José Gregorio Rosa Chávez collaborated closely with Archbishop Oscar Romero, the “voice of the voiceless” during the start of El Salvador’s brutal 12-year civil war who was gunned down in 1980 by a right-wing death squad as he celebrated Mass.
Now Rosa Chávez — a freshly minted cardinal, the first in the Central American nation’s history — is coming to Long Island. Local church officials hope he will provide solace to a community battered by gang violence, a crackdown on immigrants and a perception among some that the people from his country are prone to criminal conduct.
The visit is “going to be a powerful moment,” said Bishop John Barres, leader of the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s 1.5 million Catholics, who invited Rosa Chávez. “With all this beautiful community has been through, we are going to celebrate this great moment in the Church, this great appointment, this great . . . direct experience of Oscar Romero.”
Rosa Chávez, 74, who is scheduled to arrive Thursday night, will conduct what Barres calls a “Pope Francis-type” visit: He will meet with inmates at the Nassau County jail, stop at a Catholic Charities immigration services office, and say Masses at local parishes and high schools. His public events begin Friday morning and end Sunday night.
A Mass on Saturday night will be at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood — one of the largest Latino parishes on the Island, located in the heart of a community struggling with the killings and brutality perpetrated by the MS-13 gang.
Rosa Chávez’s elevation to cardinal by Pope Francis in May electrified Salvadorans and sent a jolt through the Catholic Church.
He was the first auxiliary bishop named a cardinal in church history, according to the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter and a longtime Vatican observer. In the highly unusual move, Rosa Chávez overleapt bishops and archbishops, including his superior in the Archdiocese of San Salvador.
“It’s an extraordinary appointment,” Reese said. “It’s mind-boggling — an auxiliary bishop as a cardinal. What is this pope going to do next?”
Cardinals have a preeminence in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is second only to the pope, who is elected by the College of Cardinals.
Many of the estimated 100,000 Salvadorans on Long Island, one of the largest such concentrations in the United States, are overwhelmed that Rosa Chávez is coming here.
“It’s such a great honor,” said Yanira Chacón, a Salvadoran who works in community outreach at St. Brigid’s parish in Westbury. Chacón said she was at Romero’s funeral on March 30, 1980, when soldiers opened fire on the massive crowd, killing at least 30 people.
“He is the best auxiliary bishop we have had in El Salvador,” she said. “My hope is that with him being here, everybody is going to see the other face our community has.”
Barres envisages the visit as providing inspiration for a shaken Latino community and highlighting that most of them are hardworking, churchgoing, family-oriented people who came to the United States for the same reasons other immigrants have — freedom and the opportunity for a better life.
In an open letter announcing Rosa Chávez’s visit, he wrote of the aim to “promote a Culture of Life as a response to gang violence and its Culture of Death, specifically by comforting and supporting grieving families and by appealing for the conversion of the hearts, minds and souls of gang members.”
The MS-13 gang, which got its start in the United States during El Salvador’s 1980-92 civil war and now operates in both countries, has terrorized the Latino community with a series of killings whose brutality stunned even longtime law enforcement officials.
Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), a former Suffolk County police officer who helped investigate hate crimes against Latinos dating to an infamous attack on two Mexican day laborers in 2000 in Farmingville, said the cardinal’s visit is especially important not only because of the gang violence but also in light of the history of animosity on Long Island toward Latinos.
That culminated with the November 2008 fatal stabbing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue, for which seven youths were convicted and sentenced to prison.
The antipathy toward Latinos “was so commonplace and accepted years ago that we actually had county legislators giving letters of recommendation to the murderers of Marcelo Lucero during their sentencing,” Ramos said. “We’re in a better place today with better leaders on Long Island, but I would hate to see a resurgence of that” as a result of rhetoric from some elected officials, including President Donald Trump, he said.
Pope Francis appointed Rosa Chávez a cardinal in late May. Rosa Chávez dedicated his appointment to Romero, telling the Catholic News Service that he believed Romero himself would have been made a cardinal, “but he will have to receive it in heaven due to his martyrdom.” His installation was in late June in Rome.
Rosa Chávez’s elevation prompted praise from many sectors in El Salvador, but not all. The country’s foreign ministry said he was “fundamental in the process of dialogue and negotiation” that helped end the war between leftist guerrillas and a right-wing U.S.-backed government that targeted priests, nuns and lay leaders in the church. Among those killed were four religious women from the United States, including two nuns from the Ossining-based Maryknoll Sisters, in 1980.
Rosa Chávez has said that he and Romero “lived in difficult times, priests being murdered and things like that, so we walked together all the time. It was a very intense experience, but very beautiful.”
Patrick Young, of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead, said Rosa Chávez “is well-known for his work on behalf of the poor in Central America and for speaking out at great risk to himself for the dignity and integrity of the poor people throughout the region.”
During the civil war, Rosa Chávez was outspoken about the government’s abuses, and publicly identified the alleged perpetrators of the killings of six Jesuit priests in 1989. He received death threats, with critics calling him a “communist priest.”
El Salvador remains polarized between an affluent elite and a poor majority, and those at the top have not all celebrated Rosa Chávez’s elevation, local Salvadoran leaders said. While he personally thinks it is a monumental achievement for his tiny homeland, “I know there are many [conservative] groups that are not happy,” said Luis Montes, a Salvadoran-American and former assistant deputy county executive in Suffolk.
The Rev. William Brisotti, pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Wyandanch, said he got to know Rosa Chávez in the 1980s when Brisotti worked in camps set up for refugees fleeing the violence in El Salvador. Rosa Chávez helped oversee some of the camps, which were organized by the Catholic Church.
“He is certainly a man of the Church, but he is a man of the people,” Brisotti said. “He certainly is continuing the spirit of Romero.”
Francisco Cales, head of the Rockville Centre diocese’s New Evangelization office and former head of its Hispanic Ministry division, has known Rosa Chávez for more than two decades and has had him stay at his home during previous visits here.
He said Romero was Rosa Chávez’s mentor and that the cardinal often walks the streets of San Salvador, stopping at food stands to talk with average people and eating the national dish, “pupusas.”
“This is a pastor who smells like the sheep,” Cales said, referring to a phrase Pope Francis has used in saying he wants bishops and parish priests who are close to their flock.
While many Salvadorans and others are elated by Rosa Chávez’s impending visit to Long Island, not all think his stay will quickly resolve such vexing issues as the gang problem.
Though she admires the new cardinal and welcomes his visit, the gangs “are not a problem you are going to solve from one day to the next,” said Matilde Parada, a local Salvadoran leader from Uniondale.
Cardinal José Gregorio Rosa Chávez
1942: Born in rural El Salvador
1970: Ordained a priest
1977: Named head of communications department for Archdiocese of San Salvador after Oscar Romero is made archbishop
1982: Appointed auxiliary bishop of Archdiocese of San Salvador
2017: Named cardinal by Pope Francis
The Cardinal on Long Island
3 p.m. Pastoral visit to Catholic Charities Immigration Center, Amityville
Morning Pastoral visit to Nassau County jail
1 p.m. Welcoming ceremony and talk at St. John the Baptist High School, West Islip
2 p.m. Mass at St. John the Baptist High School
7:30 p.m. Mass at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, Brentwood
9 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Loretto Roman Catholic Church, Hempstead
1 p.m. Welcoming ceremony and talk at Kellenberg Memorial High School, Uniondale
2 p.m. Mass at Kellenberg Memorial High School