Fr. Tom’s July 2004 Calavera Report



We returned in June to the mountains of northeastern El Salvador on our thirteenth annual delegation to Calavera. There were seven members on this year’s delegation. Three were from St. Mary, two were from Philadelphia and two were Mexican-Americans who graduated from the University of Illinois in May 2004. From St. Mary were Kathy Fries, an independent piano teacher in Champaign, Dr. Alice Penrose of Urbana and Father Tom Royer. Dr. Anna Carr and nurse practitioner Patti McKenna joined us from Philadelphia. Marcia Fuentes and Juan Nevarez were the recent university graduates. I have observed that of all the gifts that we bring to our friends in Calavera each year, the visits of our delegations is the most special gift of all. As in other years, these persons in Delegation 2004 were a blessing to the people of Calavera as well as to me. Kathy, the organizer of each annual delegation since we began in 1992, was kept busy each day in the schools, meeting with the teachers and teaching classes. Through the generosity of the many supporters of our sister relationship, she was able once again to present a large suitcase of much needed school supplies to each of the five schools.

Alice ran the medical clinic in each of the five settlements. She was joined by Anna and Patti. Marcia and Juan assisted them. Since Patti, a former Maryknoll Lay Missioner in Venezuela, is fluent in Spanish, she did not need help with translation. Marcia helped translate for Alice. Juan went on pastoral visits to the shut-ins with Tom. Back in the clinic, Juan fitted people with reading glasses and translated and assisted Anna. In the five days, over 550 people received consultations in the clinics. Provena Covenant Medical Center provided all the medicines used in the clinics. Patients were sent home with plastic baggies of vitamins and various medical remedies. These clinics are greatly appreciated by the people in the settlements because they provide the only opportunity to see a medical professional for their health problems. They treasure the vitamins and medicines they are given to take home. Our sister relationship is supported by the Christian Base Community Organization of El Salvador (CEBES-FUNDAHMER). CEBES and the community leaders do lots of planning before we arrive. This year Armando Marquez, a coordinator at CEBES, made the journey through the settlements with us. Tomasito Luna, a pastoral leader, and some others also accompany us throughout our visit to the five settlements. The visit to each settlement concluded with the celebration of the Eucharist.


Calavera consists of the settlements of Gimilile, El Salamo, El Rusio, San Miguelito and Guachipilin. A total of about 1400 people live in the five settlements. Each day we were welcomed to a different settlement and made to feel at home with friendship and food.

Our delegations are a bridge of solidarity with our sister community. In walking with the people and listening to their stories we are awakened to the reality of life in the global village. Most people on the globe live more like the simple people of Calavera than like the people of Champaign.

Ronald Reagan used to talk about “the shining city on the hill,” as his vision of what the U.S. should strive to be. His dream city was a kind of gated community that excluded most of the world. In Calavera we encounter “the humble settlements on the mountain,” where people share another kind of dream, building the kingdom of God, a place of where I find the language of the Sermon on the Mount is spoken.

In speaking of their situation, the Salvadorans use the word “realidad,” their reality. Their reality is a story of struggles and heartbreaks, and also hopes and dreams.

In Corinto, where we are dropped off in the town square to begin our walk back into the settlements, I was asked by a woman and her daughter to visit her injured husband at their home on the outskirts of the town. Alice, Marcia and I followed them home to visit Nicholas Martinez Claros, a man in his thirties, who had broken his spine in a fall from a roof about seven months before. He was lying in bed, numb from his waist down. Alice examined him. Nicholas was emotionally numb, in a deep sadness about his situation. They gave me four letters explaining their desperate situation and asking for help. The wife is determined to take care of him and their three young children. She showed us her sewing machine that she would use to earn money to support the family. This is the realidad shared by many of the people. It is a desperate struggle to survive harsh circumstances.

Simona Cortez is an old woman in El Salamo who comes each year to the clinic with her walking stick and her family helping her along. She is always very cheerful. She likes to have a photo taken of her and me together. This year I brought along an enlarged copy to present to her. She was excited to receive it. Not only to have the photo, but to realized that I remembered to do this for her. Later in the day she approached me with a beaming smile. She had gone to fetch something to give to me in return for the photo. She reached down into the pocket of her apron to give me her gift. It was a nickel. I accepted it at once, not as a sign of her poverty, but as a sign of her generosity. I shall treasure it. It was the widow’s mite. This was her realidad, her willingness to share the little she had. It is the way so many of the people in the settlements are.

In El Salamo, I was invited by some of the young men to visit a special field. It was the soccer field that the community was able to purchase with a donation of $1500 from several friends at St. Boniface and St. Mary. They are proud of their new soccer field. Their realidad is lots of young people who love to play sports and games, especially soccer. One can also see the kids playing other games, the school children playing softball at recess, boys playing marbles on the dirt and girls jumping rope.

Each year we offer a small donation to each of the schools for the purchase of needed supplies. The money is entrusted to the education committee in each settlement. In several communities, this committee made up of parents, decided to use the money to buy cloth that the mothers sewed into simple school uniforms. The young students were proud of their clean blue and white shirts and skirts and pants. This encouraged more to attend the classes, because in the past some of the children would not go to class because they were embarrassed that they did not have decent clothes to wear. Their realidad is that the people realize the importance of education and make special efforts to encourage their children to go to school.

Lucio, a pastoral leader in Guachipilin, told me that he was glad to see me in a photo with the pope. When we arrive in each settlement, we give everyone a photo sheet introducing the members of our delegation. This year my photo showed my personal encounter with Pope John Paul while I was on sabbatical in Rome last spring. Lucio told me that this helped to reassure him that I was in good standing in the Church. Perhaps he had some doubts about my orthodoxy (he’d not be the only one). In some ways I may seem to be different from the priest at the parish in Corinto and other priests he has met. Many of the Salvadoran priests are very traditional, some even wearing cassocks and keeping their shoes shined. Lucio had never seen me in clerical collar and clean shoes. Lucio’s and the people’s realidad is a great loyalty to the Church. Their Catholic faith runs very deep.

After the Mass in each settlement, I offer the Anointing of the Sick to all who want to receive it. Not many people come to Communion because the notion often preached from many pulpits is that one should always go to Confession before receiving Communion. But almost everyone steps forward to receive the Anointing. Their realidad is their need for healing. The harshness of their daily lives and the memory of the traumatic war that was waged in their mountians has given may of them a sense of brokenness in body, mind and spirit.

In these and many other ways they tell us their realidad, their story.


Stories are important Sometimes stories are sacred and powerful. They can also be dangerous, when they lay bare the memories buried deep beneath the officially approved stories. The people’s memories are often at odds with official histories.

The official history of the people of El Salvador is full of denial about the crimes committed against the people of the land, the original indigenous people and the majority poor who remain in poverty today despite the daily burden of their labors.

El Salvador is the most densely populated country in Latin America. It is about the size of Massachusetts and has a population of more than five million. Two percent of the population own 60 percent of the land. 60 percent of those who live in the countryside are landless. 45 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day. More than half the population cannot meet basic food and medical needs. 47 percent of the children suffer malnutrition.

In the late 1970s, war broke out when the government attempted to crush the peaceful efforts to change an unjust social and political system. The military created the death squads to eliminate those who challenged the system. In approximately fifteen years of open conflict (ending in 1992), 75,000 people were killed by the military government and the death squads. About a million Salvadorans fled their country, while another half million were displaced inside the country. The official story ignores these figures and is in denial about the extreme cruelty used against the people.

One remarkable statistic in this story is the targeting of Catholic leaders in a Catholic country (over 90% Catholic). Official anger was directed against anyone who helped organize the opposition to government injustice. Many of these leaders were catechists, nuns, priests and the archbishop of San Salvador, Monsenor Oscar Romero. During the fifteen years of the government’s war against the people, sixteen priests were murdered and also the archbishop. The government’s actions were meant to paralyze all with terror, that no one was immune from official cruelty. Today in our country terrorism is condemned. In El Salvador during the 1980s it was government by sheer terrorism. Archbishop Romero named the Salvadorans suffering under this official oppression “the crucified people.” The people call the victims of official terrorism ” their martyrs.”

Another significant fact is that this official terrorism was a direct result of U.S. policy. The U.S. gave billions to the government during the years of terror. The U.S. gave tacit consent to the activity of the death squads. Indeed the notorious battalions that carried out human rights abuses were trained in the U.S. Two of the most notorious massacres were the deliberate slaughter of over 1,000 at the small town of El Mozote (a few miles from Calavera) in 1981, and the murder of the six Jesuit priests and two women helpers at the University of Central America in San Salvador in 1989. The leaders of these massacres were trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. These are just a couple of examples of their bloody work. Their grisly torture of many victims was demonic.

Even though the war of terrorism ended with the UN-brokered peace accords twelve years ago, the suffering it produced remains an important part of the story of the people of Calavera and throughout the country. But there is official denial about the crimes committed against innocent people, tens of thousands of them. Most of the victims of El Mozote were children. The campesinos of the mountains where we visit each year were not deserving of the death and destruction that they received from the 500 pound bombs that rained down on them from U.S. bombers and the military sweeps through their settlements that killed everyone in their path. The official story was that this was a war against communist subversives. President Reagan maintained that these subversives were a danger to the U.S. In our thirteen years of delegations to Calavera, we have come to know the people fairly well. Saying that these simple people could be considered a danger to the U.S. is a vicious lie. The people of the settlements were and are simple folk who love their families, work very hard, and most of them are deeply religious. The official story is in denial of this.

Roberto D’Aubuisson was the military officer who organized the death squads. He was proud of his role of directing the terrorist organization that tortured and cruelly murdered thousands and left their mangled bodies in the gutters in order to instill terror in the hearts of the people. He organized the assassination of Archbishop Romero in March 1980. He orchestrated much of the campaign of terror that gripped the country during the 1980s. U.S. Ambassador Robert White, who was dismissed by Reagan, described D’Abuisson as a “pathological killer.” D’Abuisson died of cancer in 1992. The ultra rightwing press has continued to hold him up as an honorable leader. On the fourth anniversary of his death, Masses were said in seventeen Catholic churches “to give thanks for his life and to hold him up as a model for Salvadoran youth.” So deep was/is the denial of official criminal behaviour.

In the vice-presidential debate during the recent campaign, Vice President Cheney referred to “the successful U.S. military intervention in El Salvador that has resulted in democracy.” Many who are acquainted with the real story of the people’s suffering recognize his remarks as a huge distortion. It denies the immense pain of “the crucified people.” The U.S. intervention was a sinful crime against innocent people.

The guardians of the official story are fearful of the people’s stories because they tell the truth. The officials fear the people’s stories because they include dangerous memories. They are especially dangerous when they contain tears that can touch our hearts. We insist on telling the people’s dangerous stories.


Last year I asked each of the five settlements to give us a blessing. So at the Mass in each of the settlements, someone from that community laid hands on my head to give me a blessing which I brought back to our communities in the U.S. This year I asked for a more specific blessing to bring back to the U.S. I asked for the blessing of forgiveness to heal the great wound of violence in our country. Let me explain the meaning of this special blessing.

First, let us look back to a practice in the early Church. It was the use of a letter called a tessera. In the early days of Christianity, there were some Church leaders who believed they could not forgive certain sins. These were, for example, the sins of extreme violence toward the innocent and also the sin of rejecting the faith and collaborating with the oppressors of Christianity. Some Church leaders were hesitant to forgive such sins because they were bringing such great sufferings to the Church. Many Christians were being murdered for their faith. They were called martyrs. There were also those who were suffering for their faith, but were not killed. These were called confessors because they confessed the faith in spite of great personal cost.

If one of these great sinners, for example, a murderer or a collaborator with the oppressors, could get a letter from a confessor recommending that his/her sin be forgiven, then the absolution would be given. Remember, that these were sins for which the Church was unwilling to give absolution.

The letter from the confessor was called a tessera. The sinner would bring the tessera from the confessor and give it to the bishop. The bishop would follow the recommendation of the confessor and give absolution. Such was the understanding in the early Church. The victims of persecution could forgive the persons who were sinning against them.

St. Cyprian of Carthage, a third century bishop and martyr, speaks of this practice in his writings.

Now let us go to a street in El Salvador. Painted on a wall along the street outside the Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador is a large mural. Monsenor Romero was assassinated in this hospital chapel in 1980 while saying Mass. In the mural, Monsenor Oscar Romero is surrounded by the crucified people of El Salvador. They are all marked by Christ’s wounds of crucifixion and Monsenor Romero’s bullet wound at his heart.

In this mural, Monsenor Romero teaches us an important lesson. He is turned toward the oppressors and his wounded hand is lifted up in a gesture of forgiveness for those who have crucified him and his people. This is an illustration of that early Church practice of the victims of persecution forgiving those who were sinning against them.

It is the difficult calling of the crucified ones to forgive their oppressors. Because God calls us to forgive those who trespass against us. For many years I have listened to the stories of the sufferings of the Salvadoran people, especially the poor campesinos who resisted injustice. Recall that during a 15-year period (1977-1992), over 75,000 were killed, the majority by government forces. I recognize the crucified Salvadoran people as martyrs and confessors.

There has been a great silence/denial about the U.S. complicity in the crucifixion of these people. We can still see the huge craters from the 500 lb bombs used against the people in the poor communities that we visit each year. Each of these bombing runs by U.S. planes was a 9/11 for the victims and their families.

As I have noted, one of towns near Calavera is El Mozote, where in 1981, a special battalion trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, systematically murdered about a thousand campesinos, most of whom were children. This remains a deep wound in the memory of the people of these mountains.

Many of our friends in the small communities of Calavera still suffer trauma from the violence they experienced during that 15-year war. They lost family members and their homes in the scorched earth policy of the military sweeps through their mountain communities. The poor people fled, some to live in the ravines of the mountains, others to live in a refugee camp in Honduras.

If you look at this from their point of view, you have to acknowledge that the United States has a great wound of sinfulness because of its use of violence against the innocent. Reagan, the president during the 1980s, justified our participation in that vicious war with the claim that these people were somehow a threat against the U.S. As I look into their faces when I give Communion to these very devout people each year, I realize how outrageous this claim was.

They acknowledge their dead in that conflict as martyrs. Those who have survived are truly confessors, many of whom still bear physical, mental and spiritual scars from those years of terror.

At the celebrations of the Eucharist last summer in each of the five settlements of Calavera, I asked the people there to give me a blessing of healing that I could bring back to the United States to heal the violence in the hearts of our people. Violence in the heart is a great spiritual illness.

And so they did. By pre-arrangement, two or three persons from each settlement, persons who had suffered from that war, stepped forward at the Mass. I knelt on the dirt floor as they laid hands on my head to give the gift of healing.

They did so in the spirit of the early Church where confessors gave a letter of forgiveness (tessera) to forgive the sins of their persecutors. They did so in the spirit of that mural near Monsenor Romero’s place of martyrdom where he turns in a gesture of reconciliation toward his oppressors. In their blessing of healing, I received their tessera - their recommendation that the great sin of violence be healed for my country.

We should try to understand the meaning of the struggle of our friends in Calavera against oppressive and unjust government. We should pray that our nation would humbly stand before God absolved from its wounds of sin. We should readily and humbly accept the tessera of the victims of Calavera as a most precious gift.

One of the peculiar experiences of our summer trips into Calavera is listening to the haunting sound of the chicharas. This is an insect associated with the harvest that gives off a high pitched whistling sound that echoes through the mountains in the late afternoon and evening. Considering the sad memories of the history of the campesinos living here, one might hear the chicharas’ cry as a plaintive background keening, a mourning that will not be comforted. But considering the dignity, courage and faith of the people, I hear it as a vesper song in praise of the martyrs and confessors of this wounded land of The Saviour (El Salvador).

“By their wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah)