In Washington, Salvadoran diaspora in awe of first Salvadoran cardinal

IMAGE: CNS photo/Octavio Duran

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — As El Salvador’s first cardinal receives
his red hat June 28 at the Vatican, he will have the eyes of his flock at home but
also of the Washington area, home to approximately 260,000 Salvadorans — one
of the largest communities of Salvadorans outside of the Central American nation.

Cardinal-designate Gregorio Rosa Chavez has been a pastor,
not just inside El Salvador, said Capuchin Franciscan Father Moises Villalta.

For years, he has frequently visited Salvadorans abroad, including
many who were forced to flee their native country during its civil conflict from
the late 1970s until the early 1990s, said Father Villalta, a native of El
Salvador and pastor at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington. He has
tried to learn about the diaspora and even spent time teaching some
expats and their children El Salvador’s national popular spiritual hymn, which
is an ode to Christ as “savior of the world.”

“He has come (to the United States) to listen, to strengthen
our faith ‘ to be a pastor and representative of the Salvadoran church for
those of us who live abroad. ‘ He has known how to guide us,” said Father
Villalta, who, like many of his Salvadoran parishioners, fled El
Salvador during the war..

The priest is serving as the cardinal-designate’s personal secretary during
the consistory at the Vatican, or formal meeting of the College of Cardinals meeting, that will yield El Salvador’s first
cardinal and four other new cardinals for the church.

Salvadorans in Washington’s Catholic circles were happy and in awe when
they heard in the early morning May 21 the news via social media that the man
who has often visited them would be named a cardinal, said Father Villalta.

“You could feel the joy of the Salvadoran community in the
exterior,” he told Catholic News Service. “It was such a great honor. At Mass, you could tell in
people’s faces ‘ the pride.”

And El Salvador needs good news. In 2016, it was named the world’s
most deadly country outside a war zone because of its homicide rate, with rampant
gangs terrorizing the citizenry, driving many to seek refuge abroad. Even
before gangs were a problem, the country’s citizens suffered during a 12-year
civil conflict that included the 1980 assassination of the country’s Archbishop
Oscar Romero, a friend and mentor of the cardinal-designate.

Trinitarian Father Juan J. Molina, director of the U.S.
bishops’ Office for the Church in Latin America, said in naming as a cardinal the man who
for many years has served as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, the
church recognizes his fidelity to the Gospel but also singles out an example of
justice and solidarity that Cardinal-designate Rosa Chavez expressed in his loyalty to the
memory of Blessed Oscar Romero.

“He did so in a time when that was not appreciated ‘ and did
it at a personal cost. For the Salvadoran diaspora, that’s very important,”
said Father Molina, who is originally from El Salvador. “We cannot leave behind
the ideals of the Gospel wherever we are just because we want to be accepted
and recognized.”

Sonia Marlene Aquino, a Catholic Salvadoran living in Washington, said
the cardinal-designate has set an example, not just for Salvadorans but for the
rest of the church. However, there is a certain degree of pride that such a “testimony
of love” comes from her native country, she said.

“His humility is like the fertile land in our beloved El
Salvador,” she said. “Good fruit has been obtained through his prayers,
perseverance and love for the people. His works, especially toward those who
are most in need and marginalized, are testimony to what Jesus asks of each of

During the country’s sufferings, including the war, natural
disasters, and now the gang problems, he has known how to stay calm and close
to the suffering of his flock, said Aquino.

Some of that suffering is reflected in the new cardinal’s coat
of arms, which features a palm frond as a symbol of the Salvadoran church’s
persecution and martyrdom, a hand grabbing another hand, a symbol of the church’s
option for the poor, and a sprig of rosemary because in Spanish “Romero,” the
last name of the slain archbishop, means rosemary.

His motto is “Christ is our peace,” and peace is something
the new cardinal stands for at a critical time in El Salvador, said Father

“The Salvadoran society very much needs a conciliatory
person who helps the different factions to reconcile and to forgive, ” he said.
“It’s not just a slogan, but he really is a person who has peace and can bring
forth peace. … There is a lot of talk about peace in El Salvador, but in reality, we
do not have it.”

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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