In the footsteps of St. Oscar Romero:
Father Jonathan Goertz, regional delegation visit El Salvador

Father Jonathan Goertz, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, Richmond, celebrates Mass in San Salvador Jan. 27 at the church where St. Oscar Romero celebrated his first Mass as a priest. Originally named Iglesia de S. Pedro Apóstol (Church of St. Peter the Apostle), it was renamed Iglesia de S. Oscar Romero (Church of St. Oscar Romero) on March 24, 2018. (Photo/Geoffrey Ros)

On March 24, 1980, Msgr. Oscar Romero was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador when he was assassinated.

Since his death, the archbishop has been an example of valor and martyrdom for Salvadorians and for the whole Church. St. Oscar Romero raised his voice against the oppression of his dictatorial government, and at the same time, condemned voices that would sow division in the Church.

When an activist asserted that there were two Churches – a Church for the rich and another for the poor – the archbishop responded, “There is only one Church, which Christ preaches, the Church to which we should give our whole heart.” St. Oscar Romero was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 1997 and canonized by Pope Francis in 2018. His feast day falls on March 24, the day he died.

Today, the Salvadorian population in our diocese is growing. Certain parishes, like St. Augustine, North Chesterfield; and Incarnation, Charlottesville, have a strong Salvadorian presence. Other churches with a strong Hispanic community, like Our Lady of Lourdes, Richmond, have been impacted by the growth, too.

To better understand the pastoral needs of the Salvadorian community, Father Jonathan Goertz, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, and Daniel Villar, director of the diocesan Office of Ethnic Ministries, travelled to El Salvador from Jan. 25-30. They joined a large delegation from Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., which also included Bishop Mark E. Brenning of Wheeling-Charleston and auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjivar-Ayala of Washington, who was born in Chalatenango, El Salvador.

“Between the trauma of the civil war in the ’80s and the gang violence that paralyzed the country until recently … many Salvadorians who come here [to Virginia] have experienced particular traumas,” said Father Goertz. “For us to have a sense of what they are and the circumstances in which they left El Salvador will give us a special way to enter into what they’re dealing with and try to bring healing.”

Martyrs and survivors

For five days, the large delegation traveled throughout the country, visiting San Miguel, Morazán, San Salvador, and many other places. Along the way, they walked in the footsteps of many prominent Catholics who were assassinated during the civil war – St. Oscar Romero, Father Ignacio Ellacuría, Blessed Rutilio Grande and the four Maryknoll Sisters killed in 1980.

“I had the experience of living with the wonderful people of El Salvador, going to Mass with them, sitting and eating with them, conversing and listening to their stories about what life is like in El Salvador – and what it was like before,” said Villar.

“One moment I keep in my heart was arriving at the retirement home of the Vincentian Sisters of El Salvador,” he continued. “When we arrived, we were received by Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez and Madre Reina Angélica Zelaya, founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy. They received us with so much love and care that I felt like I was at home.”

Another important moment for Villar was when the group visited El Mozote in Morazán, where 1,000 people were killed in a December 1981 massacre.

“After so much joy visiting new destinations and meeting Salvadorians from different parts of the country, this moment brought sorrow,” said Villar.

“At the end of the visit, a young man from the town came up to me, the whites of his eyes yellow, alcohol on his breath. He took me by the arm and asked me urgently to hear his story – the story of his family, who died in the massacre,” Villar continued. “I couldn’t hold back my tears.”

Father Goertz celebrated Mass Jan. 27 in the parish where St. Oscar Romero celebrated his first Mass as a priest in 1942. Originally named for St. Peter, the church was renamed for St. Oscar Romero on March 24, 2018. The group also visited the Divina Providencia Hospital and saw the spot where he died during Mass. Today, the house where the saint lived is a museum.

“We were privileged and delighted to have Cardinal Gregorio Chavez as our tour guide, who was a personal friend of St. Oscar Romero,” said Father Goertz. “To hear his own reflections was a very special dimension of that visit.”

(From left) Bishop Mark E. Brennan, auxiliary Bishop Emilio Menjivar-Ayala, and Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez celebrate Mass at the place where St. Oscar Romero was killed. (Photo/Geoffrey Ros)

“The trip to El Salvador was also a pilgrimage,” Villar explained. “In the three days we were there, we walked and lived the life of St. Oscar Romero, beginning with his tomb beneath the Metropolitan Cathedral of El Salvador, ending in Ciudad Barrios, the little town where he was born.”

“The stories that were part of this journey helped me to reflect on the challenges we have today as people of faith in this world,” he added.

The synodal spirit

Father Goertz explained that there were many opportunities to socialize and enjoy the company of the people of El Salvador. They visited a community called “22 de abril,” named for the date on which a group of poor families began to build a neighborhood on the site of a former landfill in 1972. A young man named Juan David spoke about his life in El Salvador, including the reasons he decided to stay in the country and not flee.

“One of the themes that’s come out of the synod is how important it is to accompany one another,” said Father Goertz. “This was a wonderful way to equip us to be able to do that. We have a sense of the path they walked, and the path they are walking, and we can be with them along the way.”

“My interactions with the people of El Salvador were a learning experience,” said Villar.

In his role, he added, it is important to have experience with many diverse cultures. “Although different Hispanic cultures have many things in common, there are also many differences,” he said.

Father Goertz noted that the greatest of example of walking with each other can be found in the ministry of Jesus. “The Lord spent 30 years on the planet just being with us before he began to teach,” said Father Goertz. “So, let’s spend time together and develop a relationship, before we begin our ministry.”


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