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Ottawa resident recalls work with Romero in El Salvador

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — A former member of El Salvador’s national police force, Jose Escobar used to catechize people who were preparing for sacraments in his parish.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980, and beatified by Pope Francis on May 23, visited the parish several times to observe what Escobar was doing.

“He saw I was doing well, so he said to the priest, ‘We can trust him,’ ” Escobar said in an interview at his home in Ottawa. “I like the way he teaches the people. We can work together with him and he can help us to protect the people.”

Romero faced opposition and threats to his life from all sides, Escobar said. Though he stressed the preferential option for the poor from the beginning of his episcopate, the Communists thought he was with the government. Government paramilitary groups were killing poor people, farmers, labourers, student leaders, priests and catechists. They would give 5,000 pesos (about $500) for the killing of a priest, Escobar said.

Many of the people in his parish sympathized with the Communists, but Escobar tried to stick with the Gospel and the church’s teaching, steering a middle course which he said the archbishop appreciated. When police or military would come to search for weapons, they would recognize Escobar as a police officer and take his word that no weapons were present.

The government, however, had his parish priest arrested three times, then exiled him from the country. Romero told Escobar he was afraid if he appointed another priest government militia would kill him right away. He could not ask new seminarians to come since they had told him they were afraid they and their families would be killed. So he asked Escobar to lead the parish.

“We have to work together,” Escobar said the archbishop told him. “You don’t go for any ideology. That’s good.” Romero told him he did not want any member of the community dying for an ideology. He gave him the task of being the spiritual guide for the parish.

Spies from the paramilitary were infiltrating his community. “I had to take care not to say anything against the government,” Escobar said. Romero visited and was surprised to find the church so full considering they had no priest. Many from the community were being manipulated by the guerillas and trying to recruit them, but Escobar steered a pastoral course. On one of his visits he told Escobar: “Congratulations, you are doing a great job.”

He came about once a month to run retreats at the parish. Meanwhile persecution against Catholics was increasing, as anyone who identified as a member of the church was considered “dangerous to the government,” Escobar said.
People had to avoid carrying a Bible, a book, a camera, even a piece of paper or risk being killed on the spot, he said.

Despite the turmoil, Romero was honest, polite, friendly, Escobar said. He and others thought he acted like a saint. He never got angry, even when people insulted him. He would give away his clothing to the needy right on the spot. He had enemies on both sides, and he began to wonder where he would die, and who would kill him, Escobar said. The parish had many problems and every time Escobar approached the archbishop for help, “He never said, ‘I’m sorry Jose, I can’t do anything.’ He always gave us hope.”

Escobar became aware members of the national police force and the army were complicit in murders that included massacres of small communities. He told his wife Josephine, “This is not right.”

“When I became a policeman, I wanted to protect people not kill people,” he said.

His wife Josephine encouraged him to quit. “I don’t think we will die if you no longer work for the police,” she said. The couple had four small children at the time.

Leaving the police force, however, would make him a target.

He went to work for a local family that owned a funeral home. As the civil war picked up, many more killings took place. Escobar’s job was to pick up the bodies. He said he arrived at some massacres while the perpetrators were still there, cleaning off their knives. Escobar stopped staying overnight at his home, for fear of paramilitary groups. After seeing so many dead bodies, he could no longer eat meat. “I was getting very skinny,” he said.

“The only one that cared for the people was the archbishop,” Escobar said. But the division that wracked the country also went through the church as well. “Some in the church opposed him; some wanted him to be more extreme.”

He was not merely a simple bishop or pastor, he was “almost like a father attending the people,” inspiring their “trust and confidence,” said Escobar. “He was my spiritual guide.”

Escobar recalled the last retreat Romero gave his parish. During a question and answer session afterward, the archbishop told them: “Listen brothers and sisters, it is OK if you have to run from the persecution, if you have a chance to save your life do it, because you have the right to do the best that you can not only for you, but also for your families. I don’t want innocent saints out of any of you.”

I know that for me it is impossible to run, because as pastor that I am, I will never abandon my sheep,” he said.

Then Romero warned Escobar he would be threatened for the humanitarian work he was doing. He advised him that if he receives a threat not to wait for the second but to get out of El Salvador immediately and go to Mexico. He gave him the name of two bishops there, and said to go see them if he needed help.

“Even if I am dead they will receive you in my name,” the archbishop told him. “Take your family with you and don’t worry about the rest, because I will bless you and your family always everywhere you go.”
Escobar believes the archbishop prophesied his family’s exit from El Salvador.

It took nearly a year for Escobar to flee El Salvador, leaving Josephine and the children behind. He managed to cross the border into Mexico, even though he didn’t have any money and immigration officials would have deported him had they found out.

In one instance he fled officials into the lobby of a hotel where he found a group of nuns. He snuck under the skirt of one especially tall sister, pleading with her to keep quiet. He spent two weeks in Chiapas, Mexico, without food, until a kind police officer with the same last name lent him money to travel to Mexico City. There, sure enough, the name of Archbishop Oscar Romero opened doors for him and he was able to obtain a job.

Now, the Escobars live in Ottawa. Two of their five children are religious sisters; two sons are engineers. Their youngest daughter is still at home. Jose Escobar believes the intercession of Archbishop Romero helped him and his family every step of their sometimes gruelling journey from El Salvador, to Mexico and eventually to Canada.

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