Msgr. David M. Gallivan, retired priest of the Diocese of Buffalo, traveled to El Salvador at the end of May to witness the beatification of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Archbishop Romero, who served as bishop of San Salvador during El Salvador's civil war, was fatally shot while celebrating Mass at a small chapel in La Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador on March 28, 1980.
Msgr. Gallivan, who had served as executive director of the Secretariat for Latin America for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1980s and has a history of working with the Latin American community, traveled to El Salvador on the invitation of his friend, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, CSB, of Las Cruces, N.M., as guests of Catholic Relief Services.
Following an all-night vigil, 1,700 priests, including 80 bishops and archbishops, concelebrated a Mass of beatification in honor of Archbishop Romero that took place Saturday, May 23.
"I have never seen a Church function, especially that large, that was so well organized," Msgr. Gallivan said. "Little children were forming a guard of honor to make sure the people who were processing were able to do so easily. Everybody had a sufficient amount of water. They had little tote bags they gave us and white hats because we were going to be in the sun for several hours. Everything was prearranged."
He estimates the Mass at being three hours long, with 200,000 to 300,000 people in attendance.
"Maybe a half hour into the Mass was the place where (Cardinal Angelo Amato, SDB), who oversees the Office for the Process of Canonization, read a long letter from Pope Francis. At the end of the letter the pope said, 'It is an honor and a blessing to declare that, among the role of saints and blessed martyrs of the Church, we can now include Archbishop Oscar Romero.' The cheer that went out, it was like three stadiums, three Buffalo Bills stadiums full of people. Almost 300,000 people were there. And the sound carried beautifully."
The crowd received an unexpected surprise a few minutes after the Mass had ended.
"Many people were pointing up to the sky. Lots of cameras came out and people started snapping pictures. I looked up and there was the sun with a rainbow around it. I'm sure there is a scientific explanation for it. It seemed like a stamp of approval was given to the moment," Msgr. Gallivan said.
The U.S. State Department warns travelers to El Salvador of extortion, muggings, highway assaults, home invasions and car theft. During his four-day trip, Msgr. Gallivan saw optimism among the people he met at the Mass.
"It's just beyond any gathering of people that I've ever been with. Everybody was smiling. Everybody seemed encouraged, and most of these people had been up for a couple days, I'm sure, walking and traveling," he said. "There's a high level of optimism and hope in the Salvadoran people. Even though they are still, even now, known as the country with the second highest murder rate in the world. I don't know how they figure those things out. That's because now the danger isn't in the oppressive army and political reasons, but it's organized and unorganized crime. But there's a tremendous amount of hope and joy. The celebration of the liturgy was just so joyous, so genuine."
That evening, a reception for staff members of CRS in the Caribbean and Latin America was held at CRS headquarters in San Salvador.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Holy Savior, which houses relics of Archbishop Romero's, held a much smaller Mass Sunday morning.
Msgr. Gallivan first visited El Salvador in 1984, four years after Archbishop Romero's assassination by the hands of a lone gunman believed to have been working for the Salvadoran military. Msgr. Gallivan never met Archbishop Romero, but did meet his successor, Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas, during a meeting in Costa Rica.
"I had a lot of questions about what was going on in El Salvador," Msgr. Gallivan recalled. "He invited me to go with him because I had a couple of free days after the meeting I was at. So I traveled with him. He put me up in the seminary. I have a suspicion that the room I was staying at was at one point occupied by Romero, because there was a long table with a pile of files that were all human rights cases that he used to work on and try to solve, solve the mysteries of whatever crimes were committed. It appeared that he had lived in this room. Because of all of the assaults on the seminary, he decided he better move out of there, so not to endanger the seminarians. That's when he moved into the little hospital next door, where he was murdered in the chapel."
Msgr. Gallivan later celebrated Mass on that same altar.
Before returning home, Msgr. Gallivan, now retired and living in Angola, reflected back on his visit to the San Salvador seminary back in 1984, when he visited with orphans and war widows living in a refugee camp behind the seminary.
"I was listening to the stories of torture, and mayhem that was committed against them," he recalled. "Now, as I stood in the place where Romero was to be beatified, I was wondering if there were some of those kids that I had talked to, who would now be in their 30s possibly, or their mothers, I wonder how many of them are standing around here."
The cause of beatification and canonization for Archbishop Romero has caused some debate. At the time of his death, a civil war ravaged El Salvador. The archbishop witnessed numerous violations of human rights. He was later murdered for his non-violent advocacy. Six other priests who served under him, three religious sisters, and 75,000 citizens were also killed during the civil war. In 1997, Pope John Paul II opened his cause for sainthood, recognizing Romero as a martyr.
Some people feel he died for political reasons, not for his faith.
"Someone asked (Pope Francis last year) about Oscar Romero ever becoming a saint because he died for political reasons and not for reasons of the faith," Msgr. Gallivan said, explaining that martyrdom is considered dying for love of the faith. "Pope Francis said Archbishop Romero died defending people, speaking up for people, he loved the people. A bishop, a priest is called to love the people. He died for a love of the people. He died for his faith. That closed the door to any opposition."