Catechists and Commissars | Piers Paul Read | An essay from "Hell and Other Destinations" | Ignatius InsightCatechists and Commissars | Piers Paul Read | An excerpt from "Hell" in Hell and Other Destinations: A Novelist's Reflections on This World and the Next

Last November in El Salvador, after twenty years of civil war, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) made an all-out attack on San Salvador, the capital city. Fifteen hundred guerillas came down from the volcano which overlooks some of the smartest suburbs. Others, in the barrios, dug up weapons which had been hidden in readiness for this offensive. Several areas of the city were occupied, and mortars were fired at the President's home. However, there was no general uprising against the government, and after ten days of fighting the guerillas withdrew.

Up to three thousand people were killed in the course of this offensive, either in battle, or caught in the cross-fire, or killed in cold blood. Most horrifying of all, to the outside world, was the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and the housekeeper's daughter. It happened on the night of 16 November, on the campus of their University of Central America. All the Jesuits were distinguished academics, five of them born and trained in Spain, but resident in El Salvador for so many years that the Rector of the University, Fr Ignacio Ellacuria, had become a national figure. According to the provincial of the Society of Jesus, Fr Tojeira, he was regarded by the President, Alfredo Christiani, as 'the only critical and yet constructive political opposition he had in the country'.

These Jesuits were neither the first nor the most notable Catholic priests to have been killed in El Salvador. Between 1977 and 1981, ten met violent ends, among them a Jesuit, Fr Rutilio Grande. Many catechists, church workers and members of the Christian base communities have been among the 70,000 slaughtered. In 1980 four American women missionaries were raped and then murdered by National Guardsmen. In March of the same year, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, was shot dead with a single bullet as he was celebrating Mass.

To understand this apparent persecution of the Catholic Church in a Catholic country, one must go back to the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII in 1963 in which there was a shift in emphasis from a purely spiritual and self-contained concept of Catholicism to one which was open to and appreciated what was good in the world at large.

In particular the material and the social aspirations of man were deemed good, and a commitment made to help the poor. 'The Church encompasses in her love all those who are afflicted by human misery, and she recognizes in those who are poor and who suffer, the image of her poor and suffering founder. She does all in her power to relieve their need, and in them she strives to serve Christ.'

Such solicitude for the unfortunate was not new. Numerous religious orders had been founded specifically to do charitable work. In the past, however, they had sought to alleviate the symptoms of suffering rather than do anything about the cause. Now, the Council suggested, 'the best way to fulfil one's obligation to justice and love is to contribute to the common good according to one's means and the needs of others, even to the point of fostering public and private organizations devoted to the bettering of conditions of life.' 'Thus,' said the fathers, with a certain optimism, 'there will arise a generation of new men, the moulders of a new humanity.'

None met this challenge with greater zeal than the members of the Society of Jesus. Founded in the sixteenth century by St Ignatius Loyala to combat the Protestant Reformation, the order had succeeded so well in the centuries which followed that Jesuits had become the power behind many a throne. In Europe they became the confessors of reigning monarchs and the tutors of future kings. Their missionaries went to India, China, Africa and the Americas, braving tempests and tortures to bring heathen souls to the one true faith. In Peking they became intimates of the Manchu emperors; in America it was a Jesuit who first discovered the Mississippi. In Paraguay they ruled colonies or 'reductions' of Christian Indians, described as 'the most remarkable example of a whole people transformed and exalted through Christianity that has been known since the Middle Ages'.

Their influence grew so strong that they became loathed and feared. 'Jesuitical' entered the language, meaning unscrupulous and crafty. Any means were justified by the end they pursued which was the greater glory of God. In the middle of the eighteenth century, they were expelled first from Spain and all Spanish possessions, and later from Portugal, France and Naples. In 1773 the Pope, Clement XIV, suppressed the order. In 1814 it was restored.

Most efficacious of all the Jesuits' methods was the education of the young. 'Give us a child until he is seven,' they would say, 'and he is ours for life.' In an age of cuius regio, eius religio, they concentrated their attention on the sons of future rulers. Theirs became the best schools and universities in the major cities of Catholic countries throughout the world. Their pupils were the future elite. In San Salvador, as in Paris, Prague, Warsaw, Washington or Madrid, the Jesuits catered for the children of the upper classes in their high school and University of Central America.

It was therefore the Jesuits who felt most chastened by the rebuke implicit in the decrees of the Council. Many of their pupils in San Salvador, when they graduated, became leading figures in the community--landowners, lawyers, doctors, businessmen and politicians. They always took their families to Mass on a Sunday and made sure that their daughters married lavishly in a church. But did they practise what they preached? Were they Christians in spirit as well as in form? 'Even though incorporated into the body of the Church,' the Council had warned, 'one who does not persevere in charity is not saved. He remains in the bosom of the Church, but in body, not in heart.'

Eager to mend their ways, and respond to the call of the Council, many Jesuits now espoused a new 'theology of Liberation' which not only justified but insisted upon a radical political expression of Christian faith. It had been born at a meeting of young theologians at Petropolis in Brazil in 1964, and claimed its most notable triumph four years later when the Catholic Bishops of South America, meeting at Medellin in Colombia, declared their 'preferential option for the poor'. Traditionalists claim that this merely reminded Catholics of an age-old commitment, but the members of what came to be called the 'progressive' or 'popular' Church saw it as episcopal approval of their collective, political and usually Marxist and revolutionary concept of salvation.

While the application of this theology was directed principally to the impoverished nations of the Third World, many of its leading theorists were in fact European, and many of their theories evolved in institutions like the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. A leading Liberation theologian among the Jesuits, Jon Sobrino, was a Basque who taught at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador. All the students of the Society in Central America, in their training for the priesthood, learned their philosophy and theology at UCA, and many became zealous advocates of the theology of Liberation.

No country seemed more appropriate to put their theories into practice than El Salvador. A small, densely populated country, it was almost a caricature of a Central American banana republic. Of its five million inhabitants, most were mestizos (of mixed Spanish and Indian descent). The land could hardly sustain them, and what land there was, in the second half of the nineteenth century, had been enclosed to form plantations not of bananas but of coffee. Huge fortunes had been made by a few energetic and unscrupulous entrepreneurs. By the 1960s, more than half of the rural peasantry had no land. Sixty per cent of the land was owned by 2 per cent of the population. Nor was this disparity merely a matter of statistics. In the capital, San Salvador, huge mansions surrounded by fortified walls stood side by side with makeshift shacks with no drains, no water, no light and often no food.

The country was ruled in the interests of the landowning oligarchy, the famous 'fourteen families', who, though they may have had the mentality of the Spanish conquistadores, were often more recent arrivals with names like Schwartz, Schmidt, Dalton and Hill. There was both an army and a national guard to protect the 'security' of the nation from external enemies as well as from 'enemies' within--in particular those who dared protest against political oppression or low rates of pay who were called Communists or subversives.

It was armed and financed by the United States in the interests of its own security. However, the officers were not drawn from the landowning families themselves, but from impecunious members of the middle and lower-middle class. These soon learned, like Mao-tse-Tung, that power comes out of a barrel of a gun. There began a succession of coups and counter-coups which, together with frequently fraudulent elections, provided El Salvador with its assembly and a head of state.

It was in this classic case of an unjust society that the progressive priests and their catechists went to work in the late 1960s, organising workers and peasants into unions, staging protests and inculcating in students their duty as Christians to work for a better world. In this they were opposed not just by the army and the police, but at times by their fellow clergy in what came to be known as the 'traditional Church'. These included not just prelates who preferred the company of landowners to that of the unwashed poor, but also conscientious pastors who felt that their flocks were being led astray. Many of the diocesan priests had had grave misgivings about Liberation Theology. They may not have had doctorates from European universities, nor have been able to argue with erudite Jesuits like Jon Sobrino or Ignacio Ellacuria, but they resisted the progressives all the same because of their temporal and material concept of salvation.

To circumvent this opposition from within the Church, there arose the 'base communities', small groups of Christians who met together to study the Bible and decide for themselves, without the guidance of a priest, how to apply its teaching to their daily lives. The conclusions they reached invariably coincided with those reached by the Liberation theologians--to support, as the Council had commanded, organisations working for the common good--not bourgeois reformist parties like Duarte's Christian Democrats, but radical left-wing parties, and later the revolutionaries who had taken to the hills. For after the election of 1972, when power was denied to Duarte's Christian Democrats at the head of a united opposition, a guerilla group was formed, 'the Popular Liberation Force--Farabundo Marti', named after the Mexican revolutionary who had led a peasants' revolt in the 1930s. The FPL-FM, which was to evolve into the FMLN, had a specifically Marxist-Leninist ideology and set about assassinating politicians, landowners and army officers, and kidnapping or murdering the children of the landowning oligarchs.

The reaction of the army was a repression whose horrors continue to this day. The soldiers, often press-ganged from the peasantry, and originally trained by German advisers in the Prussian tradition, dispatched suspected guerillas, sometimes with no interrogation and invariably without due process of law.

To the Jesuits committed to the progressive Church, it was a case of the imperialist leopard showing its true spots. The greater the repression, the more zealous became their commitment to the people's cause. However, they still faced the opposition of the bishops, among them the then Archbishop of San Salvador, Luis Chavez y Gonzalez.

The priest who at the time was secretary to the Bishops' Conference of El Salvador, Mgr Freddy Delgado, describes the crisis which arose when the Archbishop dismissed a French priest, Father Bernardo Boulang, for engaging in political, not pastoral work. The progressive priests rallied to his defence. The Jesuit Father Ellacuria said that to expel Father Boulang was to stop the kind of authentic pastoral work that the church should have been doing in the past. A group of twenty-seven progressive priests protested to the Archbishop but Monsignor Chavez y Gonzalez stood firm and Father Boulang was expelled.

There was a further fracas when the bishops of El Salvador, at the end of 1972, decided to wrest control from the Jesuits of the diocesan seminary in San Salvador of San Jose de la Montana. It had become so politicised that some of its students had been recruited into a Marxist-Leninist cell by the director of the National University, Dr Fabio Castillo. (Two of these, Octavio Ortiz and Ernesto Barrera, were among the priests later killed by the armed forces.) Protests were organised but to no avail. The Jesuits left the seminary of San Jose de la Montana and went to live either in private houses, base communities, or at UCA. There the most progressive Jesuits shared one house, the less progressive another, while the old traditionalists were banished to El Carmen in Santa Tecla.

What this taught the progressive Jesuits, according to Mgr Delgado, was the importance of having a bishop, or better still, an archbishop sympathetic to their point of view. Their opportunity came with the appointment of Mgr Oscar Arnulfo Romero to the see of San Salvador. He had hitherto been considered a conservative pastor but there were traits to his character which gave the progressives reason to believe that they might convert him to their cause. According to the Bishop of Santa Ana, Mgr Marco Rene Revello, on the very day his appointment was announced, a meeting was called of forty progressive priests, led by Ignacio Ellacuria and Jon Sobrino (and including the diocesan priests Fabian Amaya and Ricardo Urioste), to 'analyse' the appointment of Mgr Romero. A list was drawn up on a blackboard of his strengths and weaknesses. In his favour it was agreed that he was an honest man, a man of the Church, a man of prayer and a charitable man. Against him, they wrote that he was ambitious for power (he was said to have admired both Mussolini and Pius XII while studying in Rome); that he was an insecure man who was afraid to stand alone; and that he was an inflexible man who, once he had made up his mind, would not change it.

They decided that their first step should be to stimulate his ambition by showing how, if he joined with them, he could become a great figure in the Church. Secondly, because he was so insecure, they would surround him and keep others away. Thirdly, if they could get a fixed idea into his head, then they would have him in their power.

They selected a committee of five diocesan priests to ask for 'a dialogue' with the newly appointed archbishop. They met with him the day after his appointment, and insisted that the officials of his episcopal curia should be sent away. Two nuns stood at the door to make sure they were not interrupted. Mgr Revello, the Bishop of Santa Ana, who had got wind of what was happening, came to warn Mgr Romero, but was not admitted. In his view, Romero decided that his diocese would be ungovernable if he did not throw in his lot with the progressives.

Thereafter, every Monday, the Jesuits Ignacio Ellacuria and Jon Sobrino, would meet with the diocesan priests Jesus Delgado, Fabian Amaya and Ricardo Urioste to decide which of them would contribute what to the Archbishop's sermon on the following Sunday. On the Thursday they would meet again to put the different sections together, and on the Friday the homily would be given to Mgr Romero. This was not only preached from the pulpit, but broadcast throughout the country on the Catholic radio. On 24 March Romero pronounced that 'no soldier is obliged to obey an order to kill if it runs contrary to his conscience'. The next day he was killed.


Today, ten years later, the division between the progressive and the traditional Church remains as pronounced as ever. To the progressives Mgr Romero is the archetypal martyr of the modern age, 'the greatest figure in the Latin American Church', a Jesuit told me, 'for half a century'. The Bishop of Santa Ana, however, sees Romero not as a Christian martyr but 'as a hero who died for a cause'. To the current Archbishop of San Salvador, Mgr Arturo Rivera Damas, and his coadjutor Bishop, Mgr Rosa Chavez, Romero was certainly a martyr and they continue to speak out against the abuse of human rights. Mgr Rosa Chavez warned me, however, that I should distinguish between the homilies of a pastor and the opinions of a theologian. Ellacuria had been killed for his opinions, Romero for performing his duties as a priest.

The same distinction was made by Fr Jesus Delgado, now parish priest of the church next to the seminary of St Jose de la Montana. A priest in the exercise of his pastoral duties must sometimes conceal his opinions. Though himself enraged at the disparity between rich and poor in his own parish, where hovels with no plumbing stand in the shadows of the satellite dishes on the rooves of the fortified villas of the rich, he expresses his opinions through example by encouraging the poor to dig their own drains, and the rich to pay for the free breakfasts which he gives to the hungry children of his parish every Sunday after the 7 a.m. Mass. One of the ladies who helped him said to me approvingly: 'We have a very fine priest. He helps the poor but keeps out of politics.'

Such discretion in El Salvador, I soon learned, showed not just modesty but common sense. Traditionalists as well as progressives were afraid to express their opinions. I was told that Francisco Peccorini, a professor of philosophy and former Jesuit, who had been the only man with the intelligence to counter the arguments of Ignacio Ellacuria on the televised debates about the state of the nation, had been assassinated by the FMLN. According to Mgr Barreiro, the current Secretary to the Bishops' Conference, all the apologists for the Right had either been killed or had fled abroad. Mgr Freddy Delgado, the brother of Father Jesus and a member of the Government's Human Rights Commission, lived in fear of his life. After writing a pamphlet exposing Communist manipulation of the Popular Church, fellow priests in the FMLN had sent a unit to assassinate him. It is not difficult, in El Salvador, to know where the sympathies of a priest lie. A portrait of the Pope betrays a traditionalist; a portrait of Romero a progressive. In the office of Father Rogelio Pedraz, the Jesuit in charge of the publishing press at UCA, there did not even seem to be a crucifix, only a portrait of Romero. He described very vividly his conversion to the cause of the Popular Church through his experience of oppression in Latin America. He defends the violence of the guerillas on the grounds that 'in this country, no one will give anything unless it is taken from them'. And if the Church is being used by the Left, 'Well, it was used by the Right in the past, so let the Left have a turn.'

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 acclaimed╩late actor. He resides in London.

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