Wilfredo Vasquez was 4 years old when his family fled El Salvador’s brutal military and “death squads” because his parents — religious teachers in the Roman Catholic Church — were a likely target.
On Sunday, the Wyandanch resident will celebrate the canonization of the priest who most famously stood up to the repression and called on the soldiers and Salvadoran government to stop: Archbishop Oscar Romero, who at a ceremony in Rome will be made the first saint from El Salvador.
For Vasquez and thousands of other Salvadorans on Long Island, the ceremony, led by Pope Francis, will be the culminating moment for a man many have considered a saint from the day he was assassinated in 1980.
“It fills us with much pride, with much happiness,” Vasquez, 40, said in Spanish. “We have waited for this for many years.”
Romero, known as the “voice of the voiceless,” was killed for defending the poor and denouncing the violence leading to El Salvador’s bloody 1980-1992 civil war, which left 75,000 people dead. The victims included three American nuns and one laywoman, six Jesuit priests, and thousands of teachers, community organizers and church volunteers, most killed by death squads and the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military, according to a United Nations Truth Commission.
It was a country where posters declared “Be a Patriot, Kill a Priest,” and where decapitated heads of victims were placed on fence posts to terrorize the population.
Romero, whose weekly homilies became a main source of information about the repression in a Central American nation where the government and wealthy elites controlled the media, was gunned down by a sniper from a right-wing death squad on March 24, 1980. He was celebrating Mass in the small chapel at a cancer hospital where he lived.
Romero “was greatly opposed by the government and by the U.S. embassy and also the rest of the bishops weren’t too happy” with some of the things he did, such as opening church properties to thousands of people afraid for their lives, said the Rev. William Brisotti, a priest on Long Island who spent months working with displaced people in El Salvador during the war.
“He was very firm that the gospel is about justice for the poor,” Brisotti said. “He never backed off of that.”
Romero’s path to sainthood was delayed for decades under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who expressed concern over his connection to “Liberation Theology” and its preferential option for the poor, and his denunciations of the government-sponsored killings, kidnappings and torture.
Francis, the first pope from Latin America and a Jesuit, put Romero on the track for sainthood less than two years into his papacy when he formally declared in February 2015 that the archbishop was assassinated as a martyr for the faith.
On Long Island, home to an estimated 100,000 Salvadorans, one of the largest concentrations in the United States, this weekend will be filled with events celebrating Romero’s elevation to sainthood.
Special Masses in his honor are being held in at least eight parishes, with Bishop John Barres presiding at ceremonies in Brentwood and Hempstead. Barres, who considers Romero one of his heroes, has released a special pastoral letter about the archbishop, noting that even many atheists and agnostics admire Romero’s human rights legacy.
Romero “showed the world how a successor to the apostles should lead,” Barres said. “He died as a witness to the truths of the Catholic faith, but most especially he died proclaiming Catholicism’s focus on the inherent dignity of every human being.”
Some parishes will be showing the 1989 film “Romero” starring Raul Julia. Next weekend St. Luke Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood will unveil a statue of Romero.
Some 120 people from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, including priests, nuns, deacons, seminarians and lay people, have traveled to Rome as pilgrims for the canonization, diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan said.
“I think it is an historical moment, a moment which will bring many blessings to the universal church,” said Deacon Francisco Cales, who as head of the diocese’s Hispanic Apostolate is leading the pilgrimage to Rome.
Vasquez said his family fled El Salvador in 1982 for Honduras, and did not return until 1993 when the war had ended. He came to the United States in 2000.
On Sunday, he will participate in a Mass at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch, during which a musical group will sing some of Romero’s favorite songs from El Salvador’s countryside.
“My parents instilled in me a love for Romero,” Vasquez said. “He was on the side of the poor.”