fellow campesinos, your brothers and sisters, and obey a higher law. This law of God, that says thou shalt not kill. And I must say, that sermon in the cathedral March 23, 1980, it really, really angered the military and the wealthy elite. And it was the next day, March 24, when he was saying Mass at a smaller church, when he was assassinated while saying Mass, elevating the chalice.

And I must say, when he was assassinated, the people just- I mean, they were shocked. But the people really turned out by the thousands for his funeral. And then there were some who were killed while his funeral was going on. The military had no limits. I mean, they continued their killing.

But I must say, his death- you know, being a martyr, a voice for the people, who really, really begin to see him for what he was; a very holy person, a saint, a martyr for the cause. But I must say, Pope John Paul II did not support Archbishop Romero. He told Archbishop Romero to back off, to be silent. He was upsetting the military, Pope John Paul. And along with some of his other bishops. But he could not be silenced. You know, in his death- he did say, before he was killed he said, look, you can kill me. But my words- I will live on in the pueblo. I mean, the struggle of the people, the poor, the oppressed.

And that’s what happened. I mean, the Pope- it was made official just a few days ago, he was canonized. Made into a, you know, an official Catholic saint. But for the people there, he was always a saint.

MARC STEINER: I think it’s important to set up what was going on at that moment as well. The United States at that moment was deeply involved throughout Central America in backing these right-wing dictatorships. And especially in places like El Salvador. And then on the death of Archbishop Romero, you know, it escalated the civil war in El Salvador, with the revolutionary forces really moving ahead after his assassination. This was a volatile moment, deeply involved, as you know from your work with the School of the Americas, the American government. There was no real direct relationship, maybe, between his assassination and the Americans, but people knew of it and they did nothing to address it.

FR. ROY BOURGEOIS: Exactly. I must say, very important, what you’re bringing up. The United States was deeply involved. Those doing the killing, they were being trained at the School of the Americas back then in Panama. Then it came to Fort Benning, where it continued to operate for many, many years, where it is still operating today. But they were offering- they were being taught, these soldiers from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and 20 other countries in Latin America, and being trained in the art of killing. And they were going back, of course, to protect U.S. economic interest.

And I must say, Archbishop Oscar Romero, I mean, really, he inspired so many of us here in the United States. Just months after he was assassinated, there were four U.S. church women, three nuns and a Catholic layworker, who were raped and killed by the military. This was in December of 1980. And many of us knew these women, and they were friends of ours. And so we decided it was really time to get become more involved. And we started asking, what can we do to stop the killing in El Salvador, as Archbishop Romero had called for? And what we heard, we saw, was when 525 Salvadoran soldiers arrived at Fort Benning just the following year after Romero and the churchwomen were killed, they arrived here at Fort Benning for training in combat, which meant more suffering and killing in El Salvador.

So we decided, a group of us, to come down here in protest. And three of us, we decided to dress as high-ranking army officers, and go on to Fort Benning at night, dressed as high-ranking army officers. And we had with us a very powerful boom box. And in it was the last sermon that Archbishop Romero gave at the cathedral the day before he was assassinated, calling for the military to lay down their weapons, stop the killing.

So we took his words, and went near the barracks where the Salvadorans were housed. And when the last lights went out around 10:00PM, we said, this is for you, brother Romero, and his message boomed into the barracks. And I must say it was- we really poked the beehive. They came out of the barracks with their M-16s, their German shepherds, and spotted us in the tree there, and threatened to shoot us down if we didn’t come down. It was time to come down. We left the boom box up there. The message of Archbishop Romero repeated over and over again.

Well, we were arrested, brought to trial, and sent to prison for a year and a half. And I must say, Larry Rosebaugh, an oblate priest who was with me, and Linda Ventimiglia in the Army Reserves with us. But I must say, we had no regrets. We felt at peace in prison, and we wrote hundreds of letters to the media trying to educate people about what was going on in El Salvador. And then later after getting out of prison, the School of the Americas was forced out of Panama and settled at Fort Benning, Georgia. And that’s when I and a small group came back to Fort Benning, inspired once again by Archbishop Romero, the churchwomen, the massacre of six Jesuit priest, a young mother and her teenage daughter.

But these, the martyrs, and of course the poor who continue to be slaughtered, they motivated us to come back to Fort Benning and try to do something. And we formed what we called the School of the Americas Watch, calling for the closing of what we saw as a school of assassins, crossing untold suffering and death to the people of El Salvador and throughout Latin America. And our movement, you’ve been here to interview us and attend the vigils, and our movement from a small- you know, 10, 15 people, to 20,000 who would gather each year here at the main gate calling for the closing of the school. And whenever we gather here we can feel the presence of Archbishop Oscar Romero. His name is called out with so many other names. And after their names are all called out, the thousands will say, ‘Presente.’

MARC STEINER: So, Father Bourgeois, let me just talk a bit about with you about what has happened to the Vatican when the Pope canonized Archbishop Romero, and what that meant. I mean, he canonized the man who was a liberation theologist, an anti-capitalist. A man who stood up against the fathers of the Church, in terms of what they wanted to see, and their support for these dictators. At the same time he also canonized Pope Paul VI, who was a very conservative pope. Talk about what what this canonization means for the Catholic Church, and the contradictions you see involved in all this.

FR. ROY BOURGEOIS: Well, I have to tell you, I mean, this saint, Oscar Romero, is among the very- I mean, really unique. Rare. A lot of the saints, like Pope John Paul canonized also, and others, their track record, I mean, I must say in all honesty, it really hurt the Church’s image when certain popes and others were canonized, you know. But Archbishop Romero, I must say, as important it is for him to be canonized. The Catholic Church today is in a crisis. It’s on life support because of its infidelity, really. Because of its addiction to power. The Catholic Church is a patriarchy. It is governed and run by men. They consider themselves the consecrated ones. They feel only they, as men, are called to to run the Church. And I was a member of the old boys club for forty years, and a few years ago-

MARC STEINER: And then you stood up to it, and you were shown the door.

FR. ROY BOURGEOIS: And what happened, I called for the ordination of women. And I was, I got a letter from the Vatican, Pope Benedict, just before just months before Pope Francis came on board. But I was told I had 30 days to be silent, to recant my public support for the ordination of women, or I would be expelled from the priesthood. In conscience I could not recant, and I continue to call for the ordination of women, and as a result I was expelled. I was kicked out of the old boys club.

And I must say, it was very, very difficult. You know, having been in a community with longtime friends. But I have to say, I have no regrets. I got a glimpse, just a small glimpse, of what millions of people go through each day on a much deeper level because of their race, their gender, or sexual orientation. And the Catholic Church, I’m sad to say, if it does not change, if it does not accept women as equals, and all races, if it does not accept the LGBTQ community, so many of our sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ community, the Catholic Church will go the way of the dinosaurs.

And I’m sad to say that as much as the Catholic Church needs Archbishop Romero to try and somehow bring it a little credibility, I just don’t know if it’s enough. It seems that at the very core of the problem is the Catholic Church, the men who run it, over time have become addicted to power. They are so unlike Archbishop Romero. He was not into power. And unless they stop their addiction to this power that they’re so used to and crave, the Catholic Church may not be able to survive.

MARC STEINER: So just to conclude our conversation, Father Bourgeois, what you were just saying and how we talked earlier about who Archbishop Romero was as a figure, as a human being, as a fighter for justice, I mean, inside of this, what you’re describing is the contradiction that is the Church. I mean, the contradiction of the people like Romero and Francis, to a great extent, who see themselves as liberation theologists, see themselves as one with the poor, see themselves- see Jesus as a radical figure who kind of wants to see a different world. At the same time, a lot of it is just linked to this old boys network you were talking about that is it stuck in ancient routines that they can’t seem to modernize. And so this is a contradiction in these two things, between the canonization, the sainthood of Romero, and the other issues the Church is facing. I mean, this is an interesting moment, I think, in Church history.

FR. ROY BOURGEOIS: Oh, very- I mean, it’s a real turning point, I must say. Perhaps we can cover that at another time. The scandal that the Church is experiencing. You know, in Pennsylvania, the six diocese there. The grand jury report, and what has come out of that, I have never seen, really. And there are 13 other states whose grand jury are investigating, you know, the Church’s abuse of children and sexual assault in other states. And I’ve never seen such anger of so many people, including among many friends and my own family, back in Louisiana. I have never seen that kind of anger before. Many are leaving the Church, especially the young people. Especially women, young people who are women, and of course brothers and sisters of the LGBT community. They are treated as inferior people. And they just do not want to belong to any organization, a Church that does not accept them as equal.

And unless the Church- I must say, Bishop Romero, again, is that model. But a lot of the priests, bishops, and popes- I mean, let me just say that I do not think they will change so easily. That addiction to power is so deep. Unless they become like Bishop Romero and become a voice for people who are suffering, who are being treated unjustly and unequal, unless they become like Romero, which I don’t see them doing, the Church will not survive.

MARC STEINER: Well, Father Roy Bourgeois, this has been a pleasure to talk with you. And as we have been exploring the depth of what the canonization of Oscar Romero means, and all the contradictions therein, and the power of that, as well. Thank you for your work you do as well, and look forward to talking to you again very soon. Thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News.

FR. ROY BOURGEOIS: Thank you for your good work. Goodbye now.

MARC STEINER: Take care. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you so much for joining us for this episode. I’m Marc Steiner. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.