As a child, he frequently listened to the pastor’s homilies on the radio and was enraptured by the voice of the archbishop.
“Before I was a priest – and after I became a priest – I said ‘when he’s canonised, I want to go,'” recalled Bishop Oswaldo Escobar about his early conviction that then-Archbishop Oscar Romero, who often visited northern El Salvador, was a saint. The bishop said he has read every homily, every diary entry and can recite St Romero’s most notable words by heart.
Decades later, Bishop Escobar said he continues to be inspired by St Romero, this time because of the stories he keeps hearing in the region of Chalatenango, where Bishop Escobar was born. It was part of the Archdiocese of San Salvador during St Romero’s period as archbishop from 1977 until his martyrdom on 24th March 1980.
As Bishop Escobar was getting to know his rural flock shortly after his appointment in 2016, many parishioners told him stories of how the human rights icon had saved them from near death when they were beaten and tortured; how they had secretly recorded and guarded his homilies when it seemed like a crime to listen to them; and how, because they had nothing to give, they threw little yellow wildflowers in St Romero’s path to welcome him to the remote corners of the Salvadoran countryside when he visited.
Bishop Escobar collected their stories in a book called “Romereando por Chalate,” a play on words roughly translated as “A Pilgrimage Through Chalatenango,” to mark the 41st anniversary of the saint’s martyrdom. He recently debuted the book before a co-operative of Salvadoran priests in San Salvador.
In its foreword, Salvadoran Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez, who helped launch the book at his parish in San Salvador on 24th March, the feast of St. Romero, said the stories describe the ideal pastor Pope Francis seeks in his bishops: one who “walks in front of, in between and behind his sheep.”
While much has been written about St Romero theologically, politically and historically, Bishop Escobar shows the human side of a pastor and his flock: how he stopped for a cup of coffee and a pastry with farmhands or took a jaunt through the unpaved “Salvadoran heaven” – the mountains of Chalatenango – with a priest in a rickety truck.
But he also shows the dangerous political landscape those in the Salvadoran mountains suffered: how soldiers killed to intimidate people to prevent them from gathering with their bishop, who was never afraid to speak of abuses during his radio addresses.
St Romero often spoke of the much-ignored and battered region of Chalatenango during his radio show and in articles highlighting crimes in the remote corners no one paid much attention to, clamouring for justice for slain catechists and other Catholic ministers, priests and religious who were dismembered and disfigured in El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s.
“No-one loved Chalatenango more than St Romero,” said Bishop Escobar, who was able to fulfil his wish of attending the first Salvadoran saint’s canonisation ceremony at the Vatican in October 2018.
Bishop Escobar, 52, was a child when St Romero was alive and walked as a “pilgrim” in his native region. He said he doesn’t remember ever meeting him, but St Romero has influenced him as a Christian and a pastor, and he’s proud to have inherited part of the saint’s flock.
He said he never gets tired of reminding them that “a saint walked here.”
Picture: Bishop Oswaldo Escobar of Chalatenango, El Salvador, poses in front of the diocesan cathedral with his recently published book about St Oscar Romero. The book narrates the soft side of St Romero in the agricultural diocese in northern El Salvador. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Chalatenango).