Lessons learned from Oscar Romero, the former archbishop and Robert White who was serving as ambassador to El Salvador.
If you want to get a certain kind of Irish Catholic hot under the collar these days, ask them about the caravan of Central Americans barreling towards the Texas border.
But before they can mute the angry voices on Fox News, ask them the second question, about the men recently canonized as saints by the Catholic Church. That would include (among others) Pope Paul VI, who oversaw the implementation of many of the reforms debated during Vatican II in the late 1960s, and who also wrote the famous encyclical Humanae Vitae, affirming the church’s staunch opposition to birth control. Also canonized was Oscar Romero, former archbishop of El Salvador.
As Politico’s Raymond Bonner noted in 2015, “As hard as it is to fathom today, at that time the tiny nation (of El Salvador)…was on the front burner of American foreign policy, as Syria, Iraq, ISIS, are today. The fear then was Communism.
“In neighboring Nicaragua, the Sandinistas had overthrown the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, whose family had ruled and looted the country for decades, with American acquiescence.”
By 1980, Romero decided that his devotion should be with the poor and suffering of El Salvador. And he paid for that decision. He was assassinated while saying mass in March of 1980.
As Patsy McGarry noted in The Irish Times, “Archbishop Romero’s canonization has long been opposed at the Vatican and by powerful conservatives in the Latin American church who believe he had become too political in life and even more so in death. This changed with the election of Pope Francis in 2013.”
What is easy to forget, amidst the pomp and circumstance of Romero’s elevation to sainthood, is that he had an Irish American counterpart.
At the time of Romero’s assassination, Robert White was serving as ambassador to El Salvador.
White was the “son of Irish immigrants,” Raymond Bonner noted, and “enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 and served in the Pacific during World War II” before attending St. Michael’s College in Vermont, as well as the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Once posted to El Salvador, White-faced a seemingly impossible choice: to support the right-wing death squads who were favored by American anti-communists, or the revolutionary forces who aligned themselves with the neediest El Salvadorans.
Things did always play out quite this simple. Still, no small amount of blood was shed.
Just months after Romero’s assassination, Irish American nuns Maura Clarke and Ita Forde, as well as missionary Jean Donovan, were raped and murdered not far from El Salvador International Airport, where they had been stopped by National Guardsmen aligned with the ruling military government.
White had even eaten dinner with several of the victims the night before they were killed. He oversaw the exhumation of the victims’ bodies when they were discovered.
"In El Salvador,” White wrote in March of 1980, “the rich and powerful have systematically defrauded the poor and denied 80 percent of the people any voice in the affairs of their country."
And yet, in keeping with Cold War politics, the Carter and Reagan administrations supported El Salvador’s anti-Communist regime, looking the other way again and again whenever atrocities were committed.
Robert White could not do that.
“White, who worked for seven presidents, served America by refusing to lie -- holding firm even when pressured to sweep murder under the rug by the Reagan Administration -- an act of principle and integrity that cost him his career,” Bonner noted.
And don’t kid yourself: One of the many reasons desperate Central Americans are trying to get to the U.S. is because of the Cold War meddling Robert White abhorred.
White was eventually forced out of service, in 1981. The elevation of Oscar Romero reminds us of White’s bravery which was, well, almost saintly.