It is election day in El Salvador! For the capital city of San Salvador, there were candidates from all the major parties standing for alcade (mayor) and for the city council. Several districts were also electing members to the national legislature.
The pending election has been an important part of the background of the country the entire time we've been here. Along all the highways, there are campaign signs, party flags, and banners extoling the various parties' slogans. The main two parties, the FMLN (center left) and the ARENA (center right), have the most supporters. They also have some of the catchiest slogans. For FMLN, party of the current mayor, the main slogan is "Con tu voto... el cambio sigue" (With your vote, the change continues). For ARENA, the party out of power in San Salvador, the signs mostly say, "Defiende tu voto!" (Defend your vote!).
Because of the election, our Maryknoll leaders suggested that today would be a good day for us to remain within the retreat center compound. We were intially confused when they suggested this; I, for one, was disappointed that we would not see the Salvadoran democratic process in action. Once our missioners explained why it was prudent for us, as foreigners, to remain discreet today, it was a sobering remidner of the great suffering that the Salvadoran people have endured in the past forty years.
It was only in 1992 when the long-running civil strife between left and right was settled in a treaty of reconciliation. Despite the settlement, and the uneasy peace between the government and the former rebels, there still exists the possibility for political violence, particularly during times of transition and election.
Our day began with Morning Prayer and Holy Mass, and Fr. David led us and the Assumption Sisters in the celebration of the Third Sunday of Lent. We heard the Gospel of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, and it was particularly poignant to hear how we, as missionaries, are called to give not only physical water, but also living water, to those we have been called here to serve.
After Mass, we gathered for breakfast, which was a great example of Salvadoran culture. Surprisingly, what Americans would call "dinner rolls" and refried beans were an integral part of our meal, and fresh Salvadoran papaya and coffee helped wash it down.
When we finished breakfast, we gathered in the retreat center hall to meet the entire Salvadoran delegation of Maryknoll lay missioners. It was a great honor to meet such dedicated men and women who, along with our missioner guides Erica and Rick, have given over their lives to the service of God's suffering people in El Salvador. We learned about the various projects that they are undertaking to help provide for the physical and spiritual needs of the Salvadorans, from orphanages to housing to sustainable foods and gang-violence prevention.
We also had the great joy of helping the lay missioners divide up the toiletries, toys, clothes, educational materials, and religious articles which the schoolchildren of the Parish Church of St. James the Less so generously donated. The missioners were so excited about what they were going to be able to do for the men, women, and children they serve with the items that were given, and it was a special experience of solidarity and communion to share the moment with the missioners.
During the presentation of the projects operating in the country under the auspices of Maryknoll, the Maryknoll Fathers and Sisters arrived. By the time everyone arrived, all of the Maryknoll family in El Salvador was gathered together in our retreat center! We learned about the missions of the fathers and sisters, including work with AIDS ministry, parishes, prison ministry, and solidarity with the Salvadoran poor.
After the presentations we went to lunch, and we enjoyed some outstanding roasted and fried barbeque chicken, with french fries and cabbage salad. To go with our meal, the sisters provided pineapple nectar. The members of our delegation got to spend lots of quality time with the Maryknoll fathers and sisters, and it was also joyful to see the Maryknoll family reunite in one of their rare opportunties to be together.
Once lunch was over, we gathered once more in the retreat center hall to hear a presentation from Fr. John, one of the Maryknoll fathers who lived through turbulent 1970s and 1980s and who knew the Servant of God Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose cause for canonization as a martyr has been opened in Rome. Fr. John's story enthralled us: he was a witness to history. Father was on the steps of the Cathedral Church of the Savior of the World (Salvador del Mundo, the title of our Lord for which the country is named) as Archbishop Romero's body was carried out of the church in 1980.
More than just a story of the Archbishop's martyrdom, Fr. John shared with us the great impact and influence of his life and ministry on the Salvadoran Church and people. He emphasized the Archbishop's faithfulness to the magisterium of the Church and his unwavering dedication to the Church's teaching on the preferential option for the poor. We asked Father many questions, and what was originally supposed to be a thirty-minute presentation ended up lasting almost an hour and a half.
We took the opportunity for a Sunday afternoon siesta after Father's presentation, and when we had returned once more to the retreat center hall, we watched the 1989 film 'Romero,' a biographical motion picture about the life and martyrdom of the Archbishop.
Once the film was completed, we prayed Evening Prayer together, ate dinner, and came back together for a time of reflection on the day's activities.
For me, the discussion of the Servant of God Oscar Romero on Election Day in El Salvador was very profound. Not only did the Archbishop's sacrifice give spiritual hope to the people, but his life, ministry, and witness in death also helped eventually lead to the country's current competitive, mostly-free elections. El Salvador still has a long way to go toward justice for all its citizens, but thanks to the leadership of Archbishop Romero and the Maryknoll fathers, sisters, and lay missioners, not to mention the Salvadoran people themselves, there is great hope for the future.
-- Dillon Barker (Dillon is a seminarian for the Diocese of Nashville, in his first year of study for the priesthood at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus).