At the age of 81, Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez remains the best-known champion of the legacy of his friend and mentor St. Óscar Romero, who was killed 44 years ago during El Salvador’s civil war and today is considered an icon of the Catholic Church’s social justice advocacy.

In 2017, Pope Francis surprised observers by making Rosa Chávez the first cardinal in El Salvador’s history, despite only being an auxiliary bishop. A year later he declared Romero a saint, the culmination of a long, difficult effort led by Rosa Chávez.

Much has changed in El Salvador since then. In 2019, the country elected as president outsider politician Nayib Bukele, who has used heavy-handed tactics to bring sweeping changes to the country once known as the “murder capital of the world.” The most well known is the “state of exception” declared by Bukele, which has given the government emergency powers to arrest and imprison tens of thousands of suspected gang members without due process.

The result is a country almost unrecognizable compared to just a few years ago. Homicide rates have plummeted, tourism has risen, and there have been small signs of improvement in the country’s economy — all factors that contributed to Bukele’s reelection in February.

But Rosa Chávez has since emerged as the Catholic Church in El Salvador’s leading critic of Bukele’s measures, arguing that the means do not justify the ends: not only the damage to the country’s judicial system, but also the potential imprisonment of thousands of innocent young men.

Rosa Chávez visited Los Angeles in the days leading up to Romero’s March 24 feast day, where he visited several parishes — including St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Pico-Union and St. John the Baptist Church in Baldwin Park — to spend time with the local Salvadoran community.

He sat down to speak with Angelus before Mass with parishioners at St. Marcellinus Church in Commerce March 18.

Your Eminence, what brought you to Los Angeles this time?

For me, this city is very important in the history of our country. Today it’s considered the second largest city of El Salvador, because it has the largest population of Salvadorans outside of San Salvador.

So I wanted to be here with the people close to the feast day of our beloved St. Óscar Romero, March 24….

There are more than 70,000 people imprisoned [in El Salvador] under this “state of exception” from these last two years. Let’s estimate that each one has 10 people in their lives who love them: parents, family, friends. What’s 70,000 times 10? In a country of about 7 1/2 million people, that means that about 10% of the population don’t have freedom. How does this make the people suffer?

Then there are those who were removed from workplaces in the city center of the capital [San Salvador]: more than 10,000. And if one speaks, there’s fear that they could be put in jail. That is not peace. That is the peace of the cemetery, in a sense.

That’s why I am working patiently on proposals so that people don’t feel alone, so that they know they are listened to, because it’s about accompanying them. That’s the role of the Church, the role of Jesus, and that was Romero’s role. There’s an inspiration in people who want to do so much, even if in silence, discreetly, so that people can have hope….

I’ll tell you the story of Bishop Rolando [Álvarez]. He was going to leave [Nicaragua] on a plane with several others to the United States. And he decided not to get on the plane, he chose to stay with the people. He spent more than a year in prison.

I have known Bishop Rolando since he was a young priest. His gesture was marvelous: to stay with the people, to risk for the people.

But what is happening in that country? The Church is not respected there. Everything is decided by the presidential couple. And they do truly absurd things, like confiscating the Church’s material goods, and not allowing those who leave the country to reenter.

This is the reality, and it’s all totally in the hands of whatever those two people decide. This can also happen in El Salvador: the government has all the power, and no one has anyone to defend them. The way decisions are made there is almost pornographic. But in reality, they [the people of Nicaragua] need to feel accompanied by our prayer, that they may feel that they’re not alone, and that God will do the rest in his time.

Right now, Nicaragua is going through a Good Friday. Let us hope that the Resurrection comes soon.

From Angelus News