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Part Two of "Catechists and Commissars" | Piers Paul Read | An excerpt from "Hell" in Hell and Other Destinations: A Novelist's Reflections on This World and the Next | Part One

If other priests resist the cult of Romero, it is not because they doubt that he was a good man. They feel it is being exploited to lead gullible people away from God. 'The progressive groups,' said Mgr Tovar, the Bishop of Zacatecoluca and now President of the Bishops' Conference, 'have reached a point where to enable a man to escape poverty they demean the idea of salvation. They value only the temporal, but man has a soul as well as a body.'

This was confirmed by a young man from a base community, whom I met in a barrio to the north of the city. He found it hard to believe that there was life after death. Aged in his early thirties, he had been given leave by the FMLN to come to San Salvador to visit his wife and baby. He came from a family of campesinos, and as a student had joined the Revolutionary Student Movement. For two years he had worked in a factory, and for five more had studied for the priesthood in the seminary of San Jose de la Montana. He had decided not to be a priest partly because he had to earn money for his family, partly because he had doubts about some of the teachings of the Church.

In 1980 he had joined a Christian base community which, after a process of 'consciencization', decided to support the FMLN. In 1985 he was captured by the armed forces, tortured and then released. He was almost captured again a month before the November offensive when the police raided his house and seized his car and television. His wife was betrayed during the offensive, arrested, but later released. He now lived in a guerilla camp in a war zone, but found it easy enough to go to and fro from San Salvador.

He described his base community as a small group of people who met to study the Bible, and learn from it how God works through history to liberate the poor. They were taught to appreciate their responsibilities toward the church and the world, answering such fundamental questions as 'What am I?', 'What does it mean to be baptised?' or 'What can I do to change society?' Invariably the conclusion reached 'by the most mature' was to support the FMLN.

The specifically religious aspects of the life of a base community differed so radically from those of the traditional Church that he did not believe that there could ever be a compromise between the two. First of all, the base communities believed in a collegiate, not a hierarchical church. A priest could take part in their discussions, but he spoke with no more authority than anyone else. He had no special privilege either, and must take his turn to do the cooking. Certainly, he would be the one to consecrate the host, but, if there was no priest they would distribute already consecrated hosts, and if there were no consecrated hosts, they would bless tortillas and distribute them instead.

Their principal task was to evangelise--to spread the Good News. What was the Good News? That they were working for a better future where there would not be a few who had much, but all would have something--food, shelter and jobs. Each would till his own land and enjoy the fruits of his labour. There would be peace not just as an absence of war, but as a condition where the causes of war did not exist.

Was this what he meant by the Kingdom of Heaven? It was halfway there. Did he know if such a society already existed? They were being built. Where? He had read that in Russia and in Cuba they were building such a society. Had he also read about the changes that were taking place in Russia and Eastern Europe? Yes, but he understood that these were merely reforms of the Marxist system.

There were two girls with him, both members of the base community movement. One was a full-time proselytiser, working in the provinces of Usulatan and San Miguel in the central region of the country. She was a Catholic but worked with Lutheran groups as well, and did not think that there were any significant differences between the two religions. She evangelised at Masses and meetings, or simply by going door to door. The most important mission of the Church, she thought, was to make individuals aware of social and political changes, and bring them to see the importance of unity in relation to justice, equality and peace.

Could peace be brought about by violence? She thought deeply before answering. Not violence as such, she said. But one tends to evaluate deeds on their merits, and in that context being critical did not mean to condemn.

I asked if all base communities sympathised with the FMLN. She wriggled in her seat. One had to make a distinction, she said, between levels of maturity in the different base communities. Some were very new. Politically, they had not come of age. And when they do? They support the FMLN.

Now the Spanish priest who had introduced us, joined our discussion. Like the Jesuit, Fr Rogelio Pedraz, he was small and slight, with a severe look on his face. He told me, somewhat derisively, that while people in Europe talked about Liberation Theology, here they lived it. The poverty one can see and share, changes one's thinking. By analysing social reality--the plight of the poor--one sees that there is nothing for which any one person is to blame. It is the structures of a society that are sinful, and it is by collaborating with these structures that we sin. The evils of the structures of Salvadorian society brought poverty, exploitation and death.

'And the FMLN?' I asked. 'Isn't that also a structure which brings death?'

The priest looked down at his papers.

'Lives are lost every day,' said the girl.

'I saw planes bomb villages,' said the priest. 'Furthermore, the FMLN is not a structure . . . '

'And its violence is incidental,' said the girl. 'The evil caused by capitalism is historically different.'

I told them that I had recently visited Lithuania, a very Catholic country, where people took a contrary view.

'There are different kinds of poverty,' said the priest. 'What is clear is that capitalism produces poverty . . .'

'But in Western Europe,' I suggested, 'even the poor have been made richer by the success of the capitalist economies.'

'That is sin! The consumer society is sinful. The Pope has condemned it. The values of the First World are dead. People think only of earning more to spend more. There is injustice--people without houses, people without jobs, people up to their necks in debt. Things should not be so. People should feel like the children of God. They should make their own history, and live like brothers, caring for the weak, the old and the poor.'

'As in Cuba?'

'No. There is no such society here on earth. But we must fight for it.'

'With violence?'

'Yes! Because Jesus said, "the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and the violent are taking it by storm."'


The impression I formed from this encounter, that the Christian base communities doubled as cells providing recruitment, propaganda and support for the FMLN, was confirmed by a wry old Maryknoll father from New York State who had been working in Central America for twenty-five years. He took me to Zacamil, the scene of heavy fighting during the offensive, where government forces had looted and desecrated a chapel used by the local base community. 'I did notice,' he said, 'that on the day of the offensive many of the young people went off to fight for the FMLN. They were romantic kids who thought the fighting would last for a couple of days. Now some have gone to train in Chalatenango, but most couldn't face it and have gone abroad.'

At St Antony Abad, an impoverished suburb to the north of San Salvador, there was a notable absence of young men at a Mass held by the base community. When I asked the English nun, a Poor Clare, who had taken me there, where they were, she laughed nervously and did not reply. The sermon, given by an Irish Jesuit, who, she said, had 'come for an experience', was not a homily from the pulpit but a discussion with the whole congregation. All agreed that they should evangelise, but, a girl complained, many were now afraid to join the base communities because of the political commitment it involved. They were turning, instead, to the Pentecostalist sects because they knew that at their services they would be safe from harrassment by the armed forces.

There was a meeting, that Sunday, in a stadium in San Salvador of the born-again Christians of the Elim Church. It was founded with two families in San Salvador thirteen years ago by the pastor Sergio Solorzano. Now it had 30,000 members and there were 30,000 more in the stadium. They were all neatly dressed, the women in pretty dresses and with mantillas over their heads, the men wearing jackets and ties. There were 3,000 stewards, all in uniform, and many with walkie-talkies. The service was like a pop concert, with catchy, melodic hymns, ending with a virtuoso tirade by Sergio Solorzano, calling upon everyone to turn to Jesus. Above an army helicopter circled the stadium taking aerial photographs. Below the audience wept, and cried 'Glory, Allelujia', among them the Minister of Agriculture.

The organisers welcomed me with open arms. 'Thank God you have come,' a lady said to me. 'We want you to tell the world that there is no persecution of Christians in El Salvador.' 'Do you know,' she went on, 'why San Salvador did not fall to the Communists during the November offensive? Because all these people here were praying, praying each day that they would fail.'

'Not by the sword,' thundered the pastor, Solorzano, 'but by the word of God shall you be saved . . .'


The most common charge levelled at the progressive Church, by traditional Catholics and the sects alike, was that it preached hatred of their enemies when Christ had said that evil should be overcome by love. 'If you attack someone, you cannot convert him', I was told by a pious lady who lived in the elegant suburb of Escalon where the guerillas had dug in during the offensive. 'If the bishop Rosa Chavez wants the rich to help the poor, castigating them is not the way to go about it. God told us to love, and to forgive, our enemies. One must hate sin, but love the sinner. He who has not sinned, let him throw the first stone . . . We have only to change people's hearts, and the injustice of society will disappear.'

She was particularly bitter about foreign journalists who came to El Salvador with their minds made up in favour of the FMLN. It was the foreign priests, too, who incited the gullible campesinos to rebellion. No wonder so many Catholics were joining the Pentecostalist sects. They left Mass agitated and angry: the sermons of the sects brought peace to their hearts.

Equally critical of the progressive Church was an Italian Salesian who had been working in El Salvador for twenty-seven years. It was the custom of his order, founded by St John Bosco in the nineteenth century, never to offend and to forgive all; but it was galling, all the same, to hear it said by the progressives that it was only at Medellin in 1968 that the Catholic Church had discovered its option for the poor. The Salesians had been working in Central America for almost 100 years, educating the sons of the poor. They had schools throughout the country, and technical institutes which gave vocational training. In a country of high unemployment, all their pupils were offered jobs a year before they graduated--not just for the skills they had learned, but because of their sound Christian formation.

This, he thought, was by far the best way for priests to exercise their option for the poor. While the Salesians planned a new institute in Soyapango which would eventually turn out 40,000 qualified students every year, the Jesuits, the base communities, those who belonged to what he called 'Romero's Church', encouraged the young to join the FMLN and destroy the infrastructure of the country, burning plantations, blowing up buses, bridges, pylons and power stations. As a result the gross national product had fallen to the level of 1965. Coffee production had halved and cotton production was down by 90 per cent. To pay for this destruction, prices were raised. The standard of living had fallen for everyone, including the poor.

The Franciscans too, he said, had been quietly working for the poor long before the invention of Liberation Theology. They ran orphanages and homes for handicapped children, but, like the Salesians, were subject to enormous 'psychological pressure' from their coreligionists in the progressive Church. They disapproved of their cooperation with 'sinful structures' by raising money from private enterprise and USAID, and wished to intimidate those whose lives refuted their theological line. A Franciscan, Father Spezzotto, wrote a letter predicting that he would be killed for preaching against a violent solution to social problems. Sure enough, he was assassinated. The Salesians believe it was by the FMLN. For this reason the Salesian I spoke to did not want me to mention his name. 'It isn't easy to speak out,' he said. 'When I tell my bishop in Italy what is happening, he doesn't believe me. The great untold story is of the persecution of the traditional Church.'

There are bishops in El Salvador who share this point of view, but it is difficult for them to denounce the political involvement of the progressive Catholics without appearing to side with the death squads of the right. So polarised is opinion in El Salvador that there is little weight or space in the centre. Paradoxically, the President, Alfredo Christiani, is widely considered to be a moderate and conscientious man. 'Even Fr Ellacuria,' said the Bishop of Zacatecoluca, Mgr Tovar, 'was coming closer to the position of the current government.' He had come to see 'that Marxism had not improved the life of the country. On the contrary, how many mutilated babies, how many deaths, had it produced?' It was one thing, however, for an intellectual to modify his opinions; quite another for him to modify the hatred of the bourgeois capitalists inculcated by progressive priests over the past twenty years.

Carlos Baron, a pious Catholic, removed his son from the Jesuit school because he was marked down in his essays if he strayed from a Marxist line. Later the headmaster left to become a spokesman for the FMLN. 'Some of the priests have lost their faith,' said Baron, 'and no longer believe in the afterlife, but they continue to work in a social context.'

Another pious businessman, who has used some of the profits from his chain of department stores to set up charitable foundations, helping not just the families of his 1500 employees but also funding clinics and orphanages as well, admits that in the past the Church was too insensitive to the plight of the poor. The rapaciousness of the conquistadores was deeply embedded in the national psyche. Politics was thought to be merely another, slightly seedy, branch of business. Manga la guava was the generally accepted ethic: if you have a fruit in your hand, eat it.

Most disillusioning for him, as a Christian moderate, was the Presidency of the Christian Democrat, Duarte. Although tortured at one time by the military, and permitted to lead the opposition to victory in the elections of 1984 only as a result of intense pressure from the United States, Duarte then failed on every count. He appointed his cronies as ministers who turned out to be not only corrupt but also inept. He failed both to control the army and to end the war with the guerillas. And the land reforms which he enacted were a fiasco--the co-operatives turning out to be both corrupt and inefficient.

It was because of this that half a million Salvadorians--53 per cent of those who voted, chose ARENA in the 1988 elections--the party founded by the man accused of ordering the murder of Romero, the notorious Major 'Bob' d'Aubuisson. However, d'Aubuisson was not the leader. It was Christiani. And Christiani's inaugural address was described by Fr Ellacuria as 'surprising for the moderation of its overall tone, and for its moderation in most of the specific issues addressed'. Ironically, too, some of the ministers he appointed were able professionals, educated by the Jesuits before the era of Liberation Theology. Negotiations were started with the guerillas to end the war, but ended with the November offensive and the murder of Ellacuria and the other five Jesuits at UCA.

This atrocity was such a disaster for Christiani and the ARENA government that it was assumed by Mgr Tovar to be the work of the FMLN. He added, at the time: 'I don't dismiss the idea that there may be certain individuals who use violent methods in certain restricted circles of the extreme right'; and now, after the arrest of Colonel Benavides, he concedes that his hypothesis fails, although he still believes that the murder was not planned by the army 'as an institution'.

Major Chavez, a spokesman for the Armed Forces, agrees. He referred to the killing of the Jesuits as a 'repugnant deed' and would be sorry if it turned out that it was Colonel Benavides who was responsible. However, by putting himself into the shoes of Colonel Benavides, he could understand how it might have happened. On the second day of the offensive, his son had suffered a breakdown which had reduced him to a vegetable. For years, now, he had seen and heard the progressive Jesuits on television--particularly, Fr Ellacuria--appear to justify the violence of the Communist terrorists who at that very moment, using innocent civilians as a shield, were attempting to seize power by force.

For years the Jesuits had been preaching hatred of the rich, inciting young people to take to the hills; and now, just across the road from the military compound where many of the officers lived, they sat in their ivory tower at UCA, publishing books sympathetic to the guerilla cause such as I Was Never Alone by 'Commandante' Nichia Diaz, and waiting, no doubt, for the moment when, like the three Catholic priests in Nicaragua, some of them would become Ministers in a government of the FMLN.

The Armed Forces, Major Chavez insisted, were on excellent terms with the traditional Church. Mass was compulsory on a Sunday in all the garrisons in the country. There were also compulsory classes in human rights. It was nevertheless frustrating to know that gullible campesinos who had always looked up to their priests, were being directed through 'consciencization' to fight for the Communist cause. It was well known that the base communities supported the FMLN. It was known, too, that foreign church workers--priests and lay catechists--came to the country to assist the guerillas.

Others, outside the Armed Forces, shared this point of view. 'The long Salvadorian conflict,' wrote La Prensa,
has been a stage for the direct interference of foreigners who, in the most diverse guises, from simple adventurers to religious missionaries, have come to our small and convulsed country to 'experience' the drama of the Third World . . . Many of these noxious characters are dressed themselves in the garb of humanitarian piety, supposedly 'accompanying' the most humble in their pain, but in reality giving personal and material help to subversion.
Most frustrating, for the Salvadorian government, is the vast network abroad of organisations which support the political activists in the different churches, and cry 'persecution' whenever they are attacked. In Britain there is the CIIR which propagates their point of view. In the United States there are journals like the Central America Report, a bimonthly journal 'of the Religious Task Force in Central America', with three Jesuits on its steering committee, which seeks to persuade public opinion that harassment of church workers amounts to a persecution of the Church.

A notable case was that of Jennifer Casolo. During the November offensive, according to Major Chavez, a captured guerilla named six houses in San Salvador where arms had been hidden by sympathizers. One of these caches was in the garden of a 28-year-old American, Jennifer Jean Casolo, who had worked in El Salvador for five years, organising tours for visiting Christians. Found buried in her garden, in the presence of an official from the US Consul, were grenades, explosives, detonators and 20,000 rounds of ammunition for AK 47 and M-16 rifles.

Jennifer Casolo was arrested, as were the others in whose homes such dumps had been found. The case was prepared against her. Then, suddenly, it was announced that there was 'insufficient evidence to convict her'. She was released from custody and flown back to the United States.

The Salvadorians, of course, remained in custody, and this reveals another paradox--that the Europeans and North Americans, who purport to be working for the brotherhood of man, in fact apply a double standard which values one of their lives more highly than that of a Salvadorian. During the offensive, the deaths which made the headlines were those of David Blundy, a British journalist, and the six Jesuits, five of whom were European. The five journalists who worked for the Centro de Informacion Nacional, and were captured and then executed by the FMLN, were not considered newsworthy in the northern hemisphere. They were, after all, mestizos, and were killed by the wrong side.

It is difficult, when visiting El Salvador, not to be drawn into the conflict and take sides. My brief, in any case, was not to analyse the political situation but to investigate the apparent persecution of the Church. The answer to that, as I discovered, depended upon what was meant by the Church. Undoubtedly, many convinced Christians--including many Jesuits, and most of those in the base communities--feel that to live according to the gospel they must throw in their lot with the FMLN. The Archbishop of San Salvador, and his coadjutor, Mgr Rosa Chavez, with the mantle of Romero on their shoulders, feel that they must speak out for the right of these Christians to bear witness to their beliefs in this way.

Others, like the President of the Bishops' Conference, Mgr Tovar, fear that the Catholic Church is being used as a cover for political activists who want to impose by force a 'dictatorship of the proletariat', and in doing so have brought unparalleled misery to the Salvadorian people.

My own instinct, in the end, was to agree with this latter point of view. It was not just the cogency of Mgr Tovar which convinced me but the views of the other traditionalists like the Salesian who had been working for the poor a century before the invention of Liberation Theology or the decrees of Vatican II.

I was also subject to an experience of the kind which inevitably affects one's point of view. Many journalists who have visited El Salvador since the death of Mgr Romero have seen the bodies of those tortured and killed by the death squads of the right. This has led them, understandably, to sympathise with the FMLN. One of the American journalists whom I met in El Salvador told me with great enthusiasm what the guerillas had achieved in the November offensive. They had shown that they were a force to be reckoned with; and by occupying choice suburbs of San Salvador like Escalon, they had shown the middle classes that the army could not protect them. As a result, there was now an exodus of skilled professionals. The country's capital had already gone. The economy was in a downward spiral. And all this had been achieved with only slight losses to the hardened cadres: most of those killed had been recent recruits.

Who were those recent recruits? As the FMLN retreated after the offensive, thirty-two guerillas, cut off from the main force, had claimed sanctuary in the church of El Calvario in downtown San Salvador. Two months later they were still there. When I visited the church, a group sat disconsolately behind iron railings on the steps of the church beneath a huge red banner demanding free passage to a safe haven. On the walls there were smaller posters showing a guerilla holding a child with the slogan: 'For the sake of your children, all against ARENA'.

The officer in command of the unit surrounding the church allowed me to talk to these guerillas through the railings. Among them there was a group of three boys. One was aged twelve. He served as a runner. The other two were sixteen. One had had his leg amputated at the knee after stepping on a land mine. He wore a white trainer on his single foot from which he had peeled off the emblem--'Nike' or 'Cobra'--and had drawn instead, with a ball-point pen, the initials FMLN.

I asked him for how long he had been fighting with the guerillas. He said for two years. I asked if his parents knew. He said that they did, and that they approved, but that they did not know where he was.

'Are there many boys of your age?'

'Yes. Most of us.'

'And why do you do it?'

'We like the life with the guerillas. We like the fighting.'

As I left the church, I wondered why it should be that a People's Army should depend upon teen-age boys to do the fighting and take the losses. If the progressive Church was really fighting to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, why must it be a children's crusade?

As I flew back to London, I read in La Prensa Grafica that the thirty-two guerillas from the church of El Calvario, among them twelve minors, were to be flown out to Cuba, the demi-paradise they had been promised, and for which so many had died.

First published in truncated form as 'Taking Heaven by Storm', in the Independent Magazine on 17 March 1990

Piers Paul Read (b. 1941) is an English novelist and playwright. He was educated at Ampleforth College and St John's College, Cambridge, where he read History. His first novel, Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx, was published in 1966. His second novel, The Junkers (1968), won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Monk Dawson (1969), won the Hawthornden Prize. More recent novels include The Free Frenchman (1986), A Season in the West (1988); On the Third Day (1990) and A Patriot in Berlin (1995). His latest novel is The Death of a Pope (Ignatius Press, 2009). Other novels include Alice in Exile (2001), the story of a young Englishwoman caught up in the Russian Revolution. His non-fiction includes Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974), an account of the aftermath of a plane crash in the Andes, later made into a film; Ablaze: The Story of Chernobyl (1993), the story of Russia's nuclear disaster; and The Templars (1999), a history of the Crusades. He is also the author of Alec Guinness (2003),is an authorised biography of the acclaimedlate actor. He resides in London.

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