Cartas Pastorales

Fourth Pastoral Letter – The Church’s Mission amid the National Crisis

To my beloved brothers and sisters, the priests, religious, and laity of the archdiocese of San Salvador, and to all other Salvadorans of good will: the peace of Jesus Christ, our divine Savior.


[1] To call ourselves the Republic of the Savior (Republica de El Salvador), and each year to celebrate, as our titular feast, the mystery of the transfiguration of our Lord is, for us Salvadorans, a true privilege. It was not only through the piety of Don Pedro de Alvarado that we were baptized with so majestic a title, as the servant of God, Pope Pius XII, reminded us in his outstanding address to our Eucharistic Congress of 1942. It was the providence of God that baptized us, the providence that gives each people its own name, its own place, and its own mission.

To hear each August 6 the voice of the Father in our church’s liturgy proclaiming that our patron is none other than My Son, the beloved, and that our duty is to listen to him, constitute our most precious historical and religious legacy, and the most effective motivation for our hopes as Christians in El Salvador.

That is why I feel it one of my most important pastoral duties to make real here and now, for the archdiocese that the Lord has given into my charge, this legacy, and to revitalize that motivation in line with the new circumstances in which, each August 6, we find ourselves. In these new circumstances there is one constant: the challenge, made in love, of Christ’s transfiguration, which should lead to the transfiguration of our people. This is the traditional challenge of the divine Savior to our homeland and to the church. It is unchangeable — as unchangeable as the truth and revelation of God. It ought to enlighten the changing realities of our history. We must learn to express it in the language spoken by persons of today, as their new needs and their new hopes demand it.

My Three Earlier Pastoral Letters

[2] My first two pastoral letters, in 1977, were inspired by the new situation of the archdiocese of San Salvador. I wrote the first when I replaced the distinguished Archbishop Luis Chávez y González, and it was my letter of introduction. It was a profession of faith, of confidence in the Spirit of the Lord who builds up and encourages, who gives unity and progress to the church even when the human beings who are its members and who direct it change. Under the title The Easter Church, I wanted to dwell on the circumstances, both liturgical and actual, of lent, Passiontide, and Easter that marked that moment of replacement. In The Church, the Body of Christ in History I tried to deepen that same idea of the church and of its service to the world as a prolongation of the mission of Christ. I wrote it for August 6, 1977. 1 recalled the history — intense, tragic, but also paschal — of my first six months in this beloved see.

And once again for August 6, Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas of Santiago de Maria and I last year wrote the pastoral letter The Church and Popular Political Organizations. We had together made an ad limina visit to the unforgettable Pope Paul VI. Our contact with that outstanding pontiff, who so well understood the modern world, had been illuminating, and it inspired us to give a response in faith to the highly unusual political anxieties of our people.

I bless the Lord for the good that that letter brought about. And it goes on bringing it about, for some of our Christian communities have taken it as an outline for reflection. I bless God, too, for the generous, enthusiastic welcome that communities, institutions, and publications elsewhere on this continent and also in Europe have given it. Annexed to that third letter and published in a separate section there were three studies: The National Situation in Which the Church Develops Its Mission, The Word of God and Human Misery, and The Most Recent Teaching of the Church. I believe that they have fulfilled their purpose by enriching your reflection on the letter.

So I ask you now, keep the three previous letters in mind when studying this one. I will not repeat myself here, but I will take for granted many concepts that have been examined in the earlier ones.

The Reasons for This Fourth Pastoral Letter

[3] On this new celebration of the transfiguration of our Lord, the light of this feast day illumines the new situation in which the country and the archdiocese find themselves. It is right to think of our life in that light.

In El Salvador new kinds of sufferings and outrages have driven our national life along the road of violence, revenge, and resentment. As Puebla describes them, these are the anxieties and frustrations which have been caused by sin, which has very broad personal and social dimensions. But, thanks be to God, we also feel that there are in our nation those hopes and expectations of our people [that] arise from their deeply religious sense and their richness as human beings (Puebla, 73)

[4] For its part the church has this year lived through new situations that have made it better able, in accordance with its own nature, to identify with the people in its anxieties and frustrations, hopes and expectations.

Outstanding among these new events was the Third General Conference of the Latin American Bishops, which took place at Puebla, Mexico, at the beginning of the year. Under the overall theme of evangelization at present and in the future of Latin America, that new Pentecost of our continent brought together the rich heritage of our history and urged the church onward into the century to come. At Puebla we were able to call upon the unique inheritance left to the church by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, as his holiness Pope John Paul II called it in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, when he was discoursing on the new era of John Paul.  Like the one at Medellin ten years before, the assembly at Puebla was a new step forward for the church on our continent. It was an effort to follow the policy for renewal that Vatican Council II spelled out, and which those two immortal pontiffs of our time brought to a happy conclusion.

In Memory of Paul VI and John Paul II

[5] It is fitting to recall here again, as I did last year, the eloquent coincidence of Paul VI’s death and our own titular feast of the transfiguration. Since his holy death on August 6 last year, how many signs during the pontificates of his successors have drawn attention to the evangelical grandeur of the church! The very tomb of Paul VI, which I visited this year with devout admiration and filial affection and gratitude, highlights a new style of simplicity and humility in the service of the church. I recalled there beside the tomb the warmth of his two hands grasping mine scarcely a year ago, as he told me of his concern and love for our homeland. He recommended that I stand with my people in their demand for justice, so that they might not turn aside into paths of hatred and violence.

And in Rome I likewise received from his holiness John Paul II both understanding and guidance for my difficult pastoral labor, as well as a ratification of my hierarchical communion with him and of my commitment to the people God has entrusted to me. The new pope’s attitude, and what he said, pointed to Christ as the only force for complete liberation, for in his name is demanded the highest respect for the dignity and for the freedom of men and women.

Commitment to Puebla and to my Archdiocese

[6] From this bountiful source of the papal magisterium, of the council, and of the Latin American bishops has sprung forth the spirit of Puebla.

This pastoral letter is intended to be a solemn witness of my acceptance of, and personal commitment to, that spirit. At the same time it will be a call — an urgent call, as the pope wished — to all priests, religious communities, and laity that in a short time all your ecclesial communities will be informed and suffused with the spirit of Puebla and the guidelines of this historic conference (Letter of Approval).

Archdiocesan Survey

[7] But the holy people of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office … under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority (Lumen Gentium, #12). And Paul VI of happy memory counseled us with the help of the Holy Spirit … in dialogue with other Christians and all men and women of good will, to discern the options and commitments that are called for in order to bring about the social, political, and economic changes seen in many cases to be urgently needed (Octogesima Adveniens, #4)

Taking account of the charism of dialogue and consultation, I wanted to prepare for this pastoral letter by undertaking a survey of my beloved priests and of the basic ecclesial communities of the archdiocese. I have been struck yet again by the maturity of the reflection, by the evangelical spirit, by the pastoral creativity, by the social and political sensibility expressed in the large number of replies. I have read them with great care.

Notwithstanding their occasional inaccuracies or doctrinal and pastoral impetuosity, they have served to stimulate that charism of teaching and of discernment with which the Lord has entrusted me. All the disquiet, all the suggestions made, have been taken into account. In thanking you very cordially, I want to repeat my invitation to continue this dialogue and reflection in the way that I began it a year ago when, fully conscious of my limitations, I made a call to the whole people of God to reflect on these matters in their local churches, with their pastors, and with the universal church, in the light of the gospel and in fidelity to the true identity of the church.

[8] To sum up, then, this pastoral letter is meant to be, as the title suggests, a formal consignment to the archdiocesan church of the Final Document of Puebla. And it is also an attempt, in the light of the theological and pastoral teaching contained in that document, to face up to the disquiet expressed by our local church in the present situation in our country. Backed by the universal magisterium of the Church and by the magisterium of the Church on this continent, I believe it possible to give expression to the views of the church of this archdiocese. At a time when it is a serious obligation in conscience on the part of every Salvadoran to contribute ideas and guidelines from within his or her special competence, the views of the church are its specific response, and contribution, to the country in its hour of crisis.

[9] I shall develop my thinking in four parts: (1) the national crisis seen in the light of Puebla; (2) the church’s contribution to the liberation of our people; (3) light on some concrete problems; (4) Puebla’s pastoral approach applied to the archdiocese.


Pastoral Criteria

[10] Pastoral Overview of the Reality that is Latin America is the title of the first part of the Puebla Final Document. From the very beginning, therefore, one is made to understand what are the criteria it uses to analyze the situation of the world that the church is to evangelize. Pastoral Criteria have also guided the first point in our survey of the archdiocese: the country’s present crisis and prospects for the future.

It is never to be forgotten that the church’s mission is in the realm of religion. It is not in the political, social, or economic realms. But nor is it to be forgotten that out of this religious mission itself came a function, a light, and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to divine law (Gaudium et Spes, #42).

With the Backing of Puebla

[11] Many would have liked Puebla to speak out more concretely on certain particular situations in Latin American countries. But in its analysis of, and evangelical judgment on, the situation in Latin America, there is enough to be found to allow each country or each pastor to draw material relevant to their own situations, and hence to speak with the collective voice of all the continent’s pastors.

In this pastoral letter, therefore, I want to back up the advice given by the archdiocese about the crisis in this country with the judgments approved at Puebla for the whole of Latin America.

Limits of This Analysis

[12] It is not my intention to undertake an exhaustive analysis of the economic, political, and social structures of El Salvador. A brief survey was offered last year as a leaflet appended to my third pastoral letter. Nor am I trying to offer a complete account of what has happened in this country — the events that have so much preoccupied us this year. I have been required, in my service to the word of God, to be faithful to the truth and to justice when I was faced with these events in the course of an event-filled year of our history. It has also been a great satisfaction to me to have had the opportunity to offer a pastoral service by means of the Legal Aid Bureau and the Secretariat for the Means of Social Communication of the Archdiocese in the difficult ups and downs of our communities and families, and of individuals.

One more observation. Even during the crisis in our country there are many positive signs, and it would be wrong not to recognize that fact. They give us solid ground for coming to see that we Salvadorans are capable, by using our intelligence, of finding a peace based on justice. It is not necessary to pay the high price of violence and of blood spilt for the liberation of our people. I give these hopeful signs due credit. They have my admiration. I am encouraged by them. But today it is not my intention to dwell upon them.

Here I am going to emphasize only the negative aspects of our country’s crisis which have been pointed out and remarked upon by our communities, because it is these that require our attention. To them I will apply the evangelical judgment that Puebla formulated for such situations.

At the Root of Social Injustice

[13] What Puebla asserted about social injustice throughout the continent is true of El Salvador. It has here a very tragic aspect, and it makes urgent Christian demands: there are today more people than ever living under conditions of great injustice. That muted cry of wretchedness that Medellin heard ten years ago, Puebla now describes as loud and clear, increasing in volume and intensity, and at times full of menace (Puebla, #89).  It calls the characteristics that delineate this situation of injustice the most devastating and humiliating kind of scourge (Puebla, #29). They are infant mortality, the housing shortage, health problems, starvation wages, unemployment, malnutrition, no job security, and so on:

This situation of pervasive extreme poverty takes on very concrete faces in real life. In these faces we ought to recognize the suffering features of Christ the Lord, who questions and challenges us. They include:
—the faces of young children, struck down by poverty before they are born, their chance for self-development blocked by irreparable mental and physical deficiencies; and of the vagrant children in our cities who are so often exploited, products of poverty and the moral disorganization of the family;

—the faces of young people, who are disoriented because they cannot find their place in society, and who are frustrated, particularly in marginal rural and urban areas, by the lack of opportunity to obtain training and work;

—the faces of the indigenous peoples, and frequently of the Afro-Americans as well; living marginalized lives in inhuman situations, they can be considered the poorest of the poor;

—the faces of the peasants; as a social group, they live as outcasts almost everywhere on our continent, deprived of land, caught in a situation of internal and external dependence, and subjected to systems of commercialization that exploit them;

—the faces of laborers, who frequently are ill-paid and who have difficulty in organizing themselves and defending their rights;

—the faces of the underemployed and the unemployed, who are dismissed because of the harsh exigencies of economic crises, and often because of development-models that subject workers and their families to cold economic calculations;

—the faces of marginalized and overcrowded urban dwellers, whose lack of material goods is matched by the ostentatious display of wealth by other segments of society;

—the faces of old people, who are growing more numerous every day, and who are frequently marginalized in a progress-oriented society that totally disregards people not engaged in production (Puebla, #31-39).

Deterioration of the Political Situation

[14] Together with Puebla we must also denounce the serious deterioration of a political situation that institutionalizes injustice. The participation of citizens in the conduct of their own affairs and destiny has declined (Puebla #46). Governments look askance at the organizing efforts of laborers, peasants, and the common people; and they adopt repressive measures to prevent such organizing. But this type of control over, or limitation on, activity is not applied to employer organizations, which can exercise their full power to protect their interests (Puebla #44).

The graph of violence presented by the Legal Aid Bureau is very striking (cf. Orientación, July 22, 1979). Simply from January to June of this year the number of those murdered by various sections of the security forces, the armed forces, and the paramilitary organizations rose to 406. The number of those arrested for political reasons was 307. The discrimination to which Puebla drew attention is borne out, and that makes the statistics even more scandalous. Not a single victim comes from the landowning class, whereas those from among the campesino population abound.

Faced with this oppression and repression, there arises naturally what Medellin called the explosive revolutions of despair (Medellin Documents, Peace, #17, quoting Paul VI, homily, Bogata, August 23, 1968). To date, it has accounted for more than 95 victims in this country (Orientación, July 22, 1979).

The spiral of violence is racing toward hitherto unsuspected levels of cruelty. It is making increasingly problematic the likelihood of resolving the structural crisis peacefully. It has reached the stage where it seems we are engaged in a real civil war. It may be informal and intermittent, but it is nonetheless pitiless and without quarter. It tears apart normal, everyday life, and brings terror into every Salvadoran home.

A special section of the third part of this letter will be devoted to a consideration of the problem of violence.

The Government’s Attitude

[15] The government shows itself quite incapable of arresting this country’s escalating violence. One suspects, in fact, that it tolerates the bands of armed men who, because of their implacable persecution of opponents of the government, can be regarded as creatures of the government. This contradicts in practice the government’s emphatic statements against any sort of violence; it seems to demonstrate, on the contrary, the repression of any political opposition and of any organization of social protest.

The state of siege, which was imposed on May 23 and lasted until July, served in no way at all to allay political murders. Facts and figures about the murdered and those who have disappeared reveal an environment of impunity that favors the proliferation and activities of right-wing gangs of assassins who have worsened the picture of violence in this country.

Puebla’s judgment on all this is very eloquent. It denounces countries …  where there is frequently no respect for such fundamental human rights. . . . [They] are in the position of permanently violating the dignity of the person (Puebla, #41). The Latin American bishops mentioned by name these abuses of power, which are typical of regimes based on force (Puebla #42). They put themselves in solidarity with the anxieties based on systematic or selective repression; it is accompanied by accusations, violations of privacy, improper pressures, tortures, and exiles. There are the anxieties produced in many families by the disappearance of their loved ones, about whom they cannot get any news. There is the total insecurity bound up with arrest and detention without judicial consent. There are the anxieties felt in the face of a system of justice that has been suborned or cowed (Puebla, #42).

Faced with this worrisome situation, Puebla recalls, in the name of the supreme pontiffs, that the Church, by virtue of an authentically evangelical commitment,’ must raise its voice to denounce and condemn these situations, particularly when the responsible officials or rulers call themselves Christians (Puebla #42).

Economic and Ideological Bases

[16] Analysts of our economy point out that, if it is to function well, it needs a large and cheap labor force. Producers of coffee, sugar cane, and cotton, which go to make up the agricultural export trade, need unemployed, unorganized campesinos. They depend on them for an abundant and cheap labor force to harvest and export their crops.

On the other hand, the agricultural and cattle-raising sector of the economy is the one that pays the most taxes to the public treasury — which is one of the reasons why it has the greatest influence upon the government.

And still today many industrial or transnational corporations base their ability to compete in international markets on what they call low labor costs, which in reality means starvation wages. All of this explains the firm opposition of important sectors of capital to initiatives, whether of the people or of the government, that, through trade union organizations, seek to improve the living conditions, or to raise the wages, of the working class. The ruling class, especially the rural elite, cannot allow unions to be organized among either rural or urban laborers so long as, from a capitalist point of view, they believe their economic interests are at risk. This viewpoint makes repression against popular organizations something necessary in order to maintain and increase profit levels, even though it is at the cost of the growing poverty of the working class.

And if we add to this the country’s population explosion and its high cost of living, then the growing unrest among workers and the unemployed can be easily understood. Repression of late has been the only kind of answer to protest against institutionalized violence, and hence it feeds the spiral of violence.

The Puebla document backs up this analysis when it refers to the right to form trade unions:

In many places labor legislation is either applied arbitrarily or not taken into account at all. This is particularly true in countries where the government is based on the use of force. There they look askance at the organizing efforts of laborers, peasants, and the common people; and they adopt repressive measures to prevent such organizing. But this type of control over, or limitation on, activity is not applied to employer organizations, which can exercise their full power to protect their interests (Puebla #44).

[17] This is the right place to draw attention also to the ideology that underlies this unjust repression. I am speaking of the ideology of national security, which the Puebla document firmly denounces on many occasions. This new political theory and practice lies at the root of this situation of repression and of repressive violence against the most basic rights of the Salvadoran people. But because it is an absolutization or idolatry of power, I shall speak of it in the next part of this letter when I explain, as the church’s specific contribution to the crisis in this country, its mission of unmasking idolatries and of denouncing false absolutes.

Moral Deterioration

[18] There is an eloquent coincidence between Puebla’s thinking and the replies that our communities gave to the survey. Both singled out moral deterioration as the origin of our fearsome decline in social, political, and economic life.

Puebla says explicitly: Recent years have seen a growing deterioration in the sociopolitical life of our countries. They are experiencing the heavy burden of economic and institutional crises, and clear symptoms of corruption and violence (Puebla #507-508).

As particular causes and expressions of this scandalous moral deterioration in Latin America, Puebla mentions:

—individualistic materialism, the supreme value in the eyes of many of our contemporaries  … and collectivist materialism [which] subordinates the person to the State.

—Consumerism, with its unbridled ambition to ‘have more,’ [which] is suffocating modern human beings in an immanent reality that closes them off to the evangelical values of generosity and austerity…

—The deterioration of basic family values [which] is disintegrating family communion, eliminating shared and responsible participation by all the family members and making them an easy prey to divorce or abandonment. In some cultural groups the woman finds herself in a position of inferiority.

—The deterioration of public and private integrity. .   We also find frustration and hedonism leading people to such vices as gambling, drug addiction, alcoholism, and sexual licentiousness. . . .

—Information is manipulated by various authorities and groups. This is done particularly through advertising, which raises false expectations, creates fictitious needs, and often contradicts the basic values of our Latin American culture and the Gospel. The improper exercise of freedom in these media leads to an invasion of the privacy of persons, who generally are defenseless (Puebla #55-62).

[19] Our country is, sadly, no exception to these painful symptoms to be found throughout Latin America. Our survey produced an even more horrific inventory of infidelities to, and betrayals of, ethical and Christian values, and even of our political Constitution itself. For example:

In Public Administration

—The infidelity of the Supreme Court and of other courts of justice to their noble mission of fulfilling, and ensuring the fulfillment of, the constitution of a democratic country, showing themselves, on the contrary, to be feeble instruments at the beck and call of a regime based on the use of force.

—As a result, the prostitution of justice and the destruction of the freedom and the dignity of men and women.

—The fact that so many fearful crimes go unpunished, a good number of them carried out either openly or, it is popularly reported, in civilian disguise by the security forces.

—Indifference to the anguish of so many families who seek liberty for, or, at least, news of, their loved ones who have disappeared into the power of civil authorities.

—The ineffectiveness of so many constitutional appeals for the right of habeas corpus, a tragic mockery of the guarantees of such an appeal.

—Silent connivance at so many breaches of the constitution or at other administrative maneuvers that promote the interests of privileged groups or individuals, despite the fact that these interests are harmful to the interests of the common good.

—Manipulation of the popular will in the democratic electoral process. • Discreditable propaganda for, and imposition of, anti-birth policies that are practically castrating our people and are undermining their reserves of morality.

In Private Life

[20] —Maneuvers by which many employers repress the rights of their workers, or buy the impartiality of trade union leaders.

—Unjust handling of some strikes or of the rightful demands of trade unions or workers.

—The low, even nonexistent, output by some employees and workers neglectful of their duties; or the demand for further payments (“tips” or “bribes”) for services, or for work that has already been paid for in wages.

—Taking advantage of administrative positions either for one’s own benefit or for the benefit of one’s relatives and friends.

—The salting away, or misuse, of public or private funds by means of fictitious reports and expenses, and other pretexts.

—Indecent bargaining with the dignity of another by a variety of means, such as demanding sexual favors in return for providing work, or by setting up lucrative centers for vice, such as cafés, motels, guest houses, and every kind of disguised brothels for the human slave traffic in prostitution and illegal drug-taking.

—Manipulation of the means of social communication by way of pressure or by bribes to defame persons, or pervert the truth in other ways.

—Modern forms of blackmail, such as kidnappings, threats from real or imaginary secret organizations — sometimes with the suspicion of official complicity.

[21] Our moral decline is self-evident. On every side we find that what our Lord called the mystery of iniquity has taken over. It is the church’s pastoral duty not to cease in denouncing this reign of sin, and urgently to appeal to the personal responsibility of each of us, and to each social and family group, and especially to individuals or groups in authority who, directly or indirectly, benefit from this state of affairs. For it is these last who have in their hands the most effective means of remedying this situation.

The Crisis within the Church

[22] In my earlier letters I drew attention to many of the positive things one might say about the church. It is therefore unnecessary to insist upon them here, but rather to encourage perseverance and strenuous efforts for improvement. Furthermore the fourth part of this letter will offer pastoral approaches for us to go on building up our archdiocese in line with the suggestions and the ideals of Vatican II and of the Medellin and Puebla assemblies of the Latin American Episcopal Council. It is, however, necessary to recall today — also in the light of Puebla — the denunciations and criticism that draw attention to our own failings as the human components of the church. For at a time of national crisis those of us who feel it our duty to denounce the sin that lies at the root of the crisis ought also to be ready to be criticized so as to bring about our own conversion and to build up a church that can be, for our own people, what Vatican II defines as the national sacrament of salvation (Lumen Gentium, #48).

The same council guides us in this examination of our consciences when it states frankly, and with all humility, that the Church, embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal (Lumen Gentium, #8).

According to the reflection undertaken in our communities, there are three main failings within the church that call for conversion. They are: disunity; failure of renewal and adaptation; disregard for the criteria laid down in the gospel.


[23] The most obvious of the sins to which our survey drew attention is the disunity within a church that ought to have unity as a mark of its authenticity. Our communities pointed out that when this disunity affects the hierarchy itself and the clergy there results even greater confusion among the people of God. This is indeed true, and faced with this evidence one can only be repentant, reflect, and exhort.

What is needed is a confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness, together with the sincere intention to seek out, with each other’s help, ways toward unity, and the supernatural courage to follow them.

The way to explain this sad phenomenon of disunity, and to establish a basis for conversion to unity, is to consider that the lack of unity within the church is nothing else than an echo of the division that exists all about it — the division within the society in which it lives and works. It is the human element in the church. In today’s society there is a polarization of political forces from the extreme right to the extreme left. Groups and organizations either support one another, or reject one another totally.

Church members, not excluding the hierarchy, are forced to operate in this environment. They run the risk of siding with one or other polarization if they fail to keep in mind their vocation, and their evangelical mission, defined by Puebla as a preferential option for the poor.

[24] This preference for the poor, which the gospel imposes upon Christians, neither polarizes nor divides. It is a force for unity because it does not propose to exclude the other representatives of the social corpus in which we live … we invite all, regardless of class, to accept and take up the cause of the poor as if they were accepting and taking up their own cause, the cause of Christ himself: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me’ (Puebla, Message to the Peoples of Latin America, #3)

This preferential option for the poor, understood in the sense of the gospel, can alone be the key to this crisis of our unity. The Puebla document here draws attention to the cause of our internal divisions: Not all of us in the Latin American Church have committed ourselves sufficiently to the poor. We are not always concerned about them, or in solidarity with them. Service to them really calls for constant conversion and purification among all Christians. That must be done if we are to achieve fuller identification each day with the poor Christ and our own poor (Puebla #1140)

Out of this reflection on our own sin of disunity flows the exhortation that we should make the effort to convert ourselves to that common ideal. But an interior conversion would be pointless were there not at the same time, as Puebla teaches, a radical conversion to justice and love … transforming from within those structures of a pluralistic society that respect and promote the dignity of the human person, and that provide persons with the possibility of achieving their supreme vocation: communion with God and with each other (Puebla #1206).

[25] Inasmuch as we have not yet achieved this beautiful unity among all within the church, it is only proper to exhort everyone to maintain a calm Christian maturity so that we are not scandalized by the sin within the church, and so that all will do what they can in their Christian lives even though others do not do likewise. As far as our archdiocese is concerned, we are ready to continue structuring our pastoral life along the lines Puebla put forward as the authentic way to this unity: the preferential option for the poor. This is the demand the gospel makes upon us, and unity is authentic only when it is built up on the basis of the gospel. This will also be the best contribution the archdiocese can offer to the changes needed in the country.

Failure to Renew and Adapt

[26] Both at Medellin and at Puebla the bishops of Latin America tried to interpret for our continent the concern the council expressed about the age in which we live: to bring the church up to date, and to learn today’s language in order to pass its message on. Even more, Puebla’s theme looks towards the future: evangelization at present and in the future of Latin America. It frankly states:

Until recently our continent had not been touched or swallowed up by the dizzying flood of cultural, social, economic, political, and technological changes in the modern age. At that time the weight of tradition helped the communication of the Gospel. What was taught from the pulpit was zealously welcomed in the home and the school; and it was safeguarded and sustained by the social pressure of the surrounding milieu. Today nothing like that happens. The faith proposed by the Church is accepted or rejected with much more freedom and with a notably critical-minded sense. Even the peasants, who previously were isolated from contact with civilization to a large extent, are now acquiring this same critical sense. This is due to the ready contact with the present-day world that is afforded them … it is also due to the consciousness-raising efforts of pastoral agents (Puebla #76-77).

With an identical point of view and conviction, several communities in the archdiocese lament the difficult, anti-apostolic attitude displayed by some priests, religious communities, and other pastoral workers who reject the efforts toward renewal and adaptation that our pastoral strategy is promoting in obedience to the guidelines mentioned above.

Several of the answers to the survey analyze the high levels of unrest and agitation that move our people in the direction of social and political changes in the country. The church, to quote one of them verbatim, has to interpret for, and to accompany, this people as it struggles for freedom; if not, in the course of time it will be marginalized. With or without the church the changes will take place, but by its very nature its duty is to be present in the midst of these changes, which are delineating the kingdom of God.

[27] This criticism of the internal workings of the church draws the attention of pastoral workers to another serious motive for reflection and conversion. It urges upon all of us who work in the apostolate, and especially upon priests and religious communities who, by their vocation, profession, and mission, most intimately belong to the life and mission of the church, to make determined efforts toward our own improvement so that we can always be abreast of the modern church. It is in this spirit, most recently expressed at Puebla, that we are trying to conduct the apostolate in our own archdiocese. The inexplicable opposition or lack of comprehension — an object of criticism — results, in our present circumstances, in a regrettable lack of that communion and involvement that the spirit of Puebla so much insists upon.

Adulteration of Gospel Criteria

[28] To lose sight of or to alter Christian principles constitutes another sin or danger within the church. When making a noble effort to renew or to adapt our church for a membership now highly politicized, one can fall into the sin that is at the opposite extreme from the one we have just pointed out — namely, the political or ideological adulteration of the faith and of Christian criteria. Those Christians who, motivated by the faith, take up concrete political options are in particular danger of this sin.

[29] I am not going to develop further this topic, which is of enormous interest for Christian communities, because I have already treated it sufficiently in my third pastoral letter. That letter focused precisely upon the relationship between the church and popular organizations. I recommend that those guidelines be kept well in mind. Far from losing their pertinence, they are daily more necessary for a Christian in El Salvador.

For the rest, there will be two places in this fourth pastoral letter where guidelines will be offered on this subject: when treating, in part three, the danger of absolutizing an organization and, in part four, on the need for an apostolate of following, to accompany Christians in their political options — without the church thereby losing its identity and Christians their faith.


[30] If the Puebla document, which is the basis of our reflection, supports the pastoral focus upon the situation here in El Salvador, it invites us also to search out, in a sincere spirit of service to the nations of Latin America, the specific contribution our local church can offer El Salvador at this time of crisis. Here I am also taking into account the valuable suggestions made by our Christian communities.

What, then, is the contribution which, in the spirit of Puebla, the archdiocese can offer to the process of liberating our people? I think it can be understood under the following headings. I shall develop them in the course of this part two: the Church’s own identity; integral evangelization; a solid doctrinal orientation; denunciation of error and sin, with a view to conversion; unmasking the idolatries of society; promoting integral liberation; pressing for far-reaching structural changes; sharing life and the gospel with both the ordinary people and the ruling class.

The Church’s Own Identity

[31] This is the prime contribution our church ought to make to the life of this country: to be itself. This is what I call its own identity.

I have said, over and over again, that the whole effort of the apostolate in this archdiocese ought to be turned to this before all else, to building up our church. Despite all the clashes and all the opposition, the church is not looking for opposition. It does not want to clash with anybody. It wants only to build up toward the great affirmation of God and his kingdom. It will clash only with those who oppose God and his kingdom.

The church wants to offer no other contribution than that of the gospel. It has no purely political contribution to make, nor any merely human skill to offer. Quite truthfully, the church is interested only in offering the country the light of the gospel for the full salvation and betterment of men and women, a salvation that also involves the structures within which Salvadorans live, so that, rather than get in their way, the structures can help them live out their lives as children of God.

The church is well aware that anything it can contribute to the process of liberation in this country will have originality and effectiveness only when the church is truly identified as church — that is to say, only when it is most clearly that which Christ wants it to be at this particular hour of the nation’s history.

It is in this sense that one has to understand the ceaseless exhortation of John Paul II: the church has no need to politicize itself in order to make its saving contribution to the world. It is also in this sense that I believe one ought to interpret certain fears expressed at Puebla, when there was talk of misinterpretations of Medellin, and concepts were pointed to that could make a theology of liberation ambiguous.

[32] Because it is not turning itself into a political power, and because it is not doing anything else that might be alien to its nature and to its mission, the church as church can contribute something fundamental to the betterment of this country. As Paul VI warned, should the liberation the church is preaching and promoting be reduced to the dimensions of a simply temporal project … to a man-centered goal . . . its activity . . . would become initiatives of the political or social order. But if this were so, the Church would lose its fundamental meaning. Its message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties. It would have no more authority to proclaim freedom as in the name of God (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #32).

[33] But neither can we call wrong — a sin of the church against its own identity — the effort it makes to come close to the real problems that affect human beings and that drive it to commit itself to them. The contrary would be sinful: to be so concerned with its own identity that this preoccupation gets in the way of its closeness to the world. As Pope John Paul II has insisted, men and women are the pathways on which the church seeks to fulfill its mission.

The church’s mission is transcendent. As Vatican II teaches, it is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. It is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person (Gaudium et Spes, #76). But this is not a transcendence that loses hold of what is human. It is by transcending the human being from within that the church finds, and brings into being, the kingdom of God that Jesus promised, and which he continues to proclaim by means of the church’s work.

Integral Evangelization

[34] In order to safeguard its own identity, the church offers first and foremost, as its specific service to the world, its work of evangelization. That is why we pastors, when we were gathered together at Puebla, said to Latin America that we would concentrate our deliberations on evangelization at present and in the future of Latin America.

At the root of our reflection there was always that Magna Carta of modern evangelization, the apostolic exhortation Evangelli Nuntiandi of his holiness Pope Paul VI, which was, in its turn, the fruit of the 1974 world synod of bishops. We want to confirm, said the fathers at that synod, once again, that the task of evangelizing all men and women constitutes the essential mission of the church.

And this is the case because at the root of evangelization is the person and the mission of Jesus himself. He himself is the gospel of God and the first and greatest preacher of the gospel. From him sprang the church evangelized, which in turn became the church evangelizing when he sent it out, identifying himself with it so that it might carry his salvation to all peoples (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, #13). Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, its deepest identity. It exists in order to evangelize, that is to say in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of his death and glorious Resurrection (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #14).

Complex Mission

[35] Evangelization, then, taken in its full sense, is the whole of the divine mission of Jesus and his church. Given the complexity of this mission, there is a danger of reducing it simply to some elements of preaching, of catechesis, of conferring baptism and the other sacraments. But any partial and fragmentary definition which attempts to render the reality of evangelization in all its richness, complexity, and dynamism does so only at the risk of impoverishing it and even of distorting it (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #17).

In evangelization, therefore, there is the essential content, the living substance, which cannot be modified or ignored without seriously diluting the nature of evangelization itself. But there are certainly many secondary elements in evangelization, and their presentation depends greatly on changing circumstances (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #25).

In keeping with that rich modern theology of evangelization, and adapting it to our continent, we bishops gathered at Puebla proclaimed that, evangelized by the Lord in his Spirit, we are sent out to bring this Good News to all our brothers and sisters, especially to the poor and the forgotten. This evangelizing task leads us to complete conversion and communion with Christ in the Church. It will impregnate our culture. It will incite us to the authentic improvement of our communities. And it will make us a critical-minded, guiding presence in the face of the ideologies and policies that condition the fate of our nations (Puebla #164).

Liberating Evangelization

[36] What, then, will be the evangelization our archdiocese ought to offer this country so that, through it, the full force for liberation with which our divine Redeemer has endowed it may run its course? As has been said, to limit it to just a few elements would be to betray this mission of our church at a time when its contribution ought to open up a unique hope for the entirety of our people.

Generally speaking, in our circumstances this danger of reductionism as far as evangelization is concerned can take two forms. Either it can stress only the transcendent elements of spirituality and human destiny, or it can go to the other extreme, selecting only those immanent elements of a kingdom of God that ought to be already beginning on this earth.

The evangelization our archdiocese has to offer, as the church’s specific contribution to our homeland in its crisis, must not fall victim to either of those two forms of reductionism. It ought to be inspired by the balanced guidelines laid down this century by Vatican II, so clearly presented and lived out by our modern popes, and adapted to our continent by the two great meetings of bishops at Medellin and Puebla.

[37] Seen in that light, the suggestions put forward by our Christian communities have stressed certain aspects of evangelization of which our people stand in most need. With the cooperation of all, this archdiocese is ready to offer its help, with great pastoral love, and despite persecution and misunderstanding. These aspects of evangelization are treated in the remaining six major subsections of part two of this pastoral letter.

A Sound Doctrinal Orientation

[38] The first element in evangelization is its content: We now wish to shed the light of the truth that makes us free (John 8:32) on our compelling pastoral concern. It is not a truth that we possess as something of our own. It comes from God (Puebla #165).

And so at Puebla we laid down the criteria that are to guide us as pastors and teachers of the church when we are addressing the peoples of Latin America. The content of evangelization is the truth that God has revealed, and that we human beings accept through faith. How necessary this pillar of truth is in an atmosphere of lies and insincerity, where the truth is itself enslaved to the interests of wealth and of power. But the word of God is not in chains, and so long as we believe in that truth we are free.

To teach the truths of the gospel, and by means of them to cast light on our own situation so as to bring it closer to God’s truth and not to human sophistries, is the most important service that the church can render to this country. Hence it is important that not only our pastoral ministers but all who have influence upon society and upon the family should know this truth well, and spread its light about them.

[39] The Truth about Christ, about the Church, and about Humankind Applying to Latin America the wide content of evangelization, his holiness John Paul II drew attention to the threefold doctrinal synthesis incorporated in the Puebla document. These are the three central truths of evangelization: the truth about Christ, about the church, and about humankind.

Christ, our hope, is in our midst as the Father’s envoy, animating the Church with his Spirit and offering his word and his life to people today in order to lead them to full and complete liberation.

The Church, a mystery of communion, the People of God in the service of human beings, continues to be evangelized through the ages and to bring the Good News to all.

For the Church, Mary is a cause for joy, and a source of inspiration because she is the star of evangelization and the Mother of the Latin American peoples.

Human beings, by virtue of their dignity as the image of God, merit a commitment from us in favor of their liberation and their total fulfillment in Christ Jesus. Only in Christ is their more intimate reality fully known. Hence we, being pastors, speak to human beings and proclaim to them the joyful news that humanity has been assumed and exalted by the very Son of God. For he chose to share with human beings the joys, labors, and sufferings of this life and the heritage of eternal life (Puebla #166-169).

Social Teaching

[40] The pope also reminded us at Puebla of the importance that the study of the church’s social teaching ought to have for us today: When injustices increase and the gap between rich and poor widens distressingly, then the social doctrine of the Church — in a form that is creative and open to the broad areas of the Church’s presence — should be a valuable tool for formation and action. He counseled us to place responsible confidence in this social doctrine, even though some people try to sow doubts and lack of confidence in it; to study it seriously; to try to apply it; to teach it and be loyal to it; in children of the Church, all this guarantees the authenticity of their involvement in delicate and demanding social tasks, and of their efforts on behalf of the liberation or advancement of their fellow human beings (Opening Address, III, #7).

Denunciation of Error and of Sin

[41] As a logical consequence of the proclamation of truth, love, and the holiness of the kingdom of God, evangelization has the mission of denouncing every lie, every injustice, every sin that destroys God’s plan. The purpose of this denunciation is not negative. It has a prophetic character. It seeks the conversion of those who commit the sin. God does not want the death of the sinner but that he be converted and live. The church itself cannot stand aside from this need for denunciation and conversion. We preach it and we want it for ourselves as church, in order to demand it of society. For the faith denounces everything that is opposed to the construction of the Kingdom. This entails necessary and sometimes painful breaks (Puebla #358) and persecution (Puebla #1138).

John Paul II has again reminded us of this inescapable mission of the church:

This service of truth as a participation in the prophetic service of Christ is an obligation upon the church. It finds itself fulfilling it in very diverse historical contexts. It is necessary that injustice be given its correct designation: the exploitation of some human beings by others, the exploitation of a people by the state, by institutions, by the structure of economic systems, or of regimes that sometimes operate callously. It is necessary to give the correct name to every social injustice, to every act of discrimination or violence inflicted on human beings, whether on persons themselves, or their spirit, or their consciences, or their convictions (Osservatore Romano, February 22, 1979).

Unmasking the Idolatries of Our Society

[42] Adhering to the demands of the same prophetic denunciation and conversion, the church reminds us that making any created thing into an absolute is an offense against the one Absolute and Creator, because it erects and serves an idol, which it attempts to put in the place of God himself.

As well as offending God, every absolutization disorients, and ultimately destroys, human beings. It is the vocation of human beings to raise themselves to the dignity of the children of God and to participate in God’s divine life. This transcendence of human beings is not an escape from problems here on earth, still less is it an opium that distracts them from their obligations in history. On the contrary, by virtue of this transcendent destiny people have the capacity to always remain critical vis-a-vis the events of history. It gives them a powerful inspiration to reach out to ever higher goals. Social forces should hearken to the saving voice of Christ and of true Christians, cease their questioning, and open themselves to the values of the one and only Absolute. When a human value is turned into an absolute and endowed, whether in theory or in practice, with a divine character, human beings are deprived of their highest calling and inspiration. The spirit of the people is pushed in the direction of a real idolatry, which will only deform and repress it.

Among the evils that afflict El Salvador, I find that there are three idolatries, or absolutes, that the church ought to unmask in the name of the one God and Lord.

The Absolutization of Wealth and Private Property

[43] The absolutization of wealth holds out to persons the ideal of having more and to that extent reduces interest in being more, whereas the latter should be the ideal for true progress, both for the people as such and for every individual. The absolute desire of having more encourages the selfishness that destroys communal bonds among the children of God. It does so because the idolatry of riches prevents the majority from sharing the goods that the Creator has made for all, and in the all-possessing minority it produces an exaggerated pleasure in these goods.

[44] As for the absolutization of private property, John Paul II, speaking at Puebla, gave voice to the contrary opinion of the traditional and of the modern teaching of the church. For this voice of the Church, echoing the voice of human conscience, . . . deserves and needs to be heard in our own day as well, when the growing affluence of a few . . . parallels the growing poverty of the masses…. The Church’s teaching [is) that there is a social mortgage on all private property…. This Christian, evangelical principle will lead to a more just and equitable distribution of goods (Opening Address, III, 4).

[45] Absolutizing wealth and private property brings about the absolutizing of political, social, and economic power, without which it is impossible for the rich to preserve their privileges, even at the cost of their own human dignity. In our country this idolatry is at the root of structural and repressive violence. In the final analysis, it is the cause of a great part of our economic, social, and political underdevelopment.

This is the capitalism condemned by the church at Puebla, following the teaching of recent popes and of Medellin. Whoever reads these documents would say that they are describing a situation in our country that only selfishness, ignorance, or servility could defend.

The Absolutization of National Security

[46] I have already drawn attention in the first part of this letter to the doctrine or ideology of national security as the ideological foundation for repression. Puebla frequently denounced this new form of idolatry, which has already been installed in many Latin American countries. In this country it has its own particular way of working, but substantially it is identical with that described at Puebla: In many instances the ideologies of National Security have helped to intensify the totalitarian or authoritarian character of governments based on the use of force, leading to the abuse of power and the violation of human rights. In some instances they presume to justify their positions with a subjective profession of Christian faith (Puebla #49; see also #314, 547, 549, 1262).

By virtue of this ideology, the individual is placed at the total service of the state. His or her political participation is suppressed, and this leads to an unequal participation in the results of development. Peoples are put into the hands of military elites, and are subjected to policies that oppress and repress all who oppose them, in the name of what is alleged to be total war. The armed forces are put in charge of social and economic structures under the pretext of the interests of national security. Everyone not at one with the state is declared a national enemy, and the requirements of national security are used to justify assassinations, disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment, acts of terrorism, kidnappings, acts of torture … [all] indicate a complete lack of respect for the dignity of the human person (Puebla #1262).

[47] The interests and advantages of the few are thus turned into an absolute. This absolutization becomes a mystique — as if the national security regime, which attempts to give itself a good public image by a subjective profession of Christian faith (Puebla #49), were the only, or the best, defender of the Christian civilization of the West (Puebla #547). This perverts the noble function of the armed forces. Instead of serving true national interests, they become the guardians of the interests of the oligarchy, thus furthering their own ideological and economic corruption. Something similar is happening to the security forces. They, instead of caring for civil order, have turned themselves basically into an organization for repressing political dissidents. And finally, the high command unconstitutionally changes the political procedures that ought to decide democratically the country’s course.

[48] The judgment merited by the ideology of national security has, for Christians, been clearly expressed at Puebla: it is not compatible with the Christian vision of the human being as responsible for carrying out a temporal project, and to its vision of the State as the administrator of the common good (Puebla #549).

The omnipotence of these national security regimes, the total disrespect they display towards individuals and their rights, the total lack of ethical consideration shown in the means that are used to achieve their ends, turn national security into an idol, which, like the god Molech, demands the daily sacrifice of many victims in its name.
The legitimate security that the state ought to seek for its members is cruelly perverted, for in the name of national security the insecurity of the individual becomes institutionalized (Puebla #314).

The Absolutization of Organizations

[49] There is a third absolute, typical of the present situation in this country. I am speaking of the absolutization of an organization. This is a trap into which many members of popular organizations fall. They make their own organization the supreme value, and subordinate everything else to it.

This organizational absolutization differs from the other two just mentioned. They are fundamentally evil, as has been indicated. The absolutization of an organization, on the other hand, has a good side to it because it arises from among the people, as it puts to use its right of forming organizations for the purpose, at least in theory, of attaining the good of that same people. But in practice they become so fanatical that the interests of the people are no longer their chief concern, but the interests of the group or organization. Here are some of the evils that flow from this new idolatry:

—Their activities become too political, as if the political dimension were the only, or even the main, element in the lives of campesinos, workers, teachers, students, and other members who go to make them up.

—They try to subordinate the specific mission of trade union, social, and religious organizations to their own political objectives. They try to manipulate the church, its worship, its magisterium, its teaching mission, and so on, so that they serve the political and strategic aims of a political organization.

—The leaders of an organization, by making an absolute out of the political problem of achieving power, can in practice lose interest in other real problems, and can misunderstand the ideological criteria that underlie them, despite the fact that these are the very problems and criteria that concern the majority of the people — for example, some of their more immediate socio-economic needs, or the Christian principles of the members of the organizations. Another example would be the choice of a strategy that could needlessly offend religious sensitivities (taking over churches, for example).

—They can become so highly sectarian that their partisanship gets in the way of establishing dialogue or alliances with another type of organization also fighting for justice.

—The most serious kind of this fanaticism is that which changes what might be a force for the good of the people into an obstacle in the way of achieving that same good, and into an obstacle to profound change.

[50] I put forward a more detailed account of the evangelical service the church could offer to popular organizations in my third pastoral letter. They included defense of the right to organize, support for what was just in their demands, support of Christians who joined them, and denunciation of their possible mistakes and injustices, such as the mistake of turning them into absolutes, as I have just been saying. And above all, the church turns its entire effort for the liberation of the people toward the sole absolute, that definitive liberation toward which all strivings for justice ought to converge: the liberation in Christ, which sets sin aside and, while promoting liberation on earth, does not lose sight of the people’s final vocation to the one and only Absolute.

An organization runs the risk of turning itself into an absolute and of becoming an idol when atheistic ideologies, or the limited interests of the group, cause it to lose sight of those wide, transcendent perspectives, and lose hold of the ideal of the country’s common good.

[51] In this context guidance has to be given about the possible presence, or infiltration, of Marxism in El Salvador’s popular organizations. But I prefer to defer this topic until I discuss some special problems in the third part of this pastoral letter.

Promoting Integral Human Liberation

[52] Another contribution that our archdiocese, in the name of evangelization, is offering to this country is its teaching on human nature and the drive for integral human advancement. Pope Paul VI explicitly taught that there is an inseparable link between evangelization and human advancement (cf., Evangelii Nuntiandi, #31). The pope based the inseparability of these two tasks upon anthropological, theological, and evangelical arguments.

These arguments guided us at Puebla in urging that the exigencies of the integral betterment of human beings be observed. Thus Puebla added its weight to the teaching of John Paul II when we recalled that as bishops we were defenders and promoters of dignity, because, as he said, the church does not have need to have recourse to ideological systems in order to love, defend, and collaborate in the liberation of the human being. At the center of the message of which the Church is the trustee and herald, it finds inspiration for acting in favor of brotherhood, justice, and peace, and against all forms of domination, slavery, discrimination, violence, attacks on religious liberty, and aggression against human beings and whatever attacks life (Opening Address, III, 2).

The Truth about Humankind

[53] This difficult, little understood task of the integral advancement of human beings has its basis in the truth about humanity that Puebla, guided by the pope, saw as one of the three theological foundations of the evangelization of Latin America.

Humanity, seen from the perspective of Christ and of the church, could be wholly summed up in that rich message of John Paul and of the Puebla assembly: With what veneration an apostle of Christ ought to pronounce the word ‘man,’ exclaimed the present pontiff when, on October 22, 1978, he began his worldwide pastorate. According to his first encyclical, “this human being is the primary route that the church must travel in fulfilling its mission: the human being is the primary and fundamental way for the church (Redemptor Hominis, #23).  He discussed human beings concretely, in history, as they live out their lives today (Redemptor Hominis, #41), a life and existence that are threatened (Redemptor Hominis, #46), whose situation in the modern world [is] far removed from the objective demands of the moral order, from the exigencies of justice and, still more, from social love (Redemptor Hominis, #53).

The Peoples of Latin America

[54] We, the bishops gathered at Puebla, looked toward the people of Latin America. We wanted to begin our evangelical and ecclesial reflections by taking account of the actual situation of millions of our compatriots so that we might find, in that situation, what it was that God and the people are asking of the church today. The truth is that there is an ever increasing distance between the many who have little and the few who have much. The values of our culture are threatened. Fundamental human rights are being violated (Message to the Peoples of Latin America, 2).

This is the primary fact about the situation of the peoples in Latin America. The church must direct and convert itself to this, if it is to fulfill its mission of evangelization. And what it offers to its Latin American brothers and sisters is that which is most typically its own, that which is most in accordance with the gospel: it offers them human betterment and plenary liberation in Christ: We have neither silver nor gold, but what we have we give you! In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise and walk (Message to the Peoples of Latin America, #3, quoting Acts 3:6).

This is the integral evangelization for which the church goes on striving, in the bitter context of a people which suffers, which lives under constant threat, yet in the hope of the liberation that the divine Savior wants for all, and for which he lived, worked, died, and rose again. That is what.our archdiocese understands as proclaiming and building the kingdom of God among the Salvadoran people.

Faith with a Historical Dimension

[55] This ideal brings together all the dimensions of human reality, excluding none, and it does not reduce the faith merely to the improvement of the social or political order. Today, however, we should stress the social and historical dimensions of this liberation, as Puebla requested:

Confronted with the realities that are part of our lives today, we must learn from the Gospel that in Latin America we cannot truly love our fellow human beings, and hence God, unless we commit ourselves on the personal level and, in many cases, on the structural level as well, to serving and promoting the most dispossessed and downtrodden human groups and social classes, with all the consequences that will entail on the plane of temporal realities (Puebla #327).

[56] The church, then, would betray its own love for God and its fidelity to the gospel if it stopped being the voice of the voiceless, a defender of the rights of the poor, a promoter of every just aspiration for liberation, a guide, an empowerer, a humanizer of every legitimate struggle to achieve a more just society, a society that prepares the way for the true kingdom of God in history. This demands of the church a greater presence among the poor. It ought to be in solidarity with them, running the risks they run, enduring the persecution that is their fate, ready to give the greatest possible testimony to its love by defending and promoting those who were first in Jesus’ love.

This preference for the poor, I must repeat, does not mean an unfair discrimination between the various classes of society. It is an invitation to all regardless of class, to accept and take up the cause of the poor as if they were accepting and taking up their own cause, the cause of Christ himself: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me’ (Message to the Peoples of Latin America, #3)

[57] The basic ecclesial communities are a very effective pastoral method for achieving this evangelical presence of the church among our people and to bring about this integral betterment of human beings. I mention this providential instrument here only to recommend it to pastoral ministers, for I shall spend more time on it in the fourth part of this letter.

The Need for Profound Structural Changes

[58] To preach and to encourage the urgent need for profound structural changes in the social and political life of our country is another contribution that the pastoral mission of the church can make. The church sincerely believes that without such changes the structural bases of our whole malaise will remain. The full liberation of the Salvadoran people, not to mention personal conversions, demands a thorough change in the social, political, and economic system. The government has itself recognized this, and has said so many times. It is the continued demand of political groups — those recognized by law, and those not. The perspective of the church is naturally one that stems from its own evangelical identity, and in line with the documents both of the universal magisterium and the magisterium of the bishops on this continent.

A Healthy Unrest

[59] I realize that it is difficult, that it gives rise to conflict, to talk about structural changes with those who benefit from the old structures. It is perfectly true that there is a reactionary, extreme right-wing. But there are also men and women aware of the need for change, groups actively committed to working for change, working for a situation that favors the whole population of El Salvador. There is, then, a healthy unrest. But this itself requires of the church a greater subtlety in its judgments. The means of bringing about change are many and varied, and the Christian must take great care in choosing critically from among them, because not all merit the same judgment.

There are groups that would be content with small steps forward or minor reforms. There are other groups that want to bring about change rapidly, radically, and violently. There are differences in detail among these last mentioned groups, but in general their tactic is to sharpen the contradictions in society so as to bring on an intolerable situation.

Profound, Urgent, but Nonviolent Changes

[60] The church favors urgent and profound social changes. But as it was also said at Medellin, violent changes in structures would be fallacious, ineffectual in themselves and not conforming to the dignity of men (Medellin Documents, Peace, #15).  The church therefore invites all who put their trust in violent means of change to reflect on the following points:

—Before any violent defense of the common good, or of human rights, can be undertaken, all nonviolent methods must be tried. The church urges, therefore, that every effort be made for dialogue, reasoning, and persuasion.

—It has to be remembered that many violent political acts serve only to provoke an overwhelming response from the state’s repressive machinery, thereby generating great harm and suffering for the innocent, and for those unable to look after themselves.

—Therefore, instead of simply criticizing and rendering ineffective others’ efforts to bring about peaceful change, it is better that group fanaticism — the belief that one group alone has the capacity to bring about all the changes we need — be overcome. Groups would then open themselves up to the possibility of dialogue and political negotiation so as to achieve the hoped for common objective by rational means. When our homeland is in danger, its needs must come before every party or group interest.

Sharing with the People

[61] Without denying its own identity — on the contrary, being most itself — the church offers the country the service of companionship and guidance in its aspirations to be a free and liberating people. In this way it can carry out the mandate that Jesus gave it to be light, salt, leaven, becoming more and more part of the people’s history, of its sorrows and hopes.

Liberating evangelization will be adapted differently when it is directed to the masses and when it is directed to the classes that run the country.

The Masses

[62] It is a defamation of the church when its preferential option for the poor is interpreted to mean blind partiality in favor of the masses and disrespect for the powerful classes. The church does not approve of the poor and the oppressed simply because they are poor and oppressed — though it cannot forget that the Redeemer himself offered the grace of redemption to them first of all. The church knows perfectly well that among those who lack material goods there is a great deal of sinfulness. It therefore makes every effort to see that persons are saved from their inveterate vices, many of which are fomented by our historical situation. In the name of the preferential option for the poor there can never be justified the machismo, the alcoholism, the failure in family responsibility, the exploitation of one poor person by another, the antagonism among neighbors, and the so many other sins that our survey pointed to strongly as being concurrent roots of this country’s crisis and violence.

[63] Without rationalizing that clearly wrong behavior of the masses, the survey also drew attention to great human and Christian values. The church holds these in high regard, and believes it to be its duty to strengthen and guide them in the spirit of the gospel and in the light of faith. One might single out among these values the spirit of service, of solidarity, of responsibility, the experience of love, of toil, of courage…. One of the most basic of these values is that sense of community by which Salvadorans can overcome their selfishness and their sterile divisions.

[64] In the present social and political conditions of this country, the evangelizing of the Salvadoran people cannot simply continue the tradition of preaching and encouraging en masse, or in a moralizing fashion. It has to pursue a personalizing education in the faith, one that forms, by means of small groups meeting for reflection, persons who take a critical stance vis-a-vis the world about them with criteria drawn from the gospel.

[65] Evangelization, here and now, has to defend and encourage the political and social organization of the great mass of rural and urban workers and their families. I thank God that in this task the church can already count upon well-qualified lay Christians to whom it offers, as Pope Paul VI said, the inspiration of faith, the motivation of fraternal love, a social teaching … [as] the foundation of [their] wisdom and [their] experience (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #38).

In my third pastoral letter I defended, by means of the church’s teaching, the right to form organizations, a right made sacred for Salvadorans in their country’s Constitution. It is not only a matter of rights. It is a necessity and an obligation if there is to come about a more just order that takes real account of the majority of the people of this country.

The church does not, therefore, regard it as a crime but rather as a duty to encourage and to guide Christians who have the ability to organize themselves, drawing members from the people and acting for the people. By reason of the same duty the church also denounces the sin of those organizations that turn politics into an absolute, thereby hindering the full development of the human person and showing disrespect for those Christian values that were the inspiration of many of those who belong to various organizations.

[66] The experience of recent years shows both the power of Christian values to animate popular organizations and the danger that organizations risk when they cease being animated by those same values. It is possible that popular organizations, with their political alliances, come to think that Christian values are no longer necessary for them, that they are self-sufficient in their task of giving the great mass of the people, and especially the campesinos, all that they need. It is even possible that they come to believe that they have the right to manipulate the church, the gospel, the faith, for the benefit, not of the ordinary people, but of their organizations. By so doing, however, they rob the salt and the leaven of the power that the gospel portions out so that the whole be not corrupted, and they display little respect for the deeply-held beliefs of many members of their organizations. It would be a mistake to oppose the driving force of political organizations to the driving force of the church. This would be to subordinate to the absolutization of a human organization the bringing into being in history of the kingdom of God.

The church, I must repeat, is pleased that in this country there are lay persons who are capable of politically organizing the masses. Vatican II itself recognizes the autonomy of temporal undertakings and values, such as political and organizational activities. The church therefore also reminds all of, and demands, its own proper independence and its transcendent identity, its apostolic mission in the midst of the temporal activities of men and women. It must not allow itself to be manipulated for any political purpose, although its apostolic mission obliges it not to abandon its specific mission as church to the political organizations. It will support them in what is just in their demands and, above all, it will defend their right to exist, which is based upon the legitimate human right to organize — a right so vulnerable to attack in our repressive environment.

The Elites

[67] With respect to the classes that have social, political, and economic power the church calls upon them, before all else, to be converted, to remember their very grave responsibility to overcome disorder and violence not by means of repression but through justice and the participation of ordinary people.

In a society such as ours, in which the majority have hardly anything, the privileged minority, separated as if by an abyss from all the rest, enjoys a standard of living similar to that which a few enjoy in the richest countries. They have, moreover, enormous power simply because our political organization is undemocratic. Would that they should favor social change rather than impede it, or violently resist it! They could do so out of self-interest, but especially because charity demands it. Charity consists not only in giving others what is their due, but even in giving them something that is one’s own. Would that they might honestly judge that this would be the best for everybody — including, in the long run, themselves and their children! Would that they might remember those words of Jesus, that they will be dealt with both in this life and the next according to the measure they have dealt out to others!

I realize that some terrorist activities induce a state of mind in the powerful that hardly favors serenity and reflection. But they ought to overcome that preoccupation and generously lay down the basis for a democratic evolution, so that the majority of the population may participate equitably in the national resources that belong to all. Thus the root cause of terrorist and all other unjust violence would be eradicated.

Puebla states:

It is of the utmost importance that this service to our fellow human beings take the course marked out for us by Vatican II: ‘The demands of justice should first be satisfied, lest the giving of what is due in justice be represented as the offering of a charitable gift. Not only the effects but also the causes of various ills must be removed. Help should be given in such a way that the recipients may gradually be freed from dependence on others and become self-sufficient’ (Puebla #1146, quoting Apostolicam Actuositatem, #8).


[68] In this third part I am going to propose clarification and guidance on violence, Marxism, and national dialogue.

Undoubtedly there are other problems that disturb consciences at this time of national crisis. But these three, together with the others upon which I have tried to throw light elsewhere in this letter, stand out in the reflections of our Christian communities. This reflection ought to continue in a dialogue between pastors and Christian communities because only in that way can we progress in throwing light, and guidance, on the many and varied subjects under discussion.

I beg those who are learned in these matters to study them and to pass on their thinking about them to others, so that they too may offer, at this critical period of research, a valuable service not only to the members of the church but to all persons of good will. It should help them clarify their own thinking, and to adopt positions that are tenable.


[69] I have spent a good time already, in the third part of my third pastoral letter, on the judgment of the church on violence. Here I am going to presuppose that summary of the church’s traditional moral teaching on violence. I only want to dig a little deeper, to bring those ideas up to date, given the escalation of the violence that casts a shadow over so many families in our homeland. Would that this reflection might persuade Salvadorans to lay unjust attitudes aside, and to get them, with sincere change of heart, to wash clean so many hands and consciences stained by social injustice and human blood!

Inspired by the gospel, the church feels itself driven to seek peace before all else. But the peace that the church urges is the work of justice (opus justitiae pax). Therefore its judgments on the violence that disturbs the peace cannot ignore the demands of justice. There are many different judgments, just as there are many different forms of violence. The church cannot state, in a simplistic fashion, that it condemns every kind of violence.

Structural Violence

[70] The church condemns structural or institutionalized violence, the result of an unjust situation in which the majority of men, women, and children in our country find themselves deprived of the necessities of life (cf. Third Pastoral Letter).  The church condemns this violence not only because it is unjust in itself, and the objective expression of personal and collective sin, but also because it is the cause of other innumerable cruelties and more obvious acts of violence.

More and more Salvadorans are learning the point that the deepest root of the serious evils that afflict us, including the renewed outbreak of violence, is this structural violence. It takes concrete form in the unjust distribution of wealth and of property — especially insofar as it includes landownership — and, more generally, in that amalgam of economic and political structures by which the few grow increasingly rich and powerful, while the remainder grow increasingly poor and weak (Puebla #1259).
Arbitrary Violence of the State

[71] The church likewise condemns the arbitrary and repressive violence of the state. We in El Salvador well know, as did Puebla, how any dissent against the present form of capitalism and against the political institutions that support it is repressed with ever increasing violence and ever greater injustice — inspired by the theory of national security. We also know how the majority of the campesinos, the laborers, slum dwellers, and others who have organized themselves to defend their rights and to promote legitimate structural changes are simply declared to be terrorists or subversives. They are therefore arrested, tortured, murdered, or they simply disappear — and all without reference to the law or to any judicial institution that might protect them or give them the chance to defend themselves and prove their innocence. Faced with this prejudicial and unjust situation, many have decided that they had no alternative but to defend themselves with violence. And recently they have encountered, in response, the arbitrary violence of the state.

Public authority certainly has the right to punish social disorder. But in order to do so there must be the intervention of a court of justice that gives the accused the chance to defend themselves and can declare the guilty worthy of punishment. Any other kind of sanction — arbitrary and repressive — is an abuse of authority.

Violence of the Extreme Right

[72] The church equally condemns the violence favored by right-wing gangs of terrorists. They go absolutely unpunished, which makes one suspect official connivance. They have cast their shadow over the country’s teachers, over the popular organizations, over political parties, and even over the church itself. Their intention, which they clearly cannot sustain indefinitely, is to try to uphold the unjust social order to which I referred above. Therefore they, more than anyone else, are involved in the injustice of the system.

Terrorist Violence

[73] The church also condemns the violence perpetrated by politico-military groups or individuals when they intentionally victimize innocent persons, or when the damage they do is disproportionate, in the short or medium term, to the positive effect they wish to achieve.

Insurrectional Violence

[74] On the other hand, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, quoted at the Medellin assembly, takes up again the classic teaching of Catholic theology, according to which insurrection is legitimate in the very exceptional circumstances of an evident, prolonged tyranny that seriously works against fundamental human rights and seriously damages the common good of the country, whether it proceeds from one person or from clearly unjust structures (cf. Third Pastoral Letter). In addition, our own national constitution recognizes the right of just insurrection.

Violence of Legitimate Defense

[75] In the same class as legitimate insurrectional violence, we can place the violence of legitimate defense. This occurs when a person or a group repels by force an unjust aggression that they have suffered (Third Pastoral Letter).

These are the dangerous, violent forces that are aroused when changes in the structures of oppressive violence are delayed, and when it is believed that the structures can be kept in being through repressive violence.

Conditions for Legitimate Violence

[76] We must not forget the necessary conditions, which I recalled, in line with the church’s theology, in my third pastoral letter already quoted. For the violence of insurrection or of defense to be legitimate, it is required:

1) that the violence of legitimate defense not be greater than the unjust aggression (for example, if it is enough to defend oneself with one’s fists, then it is not permitted to shoot an aggressor);

2) that one resort to a form of violence, in proportion to the need, only after every other possible peaceful means has been tried;

3) that the violence used in defense not bring in retaliation an even greater evil than that being resisted.

In practice it is very difficult to take account of all these theoretical measures for the justification of violence. History has taught us how cruel and painful is the price of blood, and how difficult it is to repair social and economic damage caused by war. This is an opportune moment to recall that celebrated phrase of Pope Pius XII on war: Nothing is lost by peace, everything may be lost in war.

The most reasonable and effective thing for a government to do, therefore, is to use its moral and coercive force not to defend the structural violence of an unjust order, but to guarantee a truly democratic state, one that defends the fundamental rights of all its citizens, based on a just economic order. Only in this way will it be possible to make those instances distant and unreal in which recourse to force, by groups or by individuals, can be justified by the existence of a tyrannical regime and an unjust social order.

The Christian Is Peaceful, but Not Passive

[77] In this atmosphere of violence and of change in the country, how much to the point, and how valuable, have those guidelines become that Medellin expressed: The Christian is peaceful and not ashamed of it. He is not simply a pacifist for he can fight, but he prefers peace to war. He knows that violent changes in structures would be fallacious, ineffectual in themselves, and not conforming to the dignity of man (Medellin Documents, Peace, quoting Paul VI, homily, Bogotá, August 23, 1968).


[78] The problem of Marxism is very complex. It is not dealt with simply by condemning it. Puebla itself teaches us to distinguish between Marxism as a dominant ideology for the whole of behavior, and collaboration with groups who share this ideology. Naturally if one understands by Marxism a materialistic, atheistic ideology that is taken to explain the whole of human existence and gives a false interpretation of religion, then it is completely untenable by a Christian. A Christian’s faith must guide his or her whole life, starting from the existence of God, toward a spiritual and eternal transcendence made possible in Christ through the Holy Spirit. These are two diametrically opposed interpretations of life.

But Marxism can also be understood in other senses. It can be understood as a scientific analysis of the economic and social order. Many in El Salvador, as elsewhere in Latin America, use this analysis as a scientific tool because, they claim, it in no way affects their religious principles. The magisterium of the church (in Octogesima Adveniens, for example), although it recognizes the distinction between Marxism as an ideology and as a scientific method, prudently warns of possible ideological risks.

Understood in terms of political strategy, many use Marxism as a guide in the struggle for socio-political power. Perhaps this aspect has in practice greater hidden dangers. Marxist political praxis can give rise to conflicts of conscience about the use of means and of methods not always in conformity with what the gospel lays down as ethical for Christians. Such political praxis can lead to the absolutization of popular political organizations. It can dry up the Christian inspiration of their members, and even cut them off from the church, as if the church had no right to exercise, from the perspective of its own transcendent ideology, a critical function in relation to political activities.

[79] So it is evident that we are here dealing with a complex concept. Many of our communities frankly admit that they have little knowledge about it, and ask for greater clarification. As a pastor, therefore, I beg all those skilled in this science to spread knowledge of it, along with Christian criteria. The topic is of absorbing interest to many, and worries a large number of Christians.

One could benefit in the meantime from studying sections 543-45 and 550-51 of the Puebla Final Document, and sections 69 and 71 of the conciliar constitution Gaudium et Spes.

[80] Moreover, although there may be very little scientific understanding of Marxism, it must not be forgotten that some anti-Marxist declarations and courses of action that Christians may make can turn into support for capitalism. Such is the situation in this country. And in concrete terms, capitalism is in fact what is most unjust and unchristian about the society in which we live. Fear of Marxism, says Puebla, keeps many from facing up to the oppressive reality of liberal capitalism. One could say that some people, faced with the danger of one clearly sinful system, forget to denounce and combat the established reality of another equally sinful system. We must give full attention to the latter system, without overlooking the violent and atheistic historical forms of Marxism (Puebla #92). The best way to defeat Marxism is to take seriously the preferential option for the poor.

National Dialogue

[81] A realistic national dialogue is a necessity for this country if it is to find a way out of its crisis. It is therefore, I believe, the right time to throw some light on this topic. And I have to begin by regretting that the government’s call for national dialogue has wasted a good opportunity, because it was not offered under acceptable conditions. From the start, therefore, that call met with a very cool public reception. There was criticism of the lack of confidence and of the lack of freedom to give voice to, on equal terms with the government, all the unrest and all the strong viewpoints held by Salvadorans.

[82] For genuine dialogue as a means of guiding us out of our present crisis, the following points seem to me essential:

1) There must be involvement of all social forces, or at least all those that have not gone underground. All have the right to speak and to be heard in this dialogue, and it should, in principle, be possible to reach agreement with all. But national dialogue would, on the contrary, become nonsense if it were to be reduced to a forum where were welcome only the views of the government’s friends and of those who, deep down, do not want profound change.

2) Another essential element of this dialogue is that an end be put to all kinds of violence. Dialogue searches for truth and justice by way of reason. It requires an atmosphere of confidence and serenity. This is especially pertinent to the government’s attitude. So long as there is violent and disproportionate repression of all public protest; so long as the present level of politically motivated murder continues; so long as persons disappear and there are political prisoners; so long as political, social, and religious leaders are banned from the country — it is absurd to talk about a dialogue. On these issues there is no room for dialogue. They are preconditions for dialogue.

One cannot simplistically point to the existence of terrorist groups as an argument for excluding certain opinions from the dialogue. As has already been pointed out when talking about violence, terrorism originates in a context of institutionalized violence. This situation strongly influences many to act violently in response to the continual, systematic oppression exercised by the groups in power — or at least it gives them a pretext for doing so. And the purpose of dialogue is precisely to rid the country of this root cause of violence.

Naturally terrorists, and all other partisans of a violent situation, must lay their attitude aside when they come up against a serious and sincere wish for dialogue. They must cooperate to create the atmosphere of serenity that is needed for realistic dialogue with a view to changing profoundly this country’s structures.

3) The chief topic of dialogue is to be reform and structural changes. I have to say it again: in order for repression to be eliminated, the roots that feed the violence in the social sphere, and which thus provoke the temptation to further acts of violence, must be attacked. National dialogue cannot be effectively brought into being unless there is some sign of a desire and a determination to approve the changes that might guarantee a better standard of living for all Salvadorans.

4) Another important topic for dialogue ought to be freedom to organize. Our natural inclination and Christian sensitivity make us prefer methods of achieving social justice that are based on organization of the people, in line with the principles of our Constitution, and eminently peaceable. I believe that trade unionism is a definite gain for the working classes in all democratic countries, and that it neither can nor should be rejected in El Salvador.

When taking part in national dialogue, employers ought to understand the logic and the justice of trade unionism. It has not arisen to do harm to business. We all depend on the national economy for our livelihood. Trade unionism has arisen to achieve a more equitable distribution of what is produced by capital and labor working together.

On the other hand, in order to be worthy participants in such a dialogue, the trade unions and the workers themselves must be conscious of the effectiveness of their organized forces. They must not allow themselves to fall into that same sin that they complain of in others — letting themselves be manipulated by interests far removed from those of the workers. Nor must they abuse the power that solidarity gives them by making exorbitant demands.

[83] As long as the national dialogue that we need does not come to pass, there is an even greater obligation upon citizens to contribute their opinions in the search for the guidance that our homeland needs, so that it may find once more the peace that it has lost. To gain it is its greatest glory, as our national anthem says.

For its part, our archdiocese offers the general force of this pastoral letter as a voice of the church in national dialogue. It repeats the offer, made once before, to put its modest means of social communication at the service of constructive points of view.


[84] I turn now very especially to my beloved pastoral co-workers — to the Priests, religious, and laity — because we have together to translate into real terms the valuable contribution the church offers the country at this time of crisis. Our situation, seen in the light of the church’s teaching that I have just been putting forward, shows us that our people in El Salvador, together with all the peoples of Latin America, are journeying amid anxieties and hopes, frustrations and expectations,” as Puebla puts it (Puebla #72).

Sharing Puebla’s concern, then, let us ask ourselves some questions. How has the church viewed this reality? How has the church interpreted it? Has the church been successful in finding some way to focus on it and clarify it in the light of the gospel? Has the church managed to discern which aspects of this reality threaten to destroy the human being, who is the object of God’s infinite love, and which aspects have been developing in line with God’s loving designs? How has the church been developing itself in order to carry out the saving mission that was entrusted to it by Christ, which is supposed to be implemented in concrete situations and reach out toward concrete human beings? What has the church done in the last ten years in the face of the changing reality around it?

Puebla says that these are the great questions that we, as pastors, ask ourselves … keeping in mind that the fundamental mission of the Church is to evangelize in the here and now with an eye on the future (Puebla #75).

In response to this grave questioning, let us renew our apostolic generosity in the direction of those steps toward which the spirit of Puebla also inspires us and which, thank God, coincide with efforts already being made in this archdiocese.

Attitude of Searching Here

[85] I am going to go back again over a problem already mentioned earlier in this letter: the pastoral need to adapt evangelization to the present circumstances of this country. Puebla notes the great changes in this sphere since only a short time ago:

The weight of tradition helped the communication of the Gospel. What was taught from the pulpit was zealously welcomed in the home and the school; and it was safeguarded and sustained by the social pressure of the surrounding milieu. Today nothing like that happens. The faith proposed by the Church is accepted or rejected with much more freedom and with a notably critical-minded sense. Even the peasants, who previously were isolated from contact with civilization to a large extent, are now acquiring this same critical sense. This is due to the ready contact with the present-day world that is afforded them, chiefly by radio and means of transportation; it is also due to the consciousness-raising efforts of pastoral agents (Puebla #76-77).

Hence, without failing into the sin of infidelity to our mission, we cannot remain unmoved before the demands of a world in a state of flux.

There are two important factors in the apostolate: the gospel message we preach, and the changing reality of peoples, times, and places in which the church finds itself, and where it has to fulfill its mission. Therefore we have to shake off our laziness and bring ourselves up to date, as far as we are able, with current theological thinking. And those of us who can do so have to spread that thinking of the church as far as possible with all available means. It is also necessary that, together with the universal church, we should go on, as Puebla tells us, acquiring an increasingly clear and deep realization that evangelization is its fundamental mission; and that it cannot possibly carry out this mission without an ongoing effort to know the real situation and to adapt the gospel message to today’s human beings in a dynamic, attractive, and convincing way (Puebla #85).

In this attitude of search, let us recall that the church is historical, that it is moving forward. It is not something fixed and determined. It does not have a closed system for interpreting the gospel, applicable to each epoch and every circumstance. The church is a pilgrim. The word of God is inexhaustible; it forever discloses new facets that have to be more deeply understood. So the church goes on evolving in the way it presents the unique message of the gospel, in keeping with the particular period in which it is living. We believe in the Lord of history, and in his Spirit who makes all things new.

The Preferential Option for the Poor

[86] Puebla continues:

The situation of injustice . . . forces us to reflect on the great challenge our pastoral work faces in trying to help human beings to move from less human to more human conditions. The deep-rooted social differences, the extreme poverty, and the violation of human rights found in many areas pose challenges to evangelization. Our mission to bring God to human beings, and human beings to God, also entails the task of fashioning a more fraternal society here. And the unjust social situation has not failed to produce tensions within the Church itself. On the one hand they are provoked by groups that stress the ‘spiritual’ side of the Church’s mission and resent active efforts at societal improvement. On the other hand they are provoked by people who want to make the Church’s mission nothing more than an effort at human betterment (Puebla #90).

The church of this archdiocese, thank God, has taken many sure steps in keeping with this meaning of the preferential option for the poor. From the time of my honored predecessor Archbishop Luis Chávez y González, who led the archdiocese wisely and firmly, the foundations were laid for an apostolate that took shape with a preference for the great mass of the dispossessed, the rural poor above all. And as evidence of his great catechetical work there still remain the radio schools for adult literacy, the cooperatives, and so on.

It is a deep satisfaction to me that Puebla said we were right in our apostolic labors, for some at home and abroad had interpreted them negatively. Pastoral documents on social justice, the creation of organizations to express solidarity with those who suffer, the denunciation of outrages, the defense of human rights, stimulating priests and religious to opt for the poor, supporting them sometimes to death in testimony of their prophetic mission, are all aspects mentioned by Puebla of an ecclesial apostolate in Latin America concerned about its fidelity to Christ. And that is what we are doing here, even at the risk of being unjustly interpreted.

I realize nonetheless that there is still much to be done. But here the remedy that Puebla stressed for unity is apropos — to take seriously the preferential option for the poor:

—Striving to understand and denounce the mechanisms that generate this poverty ((Puebla #1160).

—Uniting our efforts with those of people of good will in order to uproot poverty and create a more just and fraternal world (Puebla #1161).

—Supporting the aspirations of laborers and peasants, who wish to be treated as free, responsible human beings. They are called to share in the decisions that affect their lives and their future, and we encourage all to improve themselves (Puebla #1162).

—Defending their fundamental right to freely create organizations to defend and promote their interests, and to make a responsible contribution to the common good (Puebla #1163).

United in a Joint Apostolate

[87] Different situations require different responses, but all responses ought to converge upon fundamental options and common objectives, thus moving toward a combined apostolate. We must never think that the various responses, to which one single Spirit gives rise, as being at odds with one another. They have to be seen as complementary, and all beneath the watchful overview of the bishop, the person responsible for the apostolate in the diocese. Let us remember that the apostolate ought to be a joint response, and if it is not, then it is neither a pastoral response nor a response of the church.

I realize that the apostolate, the apostolic spirit, is the fruit of the Spirit, to whom persons generously respond. But just as a river has to be channeled if it is to irrigate the land better, so too the apostolate, which the Spirit promotes through a variety of charisms, needs to be planned and carried out as a whole if it is to serve the well-being of the mystical body of Christ. An apostolate without the apostolic spirit is a technique devoid of inspiration. An apostolate without pastoral planning becomes ineffective, it wastes itself. A united apostolate is at the same time a technique and a mystique.

This is Puebla’s guidance too: We assume the necessity of an organic pastoral effort in the Church as a unified source of dynamism, if it is to be effective in an ongoing way. This would include, among other things, guiding principles, objectives, options, strategies, and practical initiatives (Puebla #1222).

I want to refresh the memories of all pastoral ministers on options taken during the archdiocesan pastoral week, January 5 to 10, 1976, which have served to shape the pastoral approach during my episcopate, and which today can count on new backing from Puebla:

—The fundamental option for evangelization at every level; this is to be regarded as serious, urgent, and necessary.

—Renewal of all the means at our disposal for an adequate evangelization that will brook no delay, but neither will it tolerate superficiality.

—The urgent need to select, and adequately to form, pastoral workers, especially lay persons.

—Christian communities as the objective on the horizon, if we intend to revitalize the church.

—The creation and preparation of mechanisms to give dynamism to, and to put into execution, the options we have taken.

Pastoral Adaptation

[88] When I reflect on the fruit of pastoral experience, the unrest to which Christian communities draw attention, and the creative richness shown by the many new ways found to embody the message, I am urged to put great emphasis on what I want to call pastoral adaptation. To explain this I am going to distinguish between three types of apostolate:

1) The mass apostolate, which refers to extensive evangelization.

2) An apostolate for basic Christian communities or small groups, in the sense that they are sign, leaven, salt, and light. This refers to intensive evangelization.

3) An apostolate of companionship or following, which refers to a personal or group apostolate faced with the diversity of concrete options that Christians can take, as the faith demands for the urgent changes needed in society to make it more human and more Christian.

The Mass Apostolate

[89] Nothing derogatory is meant by the idea of a mass apostolate. It envisions extensive evangelization. The masses do not have to go on being treated as faceless. The apostolate has to find precise ways of giving all Christians a critical outlook, an ability to value themselves as persons, made to the image of God, in control of their own destiny. The mass apostolate ought to be a liberating response by the church, helping the masses to become a people, and helping a people to become the people of God.

As Puebla puts it:

Like the Church as a whole, the religion of the people must be constantly evangelized over again … Evangelization will be a work of pastoral pedagogy, in which the Catholicism of the common people is assumed, purified, completed, and made dynamic by the Gospel … Guided by the light of the Holy Spirit and imbued with ‘pastoral charity,’ the agents of evangelization will know how to elaborate a ‘pedagogy of evangelization.’ Such a pedagogy demands that they love the people and be close to them; that they be prudent, firm, constant, and audacious. Only then can they educate this precious faith, which is sometimes in a very weakened state (Puebla #457-458).

The evangelization of the people is a slow, but forward-moving, process. It demands in every pastoral worker creativity, imagination, respect in the way things are put so as not to hurt others’ feelings. But at the same time it has to be staunch in its criticism of abuse. This apostolate takes great patience. Jesus himself compares the kingdom to a mustard seed. The sower waits while it germinates, grows, flowers, bears fruit. It is not up to us to accelerate the stages of this evangelization. God can do so if he thinks fit. He can convert, in an instant, the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul. But we have to wait for the normal process. And this will not always be easy.

I therefore urge pastoral workers to evaluate, honestly and sincerely, all the forms of mass apostolate that they use to embody the liberating message of Christ among the people: the use of churches, processions of faith, slogans, and so on, so that they neither stagnate nor fall into abuses.

The Apostolate of Basic Christian Communities

[90] One can say of the apostolate of basic Christian communities that it has undergone modification and development according to the times and places in which it operates. But the direction and the purpose remain the same: to form groups of Christians committed to the church and committed, as is the church, to their respective societies.

Puebla says of the basic Christian community:

[it] brings together families, adults, and young people, in an intimate interpersonal relationship grounded in the faith. As an ecclesial reality, it is a community of faith, hope, and charity. It celebrates the Word of God and … it fleshes out the Word of God in life through solidarity and commitment to the new commandment of the Lord; and through the service of approved coordinators, it makes present and operative the mission of the Church and its visible communion with the legitimate pastors. It is a base-level community because it is composed of relatively few members as a permanent body, like a cell of the larger community (Puebla #641).

To live in community is not a matter of choice but of calling. Christianity demands, by its calling, the formation of community. Christianity cannot be thought of except in terms of relationships with other persons, brothers and sisters in whom we make real the comradely love that we preach. There is nothing in revelation about the de facto forms that communities should take. Canonical religious communities are not to be regarded as revealed models of community. It is the particular moment in history, the particular place in which they operate, that should give the precise shape to communities, as the occasion demands. This is where the theology of charisms fits in.

On the formation of Christian communities, moreover, one has to keep in mind what Evangelii Nuntiandi says to us, and what I myself had to say in my third pastoral letter:

1) Their encounter with Christ. There has to be a living out of the values of the gospel and of Christianity: faith, hope, love, prayer, the sacraments, the word of God — a living out that, at the moment when Christians realize what their options are, convinces them that evangelical virtues are true and effective.

2) Their encounter with the church. This entails a full understanding of the mission that they have as Christians and as church, and their relationship to other communities in the parish, in the vicariate, in the diocese. The basic Christian community is part of the Church, it is not the whole church. The Christian community, the parish community, the diocesan community, the universal community — all these have Christ at their center, visible in the person of the pope, the bishop, the pastor.
3) Their encounter with the world. A basic Christian community is not an end in itself. If it were to become such, it would cease being leaven, cease being church, and become a sect. The purpose of the Christian community is to spread the kingdom of God. It cannot put itself forward to groups of Christians as a place of peaceful refuge that separates them off from the world. It is a deepening, and an intensification of their commitment. That is what the gospel means when it uses the symbolism of leaven, salt, and light. One cannot imagine that yeast would fulfill its function if it were not within the dough it had to leaven, or if salt were not in the food to which it had to give flavor, or if light were not in the place it had to illuminate.

[91] Let us not forget what Puebla says about giving dynamism to apostolic movements, to parishes, to basic Christian communities, and to active Catholics in general, so that they may be leaven more wholeheartedly (Puebla #462).  We must give them a genuine missionary spirit.

On the other hand the dynamic to which Puebla drew attention — popular religion and the people’s natural desire to achieve its own liberation — ought to find within the basic Christian communities its true worth and purification. The basic Christian communities, as Puebla says, embody the Church’s preferential love for the common people. In them their religiosity is expressed, valued, and purified; and they are given a concrete opportunity to share in the task of the Church and to work in a committed way for the transformation of the world (Puebla #643).

We are well aware that when Christians assume their role of adults in the faith to a greater degree, and become co-responsible for the progress of the church, even more conflicts with parish priests and with ecclesiastical authorities will occur, because some officials will not want to move forward at the same pace as the church of today, and because they will see their authority questioned by the criticism and evaluations made of them. Even in these cases, of course, the good Christian has to be mindful of the supreme values of charity and unity.

The Apostolate of Companionship

[92] By the apostolate of companionship or following I understand the personal evangelization of those individual Christians, or groups of Christians, who have made the concrete political option that, they believe in good conscience, represents the historical commitment of their faith. In this sense there are many options, charisms, and callings facing a Christian conscience, and a pastor has to respect, scrutinize, and guide consciences by the light of the Spirit.

In my third pastoral letter I spoke of the proliferation of popular political organizations as a new phenomenon to which the church must respond. We are now confronted, as a logical result of this proliferation, with the particular choices made by Christians and groups of Christians. It is not only that evangelization has a dimension that touches on politics; politicization is reaching out to our Christian communities, which often become standard-bearers for political groups.

[93] I am not speaking of a politicized apostolate but rather of an apostolate that has to guide, in accordance with the gospel, the consciences of Christians within a politicized environment. Political life, like all human activity, needs pastoral guidance. Our situation is made all the more difficult when many Christians, in an environment as politicized as the one in this country, choose their political options before finding their identity as Christians.

It is here, in order to respond to the challenge of the entirety of this complex situation, that the church requires a special kind of apostolate, one that I call an apostolate of following or companionship, one that breaks out of the already well-known molds of the mass apostolate and of the apostolate of small groups. About this Puebla says:

Speaking in general, and without distinguishing between the roles that may be proper to its various members, the Church feels it has a duty and a right to be present in this area of reality. For Christianity is supposed to evangelize the whole of human life, including the political dimension. So the Church criticizes those who would restrict the scope of faith to personal or family life; who would exclude the professional, economic, social, and political orders as if sin, love, prayer, and pardon had no relevance in them. The fact is that the need for the Church’s presence in the political arena flows from the very core of the Christian faith. That is to say, it flows from the Lordship of Christ over the whole of life. Christ sets the seal on the definitive brotherhood of humanity wherein every human being is of equal worth: ‘All are one in Christ Jesus’ (Puebla #515-516; quoting Galatians 3:28)

[94] There are several requirements for this apostolate — so urgently needed in our circumstances of political and social crisis — that are essential if it is to be effective. Some of them are:

—A great spirit of prayer and discernment before taking action.

—A great clarity and firmness about the criteria and the values of the gospel and a search for greater knowledge about more uncertain issues, such as the relationship between faith and politics, commitment in faith, commitment in history, Christianity and ideology, violence, and so on.

—A great respect for the diversity of choices and charisms that the one Spirit can give rise to so that human history itself becomes the history of salvation. A great mental and spiritual purity is needed if we are to rid ourselves of personal prejudices against individuals or institutions. I am not talking about pressuring persons to join political organizations, or about pressuring them to leave organizations or to abandon the choices they have made. Rather we want to help them evaluate and question their choices, from the perspective of gospel values. This evaluation and questioning can be about their own personal behavior, about the criteria of the group, about the consequences of their actions, about the very complexity of politics. For politics is much wider and more complicated than can be encompassed by one’s personal or a group’s options.

–A great spirit of commitment and sacrifice. I realize that this kind of apostolate will entail risks, criticisms, and false accusations. But I believe it is necessary because the times require it.

—A deep sense of hierarchical order and of teamwork. Although encouraging priests in this kind of apostolate, and pledging them my support and understanding, I beg them, for the honor of our church and the good of the people, never to take it up lightly, or for personal reasons, or by pure chance, letting themselves be dragged into it by the force of events, generously perhaps, but at times ingenuously or imprudently. They should rather associate themselves with an overall plan, in communion with their bishop, so that they can be part of the response of the church and as representatives of the church.


A Local Church in Communion with the Universal Church

[95] I have tried to portray, from a pastoral point of view, the situation of crisis that exists in our beloved country. I have also tried to delineate the service that our church could and should render as part of the effort that all active forces in our homeland could and should render. Within the open and frank dialogue that this country needs with such tragic urgency, this pastoral letter, written under the guidance of the magisterium of the popes and of the Latin American church gathered at Puebla, and with valuable contributions made by our local communities, represents the sincere view of our archdiocese.

Whether it is heeded or not, as pastor of the archdiocese this pastoral letter gives me the satisfaction of having made an effort to unite in it the real purposes that inspire what is called the pastoral approach of the archdiocese. To the universal church I offer it in filial devotion, as a contribution from one local church to the renewal that Vatican II began, and to which Medellin and Puebla gave concrete shape for the church in Latin America.

This gives me the opportunity of thanking persons for the many signs of support and solidarity that have come from different parts of Latin America, and from the world at large, support for the pastoral effort being made by our archdiocese from episcopal conferences, from cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, religious communities, and the laity, from ecumenical and secular organizations, and from individuals. I give thanks to the Lord, who is the only one who can comprehend the magnitude of this demonstration of the catholicity of the church and of universal human sentiment, which give proof of the authenticity of one local church.

Presentation of the Puebla Document to the Archdiocese

[96] As I said at the beginning, the central purpose of this pastoral letter has been officially to present to the archdiocese the document of the third conference of Latin American bishops gathered at Puebla. And in presenting it, making it the basis for all my commentary, I am calling upon all priests, religious, and lay persons that we day by day assimilate it better, coming to know it more fully and putting it increasingly into practice, so that the holy father’s desire, expressed in his letter of approbation, may be fulfilled in the archdiocese.

In the joint magisterium of the Puebla Final Document the experience of so many pastors who, in Latin America, live in circumstances similar to those of El Salvador teaches us how to analyze our situation and how to offer to this country in its hour of crisis the specific contribution of the church.

To be sure, these guidelines should not be thought of as closed to the creativity and originality of the various churches of Latin America. Their splendor is to be found in the different visages they present, deriving from the diversity of their own histories and problems. They offer us the surest path for our own creativity: they teach us to be always the one church of Christ within the unique framework of our own Salvadoran history.

The Divine Savior: Beginning and End of Our Apostolate

[97] The foundation for all our work of evangelization is the mystery of Christ that we preach, the mystery that was so clearly revealed, in a way that can never be equaled, in the theophany commemorated by our titular feast. It has the certification of the Father, who presents Christ to us as the one and only Savior of the world. He alone is the way forward toward the true liberation of Salvadorans and of El Salvador: Listen to him.

The church is his body in history. We shall be more the church, and offer a better specific contribution from the church for the liberation of our people, the more we identify ourselves with him, and the more we are docile instruments of his truth and his grace.

The Final Ecstasy of Paul VI and the Point of Departure for John Paul II

[98] It is opportune and pleasing to recall, exactly a year after his death, that this was the final testimony of his holiness Paul VI. This humble pope put his brilliant talents at the service of Christ. Therefore, during his pontificate, he was able to present to the world the shining glory of a church that, in the midst of today’s formidable conflicts, did not lose its identity and continued to be a pillar of truth. His last angelus message, which he was not able to recite in this world, was the final ecstasy of his life taken up by Christ in the theophany of that August 6. His successor John Paul II guides us along the same lines, and the title of his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, suggests an entire program for the modern apostolate.

Mary, Mother of the Church and Mother of America

[99] I could not end this reflection on what the church can offer this country at its time of crisis without mentioning that most tender and most beautiful aspect of its involvement: Mary, mother of Christ, mother of the church, mother of America. Puebla, too, gave a rich interpretation of the role of Mary in the church’s work of liberation, and of her providential presence in the devotion of our peoples.

The church, in its Latin American apostolate, has become increasingly convinced that it cannot ignore this devotion of the people to the Virgin Mary if it wants its apostolate among the people to be effective. Of this Marian devotion Puebla says that it is a vital, concrete experience in the history of Latin America; it is part of the innermost ‘identity’ of the Latin American peoples (Puebla #283, quoting John Paul II’s homily in Zapopán, #2).

The evangelical service and the liberating force that the church, together with Mary, offers to our country was described by Paul VI in words that find a timely echo. She is, he said, a strong woman who knew poverty and suffering, flight and exile. Such situations can hardly escape the attention of those who wish to corroborate the liberating efforts of human beings and society with the spirit of the Gospel (Marialis Cultus, #37, quoted in Puebla, #302).   And John Paul II recalled how in the Magnificat Mary is depicted as the model for all those who do not passively accept the adverse circumstances of personal and social life and who are not victims of ‘alienation,’ as the expression goes today, but who instead join with her in proclaiming that God is ‘the avenger of the lowly,’ and will, if need be, depose ‘the mighty from their thrones’ (Homily in Zapopán, quoted in Puebla #297)

A Blessing with Optimism and Enthusiasm

[100] And so, with this Marian reflection, and in the midst of a crisis that brings despair to many and affliction to all, we feel that the feast of our Lord’s transfiguration invites us to hope for the transfiguration of our homeland, placed as it is under the special protection of the divine Savior of the world.

With Puebla’s filial optimism I can say, as I give my blessing to the archdiocese: This is Mary’s hour, the hour of a new Pentecost. She presides over this hour with her prayers as the Church, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, initiates a new stage on its journey. On this journey we pray that Mary may be ‘the star of a continually renewed evangelization’ (Puebla #303, quoting Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, #82)

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Third Pastoral Letter – The Church and Popular Political Organizations

To our beloved brothers and sisters, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, the priests, religious, and laity of the archdiocese of San Salvador and the diocese of Santiago de María; to you and to all men and women of good will: the peace of Jesus Christ, our divine Savior.


We, the archbishop of San Salvador and the bishop of Santiago de Maria, had already been thinking of sending this pastoral letter to our dioceses to mark our return from our ad limina visit to Rome and as an act of homage to our divine Savior on our patronal feast of the transfiguration.

Never did we imagine, however, that the sudden death of his Holiness Paul VI, now of happy memory, would give both these events a new significance. Who could have imagined the eloquent coincidence of Paul VI’s death and our own titular feast of the transfiguration! The final message of his lucid teaching — the short address he had written to be read at the angelus of August 6 — now becomes for us a cherished family heirloom because it was inspired by the divine Patron of El Salvador: That body transfigured before the astonished gaze of his disciples, his Holiness said, is the body of Christ our Brother, but it is also our body summoned to glory. The light that floods over it is, and will be, our share in that inheritance of splendor. We are called to share this glory because we are sharers in the divine nature.  From this vision of transcendence that illuminated the last day of his mortal life, the pontiff turned his gaze back to earth in anxious concern for the poor. And he made an appeal to the world for social justice as he reflected that economic and social circumstances would prevent many from enjoying a well-earned rest during the traditional summer holidays.

Our audience with the supreme pontiff of the Church, together with his wise pastoral advice, gained, through his death, the solemn character of a last testament. The same pattern of turning toward the absolute and eternal, together with a concern for the ordinary needs of our people, confirmed our episcopal service when, on that unforgettable June 21, he spoke to us with the tenderness of a father. He was already aware of the approach of death, but he spoke with the firmness and clarity of a prophet who had long known, and known well, the historical situation of El Salvador. He exhorted its pastors to guide and strengthen its people along the paths of justice and love for the gospel. We feel, then, that the light with which our letter seeks to illuminate the pathway for our dioceses is the true light of the gospel and of the Church’s magisterium. We feel that the transfiguration of Christ, which, in a great pope’s last hour, illuminated the divine vocation of men and women and exposed the unjust inequalities of this world, has the strength and brightness to offer us — through an analysis of the events that are threatening to drown us in a sea of bitterness and confusion — an effective answer to the questioners who look to us for a way out of the difficult situation through which the country is currently passing.

In Accord with the Universal Magisterium

The Father offers us the divine Transfigured One as the Son in whom he is well pleased and tells us to listen to him as Savior and Teacher of the world.

The Church, which is the extension of the teaching and salvation of Christ, would be wrong to remain silent when faced with concrete problems. The testimony of the Second Vatican Council, always the point of reference for the teaching of Pope Paul VI; its application to Latin America through the documents of Medellin; the recent popes, many Latin American episcopates, and our own tradition in the Church of El Salvador, show us that the Church has always made its presence felt when society clearly seemed in a sinful situation (Medellin Documents, Peace, #1), in need of the light of the word of God and the word of the Church in history. This prophetic mission of the Church in defense of the poor, who have always had a special place in the heart of the Lord (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, #12), numbers among its apostles in Latin America such men as Fray Antonio de Montesinos, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, Bishop Juan del Valle, and Bishop Antonio Valdivieso who was assassinated in Nicaragua because of his opposition to the landowner and governor, Contreras.

To these eloquent testimonies of the Church, both universal and local, we join today our own humble voice. In obedience to the exhortation of his Holiness, we hope that it will serve to guide and encourage the beloved people we serve as pastors.

Our True Intention

We realize that we risk being misunderstood or condemned, through malice or naivety, as inopportune or ignorant. It is, however, our honest intention to dispel the inertia of the many Salvadorans who are indifferent to the suffering in our land, especially in rural areas. It is true that there is some awareness in society of the plight of urban workers and of independent merchants harassed by acts of arson, and even of the crowded slums and shantytowns. Nevertheless we are concerned about the indifference shown by many urban groups to rural hardship. It seems to be accepted as inevitable that the majority of our people be weighed down by hunger and unemployment. Their sufferings, injuries, and deaths seem to have become routine. They no longer make us ask Why is this happening? What should we do to avoid it? How can we answer the question the Lord put to Cain, What have you done? Listen to the sound of your brother’s blood, crying out to me from the ground (Genesis 4:10).

The Duty and Danger of Speaking Out

It is also our intention to clarify yet again the attitude of the Church to human situations that, by their very nature, involve economic, social, and political problems. The Church is meddling in politics, we keep hearing, as if that were proof that it had abandoned its mission. And the Church is also misrepresented and slandered in order to discredit and silence it because the interests of a few are not compatible with the logical consequences that follow from the Church’s religious and evangelical mission in the human, economic, social, and political spheres.

The Church’s prophetic mission in the world is also mentioned on our patronal feast day when Peter, who was a witness of the transfiguration, compares it to a lamp for lighting a way through the dark (2 Peter 1:19), something to which Christians ought to pay attention if they are not to be seduced by cleverly invented myths and the opinions of this world (2 Peter 1:16).

We are well aware that what we have to say, as with every attempt to sow the seed of the gospel, will run the risk of the seed in the parable of the sower: there will be those, even those of good will, who will not understand, because the misery of the poor and, above all, of the campesinos is remote from them and tragically forms a part of the history of their country to which they have become accustomed. There will also be those who will look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding (Matthew 13:14). There will be those, too, who prefer the darkness to the light because their actions are evil (John 3:19). However, thank God, we are sure we can also count on some honest and brave souls who will be ready to draw near to the light, who will not conform themselves to this world (Romans 12:2), and who will cooperate in the birth pains of a new creation (Rom. 8:22).

Two Themes: Popular Organizations and Violence

The situation in our country and the questions of our Christians, especially of rural worker families, make it our duty to clarify as far as possible these two problems: the problem of what are called popular organizations, which should perhaps be given a name that more accurately reflects their nature and aims, and the problem of violence, which is daily in greater need of the distinctions and classifications of sound Christian moral teaching.

We shall, therefore, divide our pastoral letter into three parts: (1) the situation of popular organizations in El Salvador; (2) the relationship between the Church and popular organizations; (3) the Church’s teaching on violence.

Our Limitations Necessitate Dialogue

Because these problems have assumed a new form, we understand the disquiet that causes many, particularly campesinos, to ask: What are we to make of these popular organizations, which are independent of the government, especially when, alongside and bitterly antagonistic toward them, government organizations are growing up? Does being a Christian mean one has to join some popular organization seeking radical changes in our country? How can one be a Christian and accept the demands of the gospel and yet join some organization that neither believes in nor has sympathy with the gospel? How ought a Christian to resolve the conflict between loyalty to the gospel and the demands of an organization when it may not be in accordance with the gospel? What is the relationship between the Church and these organizations?

On the question of violence, Salvadorans are asking where, in the situation of our country, the line should be drawn between what is and is not permissible in the light of the law of Christ. As pastors, we have a duty to give a Christian answer, an answer of the Church, to these problems that trouble so many consciences. We are, however, also aware of our limitations. Vatican If recognized them when it warned the laity not to think that pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give a concrete solution (Gaudium et Spes, #43).

Although the problems we shall address are old ones, they have often taken quite new forms in the recent history of our country. Therefore, because of the novelty of the subject and the natural limitations of its authors, our pastoral letter quite deliberately offers no more than the Christian principles on which a solution must be based. It is a call to the whole people of God to reflect on these matters in local Churches, in communion with their pastors and with the universal Church, in the light of the gospel, and in fidelity to the true identity of the Church.

This is not an attempt to evade the seriousness of the problem. We are following the spirit of the Church’s magisterium, which Paul VI in his letter Octogesima Adveniens, defined as follows: It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words, and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment, and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church. …  It is up to these Christian communities, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in communion with the bishops who hold responsibility and in dialogue with other Christians and all men and women of good will, to discern the options and commitments that are called for in order to bring about the social, political, and economic changes seen in many cases to be urgently needed (Octogesima Adveniens, #4).

In order to make community reflection easier, we are offering, in a separate pamphlet, three clarifying notes. They are not integral parts of the text of this letter, but simply additional notes intended to arouse thought and to stimulate study. They deal with (1) the national context in which the Church fulfills its mission; (2) the word of God on human misery; (3) the most recent teaching of the Church. One can find fault with these notes; nonetheless we think the study of them very useful if the problems touched on in this letter are to be better understood in relation to the situation in this country, and from a biblical and ecclesial perspective. For it is only by listening, starting from the facts and their analysis, to the cries of the poor, and by hearing the word of Jesus and of his Church, that we can find a solution, and a pastoral response, to the problems we are going to discuss.

For this reflection we also recommend that you keep in mind the first two pastoral letters of the archbishop of San Salvador, The Easter Church and The Church, the Body of Christ in History. These focus explicitly on the nature and mission of the Church, to both of which we shall make reference only when it is essential to our central theme.


Within the context of our national situation, the proliferation of popular organizations is one of those phenomena of which Vatican II makes mention when, calling upon Christians to reflect and discern, it says: The People of God …  motivated by this faith, labors to decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs, and desires in which this People has a part along with other men of our age (Gaudium et Spes, #11).

In this pastoral letter we have no intention of studying the origins, history, and objectives of these organizations. We want simply, in this section, to restate the right to organize and to denounce the violation of that right in our country. In the next section we shall deal with the relationship between the Church and the popular organizations.

The Right to Organize

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which this country is a signatory, and article 160 of our Constitution, proclaim the right of all citizens to assemble and to form associations.

This right, whose proclamation is one of the achievements of our civilization, has been repeatedly affirmed by the Church: From the fact that human beings are by nature social, said Pope John XXIII in the encyclical Pacem in Terris, there arises the right of assembly and association (Pacem in Terris, #23). The Second Vatican Council reminded us once again that among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding labor unions. . . . These should be able truly to represent [workers] (Gaudium et Spes, #68). For our own continent Medellin recalled that in the intermediary professional structure the peasants’ and the workers’ unions, to which the workers have a right, should acquire sufficient strength and power (Medellin Documents, Justice, #12).

The Violation of This Right in El Salvador

Unfortunately there is an enormous difference between legal declarations and reality in our country. Various political, trade union, worker, rural, cultural, and other associations do exist here. Some of them enjoy legal recognition, others do not. Some of them — with or without legal recognition — are able to function freely, others are not. However, we do not now want to concentrate on the legal aspect of formal recognition. We are more interested in examining the practical freedom of any human group to exercise its natural right of association and the support and cooperation it can expect from an authority genuinely concerned with the common good whereby men, families, and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection (Gaudium et Spes, #74). 

It is here, faced with the absence of this real freedom, that we have to denounce the violation of this human right of association proclaimed by our Constitution and by an international declaration of human rights accepted by our country.

We note, specifically, under this heading, the following three abuses:

Discrimination among Citizens

The first conclusion of any impartial analysis of the right of association must be that groups in agreement with the government or protected by it have complete freedom. Organizations, on the other hand, that voice dissent from the government-political parties, trade unions, rural organizations — find themselves hindered or even prevented from exercising their right to organize legally and work for their aims, just though these may be. It is, then, a situation in which the fundamental right mentioned above is violated.

Harm Done to the Majority

This discrimination results in yet another violation of our democratic rights — for let us not forget that the meaning of the Greek word demos is the totality of the citizens. It is a fact, and one for which there is daily fresh evidence, that economically powerful minorities can organize in defense of their interests and very often to the detriment of the great majority of the people.

They can mount publicity campaigns, even in opposition to the government; they can influence important items of legislation, as in the case of agrarian reform and the Law for the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order. By contrast, other groups among the mass of the people meet only difficulties and repression when they try, in an organized way, to defend the interests of the majority.

This situation inflicts at least two serious injuries on our people; it infringes upon their dignity, their freedom, and their equal right to participate in politics and it leaves without protection those who need it most. The aspiration to equality and the aspiration to participation [are] two forms of human dignity and liberty, said Pope Paul VI in Octogesima Adveniens (#22).  There is indeed, in this state of affairs, a blatant inequality between citizens as regards participation in politics depending on whether they belong to the powerful minority or to the poor majority, and whether or not they enjoy official approval.

With regard to the lack of protection for those who need it most, let us recall that, as we said in our message of January 1, historically, genuine laws were made to protect the weakest, those who, without the law, are prey to the powerful. The protection of the weakest was also the historical origin of the different groupings among the majority, the modern unions of urban and rural workers. What forced them to unite in the first place was not just their civil right to participate in the political and economic management of their country, but the simple basic need to survive, to exercise their right to make their conditions of life at least tolerable. It is here, in this basic exigency, that the need for legislation and the need for organization coincide. The absurd response to this basic need is — without any attempt to distinguish between true and false — indiscriminate repression. Clandestine forces of subversion is the term used to describe those who are trying to improve society and its laws, so that its benefits and ideals do not exclude those who also contribute to producing the wealth — great or little — of the country.

Conflict among Campesino Groups

Though we do not want to go into great detail, we cannot at this point ignore the tragedy in this country of organizations, composed mainly of campesinos, at odds with one another. Recently they have even engaged in violent conflict. It is not — solely or ultimately — ideologies that have divided them and brought them into conflict.

The members of these organizations do not, for the most part, think differently about peace, work, or the family. The most serious aspect of the situation is that rural Salvadorans are being divided by the very thing that most deeply unites them: the same poverty, the same need to survive, to give something to their children, to provide bread, education, and health care for their families.

What is happening is that, in order to escape from their common poverty, some are corrupted by the benefits offered by pro-government organizations. In return they are employed in various repressive activities that regularly include informing on, threatening, kidnapping, torturing, and even, in some cases, killing their fellow campesinos. Others, active in organizations independent of the government or opposed to it, strive to find more satisfactory ways of escaping their precarious situation. Finally special attention should be paid to those groups of Christian communities that have so often been the target of misrepresentation and manipulation. These groups meet to reflect on the word of God, which, if it is a word incarnate in real situations, always awakens the Christian conscience to its duty to work for a more just society through the various political choices suggested by that faith and conscience.

Why the Right to Organize and Why Especially for the Rural Poor?

It is very sad to have to present to the divine Patron of our nation on this titular feast a rural population that, paradoxically, is organized to divide and destroy itself. So, thinking for the moment chiefly of the campesinos, and recalling the fundamental right of all men and women to organize, we invite you to lift your minds and hearts to our divine Savior. He is the ultimate basis of all the rights and all the duties that regulate human relationships.

He is not a God of death or of fratricidal confrontation. He did not give us a social nature so that we should destroy ourselves in mutually hostile organizations, but so that we could complement our individual limitations with the strength of all, united in love. Under the law of his justice and his commandment of love, human rights ought to be exercised in such a way that they do not become the cause of fratricidal strife. The right to organize is not absolute: it does not make unjust ends or methods legitimate. It is a right to join forces in order to achieve, by just means, ends that are also just and conducive to the common good.

The right to organize must be exercised on the basis of the dignity of the individual. The criterion for organizing, whether at the political, cultural, or trade union level, is the defense of legitimate interests, whether or not they are contained in a specific piece of legislation or an interpretation of it.

Again, in regard to the right to organize, we uphold the national Constitution when it recalls the limits imposed by morality and rejects anarchical theories of the use of rights. Our intention, in demanding that the right of association be enjoyed by all Salvadorans, with particular emphasis on the rural population, is certainly not to defend terrorist groups or support anarchist movements and irrational, subversive ideologies. We have in the past often denounced the fanaticism of violence or class hatred, and we have reiterated the principle of the Christian moral teaching that the end does not justify criminal means and that there is no freedom to do evil. We therefore defend the right to make just demands and denounce the dangerous and evil-minded oversimplification that seeks to misrepresent them and condemn them as terrorism or unlawful subversion.

No one dare take away, least of all from the poor, the right to organize, because the protection of the weak is the principal purpose of laws and of social organizations.

That is why we have said that we want, in this letter, to stress the right of campesinos to form organizations. They are the ones who, today, encounter the greatest difficulty in exercising this right.

Historically, poor land-workers are the class with which society has least concerned itself. Pope John XXIII, who was never ashamed of his poor, rural origin, advocated the changes necessary so that poor land-workers no longer regard themselves as inferior to others (Mater et Magistra, #125).  And he warned that farmers should join together in fellowships. . . . For today it is unquestionably true that the solitary voice speaks, as they say, to the winds (Mater et Magistra, #146). 

The Second Vatican Council reminded us that poor land-workers do not simply want better living conditions but also to take part in regulating economic, social, political, and cultural life.  During his journey to Colombia, Pope Paul VI solemnly affirmed to the campesinos of Mosquera, You are aware of your needs and your sufferings, and, like many others in the world, you are not going to accept that these conditions continue forever without being able to bring about the needed remedies. He reminded them that they belong to the human family without discrimination, to the fellowship of humankind (August 1968).

Medellin reemphasized this right (cf. Medellin Documents, Justice, #11-12) and it has been reiterated since then by several Latin American hierarchies: Colombia, July 1969; Honduras, January 1970; Peru, December 1975; and others. Our own episcopal conference has also spoken out clearly in defense of the campesino right of association. In line with the position taken up by our own hierarchy, we have no hesitation in reaffirming the right of men and women living in the countryside to form associations, and, indeed, encouraging the formation of such associations. In so doing we do not speak, as pastors, with a particular political view but with the Christian view that the poor should have sufficient strength not to be the victims of the interests of a minority, as they have been in the past.

Medellin made it quite clear that, in the particular situation of Latin America, it is an eminently Christian task and, therefore, part of the pastoral policy of the Latin American hierarchy to encourage and favor the efforts of the people to create and develop their own grassroots organizations for the redress and consolidation of their rights and the search for true justice (Medellin Documents, Peace, #20-27).


A New Problem

Our subject here is not the attitude of the Church to the different political parties: that has already been examined and is well known. The issue is how the Church should see and perform its particular mission within the process of organization that is now taking place at such speed among the people, primarily among the rural poor. It might well be thought that this proliferation of popular organizations is for us one of the signs of the times that challenge the Church to exercise its power and duty of discernment and guidance in the light of the word of God that has been given to it to be applied to the problems of history.

We have already said that there is a new challenge here, not only for the Church, but also for the organizations themselves and society in general. Therefore common reflection, with the help of the Holy Spirit and in communion with the bishops responsible, as recommended in the passage quoted above from Paul VI’s Octogesima Adveniens, will be a sure path to understanding and to keeping an evangelical balance between the identity and duty of the Church and the social and political concerns of the people. We shall first make three statements of principle and then apply them to our situation.

Three Statements of Principle

We can consider the relationship of the Church to the popular organizations at two different levels, practical and theoretical.

At the practical level, much depends on the de facto historical situation. That is to say, when the Church has to make judgments or advise people looking for guidance based on the gospel about immediate political commitments, the Church must study each situation from a pastoral point of view, show respect for the rightful plurality of solutions, and not identify itself with any one of them, because the Church has to respect the freedom to make specific political choices.

At the theoretical level, in regard to the relationship between the Church and any organization that has as its objectives social and political justice, we want to lay down three principles.

The Church’s Own Nature

The first principle we take as it stands from the Second Vatican Council:  Christ, to be sure, gave his Church no proper mission in the political, economic, or social order. The purpose which he set before it is a religious one. But out of this religious mission itself come a function, a light, and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law (Gaudium et Spes, #42).

These more religious aspects of the mystery of the Church can be studied in the archbishop of San Salvador’s first two pastoral letters. They are not the main subject of this one, although we have them very much in mind in order to maintain the true nature and mission of the Church in its relationship with other human organizations.

In his exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul VI describes the two chief religious bonds that give cohesion and its own particular style to the community that is the Church: Those who sincerely accept the Good News, through the power of this acceptance and of shared faith, therefore gather together in Jesus’ name in order to seek together the Kingdom, build it up and live it. They make up a community which is in its turn evangelizing. . . . Such an adherence, which cannot remain abstract and unincarnated, reveals itself concretely by a visible entry into a community of believers. Thus those whose life has been transformed enter a community which is itself a sign of transformation, a sign of newness of life: it is the Church, the visible sacrament of salvation. But entry into the ecclesial community will in its turn be expressed through many other signs which prolong and unfold the sign of the Church. In the dynamism of evangelization, a person who accepts the Gospel as the Word which saves normally translates it into the following sacramental acts: adherence to the Church, and acceptance of the Sacraments, which manifest and support this adherence through the grace which they confer (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #13, 23).

Thus, one must not lose sight of this specific task of the Church: evangelization. The word of God creates a Church community united in itself and with God by means of sacramental signs, chief of which is the Eucharist. This is why the council said that the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race (Lumen Gentium, #1).

However, on accepting this word of God, Christians find that it is a living word that brings with it awareness and demands. That is to say, it makes them aware of what sin and grace are, and of what must be resisted and what must be built up on earth. It is a word that demands of our consciences and of our lives not only that we judge the world by the criteria of the kingdom of God, but that we act accordingly. It is a word of God that we must not only hear but put into practice.

This is what the Church has been doing in its pastoral work: gathering men and women around the word of God and the Eucharist. We cannot give up the right to do this. It is a duty demanded of us by the very nature of the Church. To this level of pastoral work belong our attempts to set up and encourage basic ecclesial communities. These are the organized communities that arise around the word of God, a word that brings persons together, makes them aware, and makes demands upon them, and around the Eucharist and the other sacramental signs, to celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, celebrating at the same time our human effort to open ourselves to the gift of a greater humanity. Of these basic ecclesial communities Paul VI said:  They spring from the need to live the Church’s life more intensely, or from the desire and quest for a more human dimension such as larger ecclesial communities can only offer with difficulty. . . . These communities will be a place of evangelization, for the benefit of the bigger communities, especially the individual Churches.  And … they will be a hope for the universal Church (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #58).

These communities have to be maintained and strengthened because they are the vital cells of the Church. They embody the whole concept of the Church and its unique mission. Pastors and lay ministers must take care that this identity and mission be maintained in all its purity and autonomy so that these communities are not confused with other organizations and, above all, are not manipulated by them.

It is very important that pastors and others engaged in pastoral work should keep in mind the comments of Paul VI and the other bishops at the 1974 Synod of Bishops when they pointed out dangers that were likely to turn these communities aside from their ecclesial pursuits and evangelical objectives. We want to draw particular attention, in line with our theme, to the warning not [to] allow themselves to be ensnared by political polarization or fashionable ideologies, which are ready to exploit their immense human potential (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #58).

The Church is also fully aware, through its own experience, that the typical ecclesial community can also arouse in Christians an explicitly political vocation. We have said that the word of God, which nourishes the ecclesial community, is a word that makes persons aware and makes demands upon them, and that this word must not only be heard but also put into practice. This demand and action in response to it can awaken political commitment in a Christian. Moreover, Vatican II states: Great care must be taken about civic and political formation, which is of the utmost necessity today for the population as a whole, and especially for youth, so that all citizens can play their part in the life of the political community. Those who are suited or can become suited should prepare themselves for the difficult, but at the same time, the very noble art of politics, and should seek to practice this art without regard for their own interests or for material advantages (Gaudium et Spes, #75).

However, when political vocations appear in the ecclesial community, the Church has no special role in determining the specific means to be chosen to achieve a more just society. While respecting the autonomy of politics, it will continue to maintain its own properly ecclesial character as outlined above.

The Church at the Service of the People

The second principle that we must lay down is that the Church has a mission of service to the people. Precisely from its specifically religious character and mission come a function, a light, and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law (Gaudium et Spes, #42).

It is the role of the Church to gather into itself all that is human in the people’s cause and struggle, above all in the cause of the poor. The Church identifies with the poor when they demand their legitimate rights. In our country the right they are demanding is hardly more than the right to survive, to escape from misery.

This solidarity with just aims is not restricted to particular organizations. Whether they call themselves Christian or not, whether they are protected by the government, legally or in practice, or whether they are independent of it and opposed to it, the Church is interested only in one thing: if the aim of the struggle is just, the Church will support it with all the power of the gospel. In the same way it will denounce, with bold impartiality, all injustice in any organization, wherever it is found. By virtue of this service that it is the Church’s duty to render, through its faith, to the thirst for justice, it was stated at Medellin that the direction to be taken by pastoral policy in Latin America was to encourage and favor the efforts of the people to create and develop their own grassroots organizations for the redress and consolidation of their rights and the search for true justice (Medellin Documents, Peace, #27).

The Church is well aware of the complexity of political activity. However, and we repeat it, it is not, nor ought it to be, an expert in this sort of activity. Nevertheless it can and must pass judgment on the general intention and the particular methods of political parties and organizations, precisely because of its interest in a more just society. The economic, social, political, and cultural hopes of men and women are not alien to the definitive liberation achieved in Jesus Christ, which is the transcendent hope of the Church (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #29-36).

No less can the Church shirk the task of defending the weak and those in real need, whatever the nature of the groups or individuals who support their just causes. As Paul VI remarked:  It is well known in what terms numerous bishops from all the continents spoke of this at the [1974] synod, especially the bishops from the Third World, with a pastoral accent resonant with the voice of the millions of sons and daughters of the Church who make up those peoples. Peoples, as we know, engaged with all their energy in the effort and struggle to overcome everything which condemns them to remain on the margin of life: famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices in international relations and especially in commercial exchanges, situations of economic and cultural neocolonialism sometimes as cruel as the old political colonialism. The Church, as the bishops repeated, has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are its own children — the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete. This is not foreign to evangelization (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #30).

In this service of solidarity with the just causes of the poor, we have not forgotten the duties of the poor themselves and the demands on them to show respect for others. When we have mediated in conflicts, when we have denounced attacks on dignity, life, or liberty, and on other occasions when we have shown this solidarity, we have always tried to be just and objective and we have never been moved by, nor have we ever preached, hatred or resentment. On the contrary, we have called for conversion. We have pointed to justice as the indispensable basis of the peace that is the true objective of Christians. Among its services to the people the Church has performed countless works of charity for the welfare and Christian education of the poor, works that give the lie to those who accuse it of only agitating and never acting.

The Role of the Struggle for Liberation in Christian Salvation

This is the third principle that, at the theoretical level, guides our reflection on relations between the Church and popular organizations. These organizations are forces for the achievement of social, economic, and political justice among the people, especially among the rural poor. The Church, as we have said, fosters and encourages just attempts at organization and supports whatever is just in their demands. The Church’s service to these legitimate efforts for liberation would not, however, be complete if it did not bring to bear on them the light of its faith and its hope, and point out their place in the overall plan of the salvation brought by our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

The overall plan of the liberation proclaimed by the Church:

1) involves the whole person, in all dimensions, including openness to the absolute that is God, and to that extent it is linked to a certain understanding of human nature — an understanding that cannot be sacrificed to the demands of any particular strategy, tactic, or short-term expedient;

2) is centered on the kingdom of God and, although its mission is not limited to religion, it nevertheless reaffirms the primacy of humanity’s spiritual vocation and proclaims salvation in Jesus Christ;

3) proceeds from a scriptural vision of human nature, is based on a deep desire for justice in love, implies a truly spiritual dimension that has as its final aim salvation and happiness with God;

4) demands a conversion of heart and mind, and is not satisfied with merely structural changes;

5) and excludes violence, considering it unchristian and unscriptural, ineffective and out of keeping with the dignity of the people (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, #33-37).

If the Church, in its support for any group in its efforts to achieve liberation in this world, were to lose the overall perspective of Christian salvation, it would lose its fundamental meaning. Its message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation. . . . It would have no more authority to proclaim freedom as in the name of God (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #32).

On the other hand, by cultivating faith and hope in this overall plan of Christ’s salvation, the Church preaches the real reasons for living, and it puts forward the most solid grounds possible to help persons become aware of themselves as truly free and ready to work with serene confidence for the liberation of the world. Acting in this way the Church is trying more and more to encourage large numbers of Christians to devote themselves to the liberation of men. It is providing these Christian ‘liberators’ with the inspiration of faith, the motivation of fraternal love, a social teaching which the true Christian cannot ignore and which he must make the foundation of his wisdom and of his experience in order to translate it concretely into forms of action, participation, and commitment (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #38).

The Charism of Paul VI

To end this statement of principles, which should help us to understand more readily the relationship that should exist between the Church and organizations working for social justice, our thoughts turn once more in grateful reverence to the memory of Pope Paul VI. We give thanks for the charismatic clarity of his teaching and for the pastor’s love he showed for us, the people of El Salvador.

His teaching, endowed with a remarkable ability to explain the theology of the Church’s relationship with the world, has clarified our own reflections. It has led us forward, guiding us by means of many documents on social and ecclesiological questions. We invite the whole community of our dioceses to join us in our reflections so that our teaching, commitment, and action in this delicate area may be more precise.

The pastoral love that the pope enjoined on us as his last wish for El Salvador quickens our pastoral instincts in our desire to reach a balanced understanding of and support for the justice that our people is seeking with eagerness and hope.

Application of the principles

Using the three ecclesiological criteria explained above, we are in a position to judge the relationship of  the Church to the social groups that organize to struggle for justice in the political sphere.  From these principles we should be able to work out what these organizations can hope for, or even demand, from the Church in accordance with its missions and what cannot be expected because it is outside the Church’s competence.

Let us therefore continue our dialogue by applying the principles to various problems presented by the Church’s relationships with the popular organizations.

A Relationship of Origination

Some Popular organizations are known to be of Christian inspiration and even have names that reflect it. Their historical origin is closely linked with the life and activity of some Christian community. This fact, which is not exclusive to our period or our country, has been maliciously distorted here to the point of identifying the Church with certain popular organizations. The Church has been held responsible for the particular means chosen by these organizations with full autonomy and on their own responsibility to achieve their aims.

We have already explained that this relationship of origination is possible and natural when we talked about the power of the word of God, which nourishes the Christian faith of the ecclesial community, to awaken consciousness and make demands. In many campesinos this word has encouraged the parallel growth of an active awareness of both faith and the justice that faith demands, and this may also lead to a political calling.

Faith and Politics: United but not identified

This is where the problem arises: faith and politics ought to be united in a Christian who has a political vocation, but they are not to be identified. The Church wants both dimensions to be present in the total life of a Christian and has emphasized that faith lived out in isolation from life is not true faith. However, one also has to be aware that the task of the faith and a particular political task cannot be identified. Christians with a political vocation should strive to achieve a synthesis between their Christian faith and their political activity, but without identifying them. Faith ought to inspire political action but not be mistaken for it.

It is important to be very clear about this when the same persons who belong to ecclesial communities also belong to popular political organizations. If they do not bear in mind this distinction between the Christian faith and their political activity, they can fall into two errors: they can substitute for the demands of the faith and Christian justice the demands of a particular political organization, or they can assert that only within a particular organization can one develop the requirements of Christian justice that spring from the faith.

What can and what cannot be demanded of the Church?

Thus, when Christians organize themselves into any sort of association, be it political party, trade union,  or popular organization, they ought to be well aware of precisely what belongs to the realm of the faith and what to the realms of politics, and respect the autonomy of each.  A political organizations ought to have a clear notion of what can be asked, or even demanded of the Church, and of what cannot be demanded, because it would be asking for something the Church cannot give and would be seriously compromising the legitimate autonomy of politics.

What we have said to clarify the nature and mission of the Church also makes clear what any organization, Christian in inspiration or not, can ask of the Church.  It can expect the Church to advocate civil rights, such as the right of association, the right to strike, the right to demonstrate, and the right to free speech.  No organization, even if Christian in inspiration or name, can, however, require that the Church as such or any feature or activity clearly recognizable as ecclesiastical (such as religious ceremonies, preaching, processions, etc.), be turned into direct means of propaganda for political ends.  We have already said that the Church, for its part, is always ready to make use of the only power it possesses — the power of the gospel — to throw light on any kind of activity that will be establish justice.

Loyalty to the Christian faith

This brings us to another problem that we want to delineate as clearly as possible.  To struggle for justice in a popular organization it is not necessary either to be a Christian or explicitly to accept faith in Christ.  One can be a good politician or work hard to bring about a more just society without being a Christian, provided that one respects, and take account of, the human and social value of the individual.

Those, however, who claim to be Christians, and who organize as such, have the duty of confessing their faith in Christ and, in their social and political activity, of using methods that are consonant with their faith.

We well understand that at times it is difficult to distinguish what is specifically Christian from what is not. And Christianity, being a historical religion, meets new situations that require new answers. Hence it is understandable that confusion arises in a new situation. One thing must, however, be quite clear: that what is final and absolute for a Christian, even for one involved in political activity, has to be faith in God and the need to achieve justice according to the norms of the kingdom of God.

We also understand that political activity tends to absorb, indeed to monopolize, a person’s interest. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon of human enthusiasm. However, there arises at times a tension between two loyalties, loyalty to the faith and loyalty to the organization. At times it will not be easy to live out this tension. Here too, as with everything that is new, it will be necessary to learn by trial and error. It is, however, our pastoral duty, even taking into account the difficulties we have outlined, to remind you that, however great this tension between the two loyalties, the final and definitive loyalty of a Christian can never be to a human organization, no matter what advantages it may offer, but to God and to the poor, who are the least of the brethren of Jesus Christ. .

Authenticity, not manipulation

We therefore urge Christians who belong, organization with just social, political, and economic aims to profess their faith openly so that they can grow in it. Yet, in their theoretical convictions and concrete applications, they must not fall into the temptation of pride and intransigence, as though the legitimate political choice to which their faith has led them were the only way of working whole-heardedly for justice.

We also remind them of the duty of expressing their faith in loyal solidarity with the Church and openness to the transcendence of God through the sacramental signs of his grace, through prayer and meditation on the Word of God.  This is the only way to ensure that a commitment to justice and the Christian political vocation grow in tandem.  This mutual interaction between an explicit faith and dedication to justice will be the guarantee that one’s faith is not vain, but is accompanied by works, and at the same time that the justice one is seeking is indeed the justice of the kingdom of God.

However, if some Christians, their Christian faith to take up a stance in favor of the poor, sadly nave come to lose that faith and now think it useless, we urge them to be sincere and not to exploit the faith, which they no longer share, in order to achieve political objectives, no matter how just.
Not Every Christian Has a Political Vocation

A Christian cannot be forced to join a specific political party or organization. It must be remembered, on the one hand, that every human activity has, and cannot avoid having, political repercussions in the broad sense and so constitutes an inescapable degree of political involvement, a certain capacity for deciding between different political courses and, above all, a strong critical sense. On the other hand, it must be remembered that not every Christian has a political vocation —that is to say, the qualities and the desire necessary to fight for justice by specifically political means.

There are other means of carrying on this struggle — for example, by education for liberation (Medellin), or by evangelization aware of human rights and the process of the liberation of peoples (cf., Evangelii Nuntiandi, #30, 31).

Politics, as a vocation, as a legitimate human and Christian dimension of life, has no right to be considered the only possible way to perform the inescapable duty of every Salvadoran to work for the establishment of a more just order in our country.

We are not saying this to encourage inactivity or idleness, but so that all of you will think about your vocation to devote your life to the service of others.
Clergy and Laity in Collaboration with the Hierarchy

We now want to address ourselves to our beloved clergy and to those respected lay persons who, like the clergy, work closely with the hierarchy and therefore need a special commission or authorization that makes them, through this work, to some degree representatives of the teaching and ministry of the Church among the people.

It is with great joy that we affirm that the work of our clergy and laity is daily becoming more involved with, and committed to, the cause of our divine Pastor, and of the world in which we live. Our pastoral activity is becoming continually more aware of the total liberation demanded of us by the gospel, and by the authoritative teaching of the bishops of the universal Church and that of the Latin American bishops assembled at Medellin.

It is becoming increasingly clearer that the call to conversion addressed to all is more effective and authentic when it follows the gospel strategy of taking the good news of salvation first to the poor, while reminding them too of the demands of their conversion (Luke 4: 1 8).

This is our pastoral approach. It received its most authoritative and direct support from Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi and its practical application to our dioceses in the San Salvador pastoral week (January 5-10, 1976). We cannot stray from this approach without being unfaithful to our consciences, to the hopes of the people, and, above all, to the word of the Lord.

For this reason we urge our beloved clergy and laity to guard the evangelical purity of this approach and, in guarding it, not to be afraid of the boldness it will often demand of us. We well understand the risks involved in this purity and boldness. It is normal, and indeed frequently happens, that priests and their closest lay collaborators, precisely because they want to preach a realistic and committed gospel, should have a keen awareness of political problems and, as citizens, should feel more drawn toward one political party or popular organization than to another. Likewise it is understandable that, when they are asked, they will work to guide, in a Christian perspective, the political activities of Christians striving for justice. It is, however, our duty to remind them that, in whatever priestly or pastoral work they are asked to perform by individuals, political parties, or other organizations, they should make it their first concern to be animators and guides in faith and in the justice that faith demands in accordance with the general Christian principles we have already dwelt on.

This is the priceless, necessary, and irreplaceable service we have to offer the world. In dealing with the detailed problems resulting from day-to-day political activity, politicians and experts are usually better qualified to make analyses and suggest solutions. In any case, the priest’s task is to provide the stimulus that comes from the Spirit of the Lord. This must be related to actual situations but it must also be an authentic stimulus in faith. The priest’s main task is to keep alive the gospel standards of thought and action, to remind the faithful, as Jesus did, of the love of the Father for all, and to urge them on to follow Jesus in implanting the kingdom of God on earth. The fulfillment of this task will always be partial and limited, but the inspiration and help that a priest can give toward it will be of immeasurable value for the faith of the whole Church. It will bring together, without identifying the two or reducing one to the other, the dimension of faith and the need for justice. It will ensure — so we believe as Christians — that real advances in justice are in accordance with God’s plan, without which no social progress can be genuine or lasting.

If, in an exceptional case, a priest were asked to work more closely in the political process — and the case would be exceptional because the priest would be acting in a supplementary role that has nothing to do with the normal vocation and ministry of a priest — it would be for the bishop, after a frank discussion with the priest in the light of faith, to make a Christian judgment on the apostolic value of the work in question.

Lay persons who have been taken into the service of the Church by reason of a special hierarchical commission — catechists, celebrants of the word, and others — must not forget that this makes them conspicuous representatives of the hierarchy and of its ministry and teaching. Just as priests and bishops ought to be, so too are they a sign of the unity of all the Church’s children, in the local and in the universal Church. This responsibility, which gives them a leading and unifying role within the people of God, ought to make them careful about sympathizing with, or joining, any popular organization. If playing an active role within an organization deprives them of the credibility and efficiency among the people of God that they need for pastoral work, then there is a strong pastoral reason why they ought, after serious reflection before the Lord, to choose between the two activities.

Non-Christian Organizations

Our reflections on the Church and popular organizations have so far been concerned chiefly with organizations that are professedly Christian. We have not, however, forgotten that many of our Salvadoran brothers and sisters are active in organizations that do not profess to be Christian. Much of what has already been said about Christian organizations in their relationship with the Church is equally true of non-Christian organizations. The fundamental criteria have already been stated: support for the human right of association, especially when the situation in the country leads one to think of such organizations as among the most important means for establishing justice; support also for the freedom that every individual has to make their own choices and not be forced to join this or that group; support for the just ends of any organization; support for the autonomy of the political and social activities of organizations, just as the Church requires any person or organization to respect the autonomy of its own nature and its mission, and not to use it or subordinate it to the aims of some other organization. The Church also has the right and duty to exercise, in relation to any organization, Christian or not, its prophetic function of encouraging what is in keeping with the revelation of God in the gospel and of denouncing all that is in contradiction to this revelation and constitutes the sin of the world.

There is, however, a further connection, more fundamental and based on faith, between the Church and popular organizations even if they do not profess to be Christian. The Church believes that the action of the Spirit who brings Christ to life in human beings is greater than itself. Far beyond the confines of the Church, Christ’s redemption is powerfully at work. The strivings of individuals and groups, even if they do not profess to be Christian, derive their impetus from the Spirit of Jesus. The Church will try to see them in this way in order to purify them, encourage and incorporate them, together with the efforts of Christians, into the overall plan of Christian redemption.
We are well aware that, despite our intentions and all our efforts to provide adequate guidance to the political dimension of the faith of our brothers and sisters, especially of the rural population, there are still many questions waiting to be answered. Much thinking remains to be done. We must do it together, pastors and people of God, never separated from our union in Christ. We must do it in the light of our faith and of the social situation of our country.


In connection with the subject of popular organizations, the problem of violence arises spontaneously because, in the efforts of these groups to obtain their social, political, and economic objectives, violence is often regarded as a suitable means. That is why our pastoral mission now obliges us to offer principles from the Church’s moral teaching to guide the thinking of our communities.

We shall consider the following points: (1) different types of violence; (2) the Church’s moral judgment on violence; (3) its application to the situation in El Salvador.

The Reality and the Ideal

How painful it is to have to offer to our divine Savior, together with the hopeful prayers of his people gathered together in the light of his transfiguration, the horrifying spectacle of the situation in our country, stained as it is with so much blood, so many attacks on the dignity, the liberty, and even on the lives of our citizens. We live, nationally, in an explosive situation, heavy with the fruits of violence. We often see demonstrations end with the shedding of the blood of the demonstrators and sometimes of members of the security forces. In many places recently, especially in the countryside, there have been violent conflicts, sometimes on the scale of a military operation, extending over wide areas. There are many households that grieve for the victims of kidnappings, murder, torture, threats, arson, and so on.

In this situation, where consciences can lose all sensitivity, we have to go on repeating, even if we are a voice crying in the wilderness, no to violence, yes to peace.

The Church is quite clear about this ideal, no matter how much calumny and persecution may have tried to distort its message: We forcefully reaffirm our faith in the productiveness of peace — this was the voice of the Latin American episcopate at Medellin — this is our Christian ideal … not hate and violence, but … the strong and peaceful energy of constructive works (Medellin Documents, Peace, #15, 19).

Today, in this pastoral letter, we are also fulfilling the final charge laid upon us by Paul VI at the audience during our ad limina visit of June 2 1, 1978. He urged us to show pastoral solidarity with our fellow Salvadorans. He spoke of their efforts to obtain justice and charged us to guide them in the path of a just peace, and to help them resist the easy temptation of violence and hatred.

Different Types of Violence

However, although it is easy enough to put forward the ideal of peace, it is much less easy to deal with the reality of violence, which, historically, seems inevitable so long as its true causes are not eliminated. Normally speaking, and save in pathological cases, violence is not part of human nature. Persons do not find self-fulfillment in humiliating, harming, kidnapping, torturing, or killing others. Violence has other roots, which have to be exposed. To do that we must analyze the different types of violence along the lines suggested by the bishops of Latin America at Medellin.

Institutionalized Violence

The most acute form in which violence appears on our continent and in our own country is what the bishops of Medellin called institutionalized violence (Medellin Documents, Peace, #16). It is the result of an unjust situation in which the majority of men, women, and children in our country find themselves deprived of the necessities of life.

This violence finds expression in the structure and daily functioning of a socioeconomic and political system that takes it for granted that progress is impossible unless the majority of the people are used as a productive force under the control of a privileged minority. Historically we come across this sort of violence whenever the institutional structures of society operate to the benefit of a minority or systematically discriminate against groups or individuals who defend the true common good.

Those responsible for the institutionalization of violence, and for the international structures that cause it, are those who monopolize economic power instead of sharing it, those who defend them through violence and all those who remain passive for fear of the sacrifice and personal risk implied by any courageous and effective action (Medellin Documents, Peace, #17, 18). This institutionalized violence is firmly and dramatically a fact of life in our country.

The Repressive Violence of the State

Alongside institutionalized violence there frequently arises repressive violence — that is to say, the use of violence by the state security forces to contain the aspirations of the majority, violently crushing any signs of protest against the injustices we have mentioned.

This is a real form of violence. It is unjust because through it, the state, acting from above and with all its institutional power, defends the survival of the prevailing socioeconomic and political system. It thus prevents the people from having any real chance of using its fundamental right to self-government — the people being the ultimate source of political power to find a new institutional road toward justice.

Seditious or Terrorist Violence

There is another dangerous kind of violence that some call revolutionary, but which we prefer to describe as sedition or terrorism, for the word revolutionary does not always have the pejorative sense we intend here. We are talking of the violence that Paul VI referred to as the explosive revolutions of despair (Bogota, August 23, 1968, quoted in Medellin Documents, Peace, #17). This form of violence is usually organized and pursued in the form of guerrilla warfare or terrorism and is wrongly thought of as the final and only effective way to change a social situation. It is a violence that produces and provokes useless and unjustifiable bloodshed, abandons society to explosive tensions beyond the control of reason, and disparages in principle any form of dialogue as a possible means of solving social conflicts.

Spontaneous Violence

We call violence spontaneous when it is an immediate, not a calculated or organized, reaction by groups or individuals when they are violently attacked in the exercise of their own legitimate rights in protests, demonstrations, just strikes, and so on. In being spontaneous and not deliberately sought, this form of violence is marked by desperation and improvisation, and so cannot be an effective way of securing rights or bringing just solutions to conflicts.

Violence in Legitimate Self-Defense

Violence can also be used in legitimate self-defense, when a group or an individual repels by force the unjust aggression to which they have been subjected. This violence seeks to neutralize, or at least to bring under effective control — not necessarily to destroy — an imminent, serious, and unjust threat.

The Power of Nonviolence

To complete this classification of violence it is only right to include the power of nonviolence, which today clearly has its own eager students and followers. The gospel’s advice to turn the other cheek to an unjust aggressor, far from being passivity and cowardice, is evidence of great moral strength that can leave an aggressor morally defeated and humiliated. The Christian can fight, but prefers peace to war, was what Medellin said about this moral force of nonviolence (Medellin Documents, Peace, #15).

The Church’s Moral Judgment on Violence

While we were making our ad limina visit, the Osservatore Romano, the semiofficial mouthpiece of the thinking of the Holy See, published a valuable article entitled The Democratic State and Violence (June 23, 1978). We believe it will be helpful to make use of its arguments to bring up to date the Church’s traditional teaching on violence, of which the bishops at Medellin also spoke.

Recourse to violence, remarked the paper, is a sad habit of humankind, and is one of the most obvious signs both of the imperfection that is part of human nature anywhere and under any system, and also of the constant need to start again from the beginning the work of personal perfection and of social improvement to contain and control the instincts that keep on reappearing in human life and lead to the struggle of person against person.

However, despite the fact that the Church thinks of any sort of violence as a sign of the imperfection that is part of human nature, and despite the fact that it continually emphasizes its preference and its love for the ideal of peace, the Church makes a different judgment on different types of violence. That judgment can range from prohibition and condemnation to acceptance in certain conditions. We shall now recall some moral principles that should bind the conscience of any honorable person:

1) The Church has always condemned violence pursued for its own sake, or wrongly used against any human right, or used as the first and only method to defend and advance a human right. Evil may not be done to promote good.

2) The Church allows violence in legitimate defense, but under the following conditions: (a) that the defense does not exceed the degree of unjust aggression (for example, if one can adequately defend oneself with one’s hands, then it is wrong to shoot at an aggressor); (b) that the recourse to proportionate violence takes place only after all peaceful means have been exhausted; and (c) that a violent defense should not bring about a greater evil than that of the aggression — namely, a greater violence, a greater injustice.

3) Because it is the root of greater evils, the Church has condemned institutionalized violence, repressive violence by governments, terrorist violence, and any form of violence that is likely to provoke further violence in legitimate self-defense.

4) The Medellin document on peace, quoting a text from Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, mentions the legitimacy of insurrection in the very exceptional circumstances of an evident and prolonged tyranny that seriously works against fundamental human rights and seriously damages the common good of the country, whether it proceeds from one person or from clearly unjust structures. It immediately goes on, however, to warn of the danger of occasioning, through insurrection, new injustices …  new imbalances … new disasters — all of which would justify a condemnation of insurrection (Medellin Documents, Peace, #19).

5) For this reason too the Church has taught — and the present situation gives tragic relevance to this teaching — that a government ought to use all its moral and coercive power to guarantee a truly democratic state, one based on a just economic order, in which justice, peace, and the exercise of every citizen’s fundamental rights are defended. So the government ought to strive to make increasingly hypothetical and unreal the situation in which recourse to force by some individuals or groups can be justified by the existence of a tyrannical regime in which the laws, the institutions, and the government, instead of recognizing and promoting fundamental liberties and other human rights, tread them underfoot, reducing their citizens to the condition of an oppressed people (Osservatore Romano, June 23, 1978).

6) The Church prefers the constructive dynamism of nonviolence: The Christian is peaceful and not ashamed of it . . . not simply a pacifist, for he can fight, but prefers peace to war. [The Christian] knows that violent changes in structures would be fallacious, ineffectual in themselves, and not conforming to human dignity (Medellin Documents, Peace, #15).

Application to the Situation in El Salvador

From this general teaching of the Church on violence, we put forward the following applications and guidelines for the situation in our dioceses.

Believe in Peace

We proclaim the supremacy of our faith in peace and we appeal to everyone to make determined efforts to secure it. We cannot place all our trust in violent methods if we are true Christians or even simply honorable persons.

Work for Justice

The peace in which we believe is, however, the fruit of justice: opus iustitiae pax. As a simple analysis of our structures shows and as history confirms, violent conflicts will not disappear until their underlying causes disappear. To that extent, as long as the causes of our present distress persist, and as long as the powerful minority persists in its intransigence and refuses to accept even the smallest changes, there will be renewed outbreaks of violence. Further use of repressive violence will unhappily do nothing more than increase the conflict and make less hypothetical and more real the situation in which recourse to force, in legitimate self-defense, can be justified. We therefore regard as a most urgent task the establishment of social justice.

Every individual has the potential for a healthy degree of aggression. It is an endowment by nature to enable persons to overcome the obstacles in their lives. Courage, boldness, and fearlessness in taking risks are notable virtues and values among our people. They have to be built into society, not to put an end to lives but so that law and justice may be achieved for all, and especially for those who today are most cut off from their benefits.

Reject the Fanaticism of Violence

The cult of violence, which becomes almost a mystique or religion for some individuals and groups, is doing immeasurable harm to our people. They preach violence as the only way to achieve justice and they propound and practice it as a method to bring justice to this country. This pathological mentality makes it impossible to check the spiral of violence and it contributes to the extreme polarization of different groups within our society.

Use Peaceful Means First

Even in legitimate cases, violence ought to be a last resort. All peaceful means must first be tried. We are living in explosive times and there is a great need for wisdom and serenity. We extend a fraternal invitation to all, but especially those organizations that are committed to the struggle for justice, to move forward courageously and honorably, always to maintain just objectives, and to make use of nonviolent means of persuasion rather than put all their trust in violence.


Christ’s Aggressive Friends

We want to end our reflections by contemplating the splendid vision of peace offered by the transfigured Lord. It is striking that the five persons chosen to accompany the divine savior in that theophany on Mount Tabor were five men of aggressive temperaments and deeds. Moses, Elias, Peter, James, and John can be described in the terms used of Christians at Medellin, they are not simply pacifists, because they are capable of fighting, but they prefer peace to war. Jesus channeled the aggression of their temperaments toward a rich work of construction, of building up justice and peace in the world.

Let us ask the divine Patron of El Salvador to transfigure in the same way the rich potential of this people with whom he has chosen to share his name. To be his instrument for bringing about this transformation in his people is the reason for the Church’s existence. That is why we have tried to reaffirm its identity and mission in the light of Christ. Only by being what he wants it to be will the Church be able to give more intelligent and effective service and support to the just aspirations of the people.

This Is My Beloved Son: Listen to Him

The voice of the Father on Mount Tabor is the best guarantee there is for the Church’s mission among women and men, which is to point out Christ as the beloved Son of God and only Savior, and to remind them of the supreme duty of listening to him if they want to be truly free and happy.

Let us listen to him! He has much to say to Salvadorans who look to him with confidence at one of the most tragic and uncertain moments of our history.

We believe we are interpreting his divine word as we now, at the end of this pastoral letter, address ourselves to our compatriots:

To all Catholics, to our brothers and sisters of other Churches, and to all persons of good will, we tell you that the Lord is present and that his voice speaks to us also from the misery of our people. Let us hear him: In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me (Matthew 25:40). To those who hold economic power, the Lord of the world says that they should not close their eyes selfishly to this situation. They should understand that only by sharing in justice and with those who do not have such power can they cooperate for the good of the country, and will they enjoy the peace and happiness that cannot come from wealth accumulated at the expense of others. Listen to him!

To the middle class, who have already assured a minimum of dignity for their lives, Jesus points out that there remain the masses who still do not have enough to live on. He urges them to support the poor and not to be content with simply making their own gains secure. Listen to him!

To the professional associations and to the intellectuals, the divine Master, who is the light of all understanding, says that they should use their scientific and technical expertise to investigate the problems of our country and fulfill their professional obligations by looking for solutions to them. They should publicly declare their interest in the welfare of the country and not take refuge in an uncommitted knowledge and science, in a calm seclusion remote from the suffering of the people. Listen to him!

To the political parties and popular organizations that have been the main concern of this pastoral letter, Christ, the guide of nations and of history, proclaims that they should learn to put their concern for the poor majority before their own interests, that they should use the political system effectively and with justice, and press honorably and boldly for the beginning of the transformation for which we long. Obey him!

To the public authorities, who have the sacred duty of governing for the good of all, Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, addresses a call for a sense of truth, justice, and of sincere service to the people. Therefore:

1) Let them pass laws that take into account the majority of Salvadorans who live in the countryside where there are serious problems about land, wages, and medical, social, and educational facilities.

2) Let them genuinely widen the narrow area of political discussion and give formal and real hearing to various political voices in the country;

3) Let them give an opportunity to organize legally to those who have been unjustly deprived of this human right, especially the rural poor.

4) Let them take notice of the people’s rejection of the Law for the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order and in its place let them promulgate other laws that in fact guarantee human rights and peace; let them establish adequate channels for civil and political dialogue, so that no one need be afraid to express ideas that may benefit the common good, even if they imply a criticism of the government.

5) Let them stop the terrorization of the rural poor and put an end to the tragic situation of confrontation between campesinos, exploiting their poverty to organize some under the protection of the government and persecuting others just because they have organized themselves independently of the government to seek their rights and a reasonable standard of living.

6) Let them win the confidence of the people with such intelligent and generous initiatives as the following: amnesty for all those prisoners who are accused of having violated the Law of the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order; liberty for the great number who have been imprisoned for political reasons, yet who have not been brought before any court, or have disappeared after being captured by the security forces; and a safe return home for all those who have been expelled from the country, or who are unable to return to it, for political reasons.

We believe that all this is the will of the divine Savior of the world and that the Father’s command is: Listen to him!
The Church Promises to Work and Pray

For its part the Church, which in this letter has reasserted its identity and explained its mission, promises to contribute to the general well-being of the country, and pledges its faith in Jesus Christ and its collaboration with all who are ready to make justice reign as the basis of a peace that will bring us real progress.

We turn with filial confidence to the intercession of our queen and mother, the Blessed Virgin of Peace, who is also a Patron of El Salvador. May she obtain for us from the divine Savior of the world an abundance of grace and good will for the transfiguration of our people.

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To my beloved brothers and sisters, the auxiliary bishop, the priests, religious, and laity of the Archdiocese of San Salvador; to you and to all Salvadorans of good will: the joy and hope of our divine Savior.


I wrote you my first pastoral letter for Easter, on April 10. That was four months ago. It was my letter of introduction and my first greeting. The Lord wished to place my inception as pastor of this beloved archdiocese within the providential context of Lent, Passiontide, and Easter. That context inspired the theme of my first letter, and so I gave it the title The Easter Church.

Today the world’s divine Savior, who is the patron of our local Church, illuminates, with the splendor of his transfiguration — as at a Salvadoran Easter — the path through history of our Church and our nation. I believe it opportune to write again to you who, together with me, make up this portion of the people of God who like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God (Lument Gentium, #8).

Because of what has happened in El Salvador both before and after that memorable Easter, and because of the intense life of the Church at the time of those events in our Archdiocese, an explanation of my actions is demanded. And no time seems more fitting to give it, none better to compare the road we have marched together as the people of God with the divine plans for our salvation, than now, in this new luminous and liturgical presence of the divine Savior.

Different Reactions

In good conscience, I believed my position to be that of the gospel. It has aroused a variety of reactions. Now it is necessary to give an explanation of the Church’s stance as a basis for understanding, in the light of our faith, the different reactions aroused.

Some have been delighted. They feel that the Church is drawing closer to their problems and anxieties, that she gives them hope, and shares their joys. Others have been disgusted or saddened. They feel that the Church’s new attitude makes a clear demand upon them, too, to change and be converted. Conversion is difficult and painful because the changes required are not only in ways of thinking but also in ways of living.

Many Catholics of good will have been disconcerted, even to the point of hesitating to follow the Church in the latest steps she has been taking. Instead they have preferred to seek refuge in the security of a tradition that spurns growth.
Others again, inspired more by selfish interests than by the Church’s purity and fidelity, have, pharisaically, been scandalized. They have even gone so far as to attack her in what is closest and most sensitive to the heart of the Church of Christ: they are saying that she has been unfaithful to the gospel.

Thanks be to God, the faithful sons and daughters of the Church are beyond number. Priests, religious, and laity, sincerely committed to the demands of the kingdom as proclaimed by Christ, have been bolstered in their faith, hope, and Christian commitment. With the Church, they repeat with the apostle, Let us go too, and die with him (John 11:16).

A Word of Faith and of Hope

I have therefore come to regard it as a duty of my episcopal office to address myself to all the beloved sons and daughters of the Church, as also to all other Christian brothers and sisters, and to all Salvadorans who look and hope for a temperate word that, from the standpoint of the faith and of our Christian hopes, would throw light on what is taking place.

Yes, it is a word of faith. I am not trying to replace the efforts of human reason necessary in the search for real, viable solutions to our grave problems. But with the light of faith I am secure in offering the contribution that is proper to the Church, purifying and strengthening the power of reason, so as to free it from impure motives and to guarantee that it will have God’s approval.

It is also a word of hope. The word of the Church can be nothing else, because it is the word of the good news, of the gospel, of the liberation that Jesus goes on proclaiming to humankind by means of the Church. But it is not an ingenuous hope that the Church proclaims. It is accompanied by the blood of priests and campesinos: blood and grief that denounce the obstacles and the evil intentions that stand in the way of the fulfillment of that hope. Their blood is also an expression of a readiness for martyrdom. It is therefore the best argument for, and a testimony to, the utterly certain hope that the Church offers, as from Christ, to the world.

In the light, then, of our faith and hope in Christ, I am going to dwell on three major themes in this pastoral letter. (1) What are the changes in the present-day mission of the Church? (2) These changes come about because the Church is the Body of Christ in history, and because the Church has to communicate the Lord’s message and continue his eternal mission in keeping with the many changes that occur in history. (3) This is the ecclesiology that has come alive in our Archdiocese. It comes alive in an archdiocese that, out of fidelity to the gospel, rejects as a calumny the charge that she is subversive, a fomentor of violence and hatred, Marxist, and political. It comes alive in an Archdiocese that, out of the persecution it is undergoing, offers itself to God and to the people as a united Church, one ready for sincere dialogue and cooperation, a bearer of the message of hope and of love.


What I am going to say here is nothing new. I think, however, that it is opportune to repeat it. It is something that has not been sufficiently assimilated. And there are a great number of Salvadoran speakers and writers who are telling others what the Church is, and they are distorting her true nature and mission.

Church and World

Many things in the Church have changed in recent years. One might instance changes in the liturgy, in the role of the laity, in religious life, in the training given in seminaries, and so on. But the fundamental change, the change that explains all the others, is the new relationship between the Church and the world. The Church looks upon the world with new eyes. It will raise questions about what is sinful in the world, and it will also allow itself to be questioned by the world as to what is sinful in the Church.

This change is of the gospel, because it has helped the Church recover its deepest Christian essence, rooted as it is in the New Testament. This new relationship with the world has deepened the Church’s understanding in two directions: in the meaning of her presence in the world, and in the meaning of her service to the world.

In the World

Throughout the centuries the Church has not always given full importance to what was really going on in the world. It is different now. From his first encyclical, Ecciesiam Suam, the present pope, Paul VI, asserted that we ought not disregard the situation in which humanity finds itself today, in the midst of which we have to develop our mission (Ecclesiam Suan, #5).  The Second Vatican Council felt a profound sympathy for the problems of the modern world: Today, the human race is involved in a new stage of history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world (Gaudium et Spes, #4). And for our continent more particularly, the bishops of Latin America affirmed at Medellin that the peoples of these countries are living a decisive moment of [their] historical process (Introduction, #1), and that there is in them an aspiration toward integral liberation that can be expressed in biblical language as a foreshadowing of the new age (Medellin Documents, Justice, #5).

The changes taking place in the world are, for the Church, a sign of the times that will help her to come to know herself better. She believes that, through these changes, God himself is speaking to her. She has to be aware of changes so as to respond to the Word of God, and be able to gauge her actions in and for the world.

The modern Church is conscious of being the people of God in the world, or rather, of being a body of men and women who belong to God, but who live in the world. That is why Vatican II described the Church as the new Israel which while living in this present age goes in search of a future and abiding city (Lumen Gentium, #9). 

What is being asserted here is of capital importance. The element of transcendence that ought to raise the Church toward God can be realized and lived out only if she is in the world of men and women, if she is on pilgrimage through the history of humankind. Therefore the council, as it opened its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, solemnly proclaimed: The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds (Gaudium et Spes , #1).

At the Service of the World

The Church is in the world for the benefit of humankind. This is the meaning of service. The council puts it in theological terms: the Church is a sign, a sacrament. As sacrament and sign the Church signifies and achieves something for human beings: she signifies and brings about a very closely knit union with God and … the unity of the whole human race (Lumen Gentium, #1). 

The Church is in the world so as to signify and bring into being the liberating love of God, manifested in Christ. She therefore understands Christ’s preference for the poor, because the poor are, as Medellin explains, those who place before the Latin American Church a challenge and a mission that she cannot sidestep and to which she must respond with a speed and boldness adequate to the urgency of the times (Medellin Documents, Poverty, #7).

The Unity of History

So as better to grasp her relationship with the world, the Church has also deepened her understanding of another concept: the relationship between the history of humankind and the history of salvation. For a very long time we were accustomed to think that human history, with all its joys and sorrows, achievements and failures, was something provisional, something ephemeral, something that, in comparison with the ultimate fullness that awaits Christians, was of little consequence. It seemed that the history of humankind and the history of salvation ran along parallel lines. The lines met only in eternity. In short it appeared that secular history was nothing more than a period of trial, leading to final salvation or condemnation.

The Church has a different view of human history nowadays. It is not mere opportunism or a desire to adapt herself to the world that brings her to think differently. It is because she has genuinely recovered the insight, which runs throughout the pages of the Bible, into what God is doing in human history. This is why she has to take that history very seriously. Vatican II certainly recalled the traditional understanding of the Church as being on pilgrimage toward that future and abiding city (Lumen Gentium, #9), but added that the Church at the same time reveals in the world faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light (Lumen Gentium, #9).

Medellin asserts the unity of history more clearly still: Catechetical teaching must manifest the unity of God’s plan. While avoiding confusion or simplistic identifications, it must always make clear the profound unity that exists between God’s plan of salvation realized in Christ, and the aspirations of man; between the history of salvation and human history (Medellin Documents, Catechesis, #4).
Our continent’s longing for liberation, even the partial achievement of that full liberation of body and soul, is a clear sign of the presence of God in history (Medellin Documents, Introduction, #5).

With these affirmations Medellin put an end to the secular dualism we had subscribed to, the dichotomy between the temporal and the eternal, between the secular and the religious, between the world and God, between history and the Church. In the search for salvation we must avoid the dualism which separates temporal tasks from the work of sanctification (Medellin Documents, Justice, #5).

The Sin of the World

The relationship between the Church, as the universal sacrament of salvation, and the world defines the Church’s firm attitude against the world’s sin and lends strength to her urgent call to conversion. By the very fact that she is in the world and for the world, by the fact that she is in solidarity with the history of the world, the Church encounters the world’s dark side, the depths of its iniquity. She encounters that which brings about the moral downfall of human beings, that which degrades and dehumanizes them. The Church takes very seriously the shadowy reality that surrounds us on all sides. It is sin that prevents the history of the world from being the history of salvation. It is sin that dissolves the profound unity between the two halves of history. Sin is slavery to the world. Their senseless minds were darkened and they served the creature rather than the Creator (Gaudium et Spes, #13). That is what brings about the internal sundering of human history: the whole of human life, whether individual or collective, is tragically affected by sin (Gaudium et Spes, #13).

The Church’s present thinking is as strict as ever with regard to the seriousness of individual sin. Sin is, above all, the act of one who, in the depths of his or her will, denies and offends God. But the Church today, more than before, stresses the seriousness of sin in its social consequences. The evil of interior sin crystalizes in the evil of exterior, historical situations.

Medellin has underlined this tragic reality of sin, linking together its two dimensions: the lack of solidarity which, on the individual and social levels, leads to the committing of serious sins, [is] evident in the unjust structures which characterize the Latin American situation (Medellin Documents, Justice, #2). And when Medellin attempts to sum up, in one phrase, what for our continent is the fundamental sin of the age, it has no hesitation in asserting that it is that misery, [which] as a collective fact, expresses itself as injustice which cries to the heavens (Medellin Docuemtns, Justice, #1).

It is, perhaps, in this understanding of sin that one finds one of the greatest changes, and the source of the greatest conflict, in the relationship between Church and world. Throughout the centuries the Church has, quite rightly, denounced sin. Certainly she has denounced personal sins, and she has also denounced the sin that perverts relationships between persons, especially at the family level. But she has begun to recall now something that, at the Church’s beginning, was fundamental: social sin — the crystalization, in other words, of individuals’ sins into permanent structures that keep sin in being, and make its force to be felt by the majority of the people.

The Need for Conversion

In this new epoch of the Church’s history, what has always been true has become still more evident: there is need for conversion. As Medellin puts it, for our authentic liberation, all of us need a profound conversion (Medellin Documents, Justice, #3). It is important to stress, however, that this sense of the need for conversion has been reinforced as the Church looks upon the world. As all of us bishops of El Salavdor said in our Message from the Episcopal Conference on March 5: Christians are aware of the radical no that God pronounces over our sins of omission.

The Church is here speaking not only of the conversion that others ought to bring about in their lives, but is speaking in the first instance of her own conversion. This awareness of her own need for conversion is, historically, something very new, though it was said of the Church in the past that she always had to be reformed (semper reformanda). The pressure for this conversion came not only when the Church looked inward, at herself, with her defects and her sins, but also when she looked outward, at the sins of the world. The Church has regained the basic attitude for conversion, which is to turn toward those who are especially lowly, poor, and weak. Like Christ, we should have pity on the multitudes weighed down with hunger, misery, and ignorance. We want to fix a steady gaze on those who still lack the help they need to achieve a way of life worthy of human beings (Vatican II, Message to the World, October 21, 1962, #9).

It is in this encounter with the world of the poor that one finds the most pressing need for conversion. It is the love of Christ that urges us on (cf., 2 Corinthians 5:14), that makes a clear demand upon us when we are faced with a brother or sister in need (cf., 1 John 3:17).


Why are there changes in the Church?

Clearly, then, the Church has changed. It is obvious that the Church, in recent years, has a new vision of the world and her relationship to it. Anyone who fails to understand, or to accept, this new perspective is incapable of understanding the Church. To remain anchored in a non-evolving traditionalism, whether out of ignorance or selfishness, is to close one’s eyes to what is meant by authentic Christian tradition. For the tradition that Christ entrusted to his Church is not a museum of souvenirs to be protected. It is true that tradition comes out of the past, and that it ought to be loved and faithfully preserved. But it has always a view to the future. It is a tradition that makes the Church new, up to date, effective in every historical epoch. It is a tradition that nourishes the Church’s hope and faith so that she may go on preaching, so that she may invite all men and women to the new heaven and new earth that God has promised (Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17).

What is it that bestows this energy, this perennial modernity, on the eternal tradition of the Church? What is the reason for the current changes in the Church as she confronts the world and the history of humankind? It is not opportunism, nor is it disloyalty to the gospel — two charges that have often been leveled at her in the recent past. The answer has to be sought in the very depths of our faith. Seen in the light of faith in the mystery of the Church, the changes taking place are far from ruining her, or making her unfaithful to tradition. On the contrary, they make the Church even more faithful and better identify her with Jesus Christ.
This is the theme of my letter: the Church is the Body of Christ in history. By this expression we understand that Christ has wished to be himself the life of the Church through the ages. The Church’s foundation is not to be thought of in a legal or juridical sense, as if Christ gathered some persons together, entrusted them with a teaching, gave them a kind of constitution, but then himself remained apart from them. It is not like that. The Church’s origin is something much more profound. Christ founded the Church so that he himself could go on being present in the history of humanity precisely through the group of Christians who make up his Church. The Church is the flesh in which Christ makes present down the ages his own life and his personal mission.

That is how changes in the Church are to be understood. They are needed if the Church is to be faithful to her divine mission of being the Body of Christ in history. The Church can be Church only so long as she goes on being the Body of Christ. Her mission will be authentic only so long as it is the mission of Jesus in the new situations, the new circumstances, of history. The criterion that will guide the Church will be neither the approval of, nor the fear of, men and women, no matter how powerful or threatening they may be. It is the Church’s duty in history to lend her voice to Christ so that he may speak, her feet so that he may walk today’s world, her hands to build the kingdom, and to enable all its members to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ (Colossians 1:24).

Should the Church forget this identification with Christ, Christ would himself demand it of the Church, no matter how uncomfortable that might be, or how much loss of face it might entail.

Vatican II and Medellin represent for us Christians today the humble, honest attitude of the Church in her concern to be the Body of Christ in this fascinating period of history.

The Person, the Teaching, and the Activity of Christ

To think of ourselves as the body of the world’s divine Savior, in history, here in El Salvador, ought to be for our Church, I believe, the principal message of this August feast day. For in the mystery of the Transfiguration, our titular festival, the Church contemplates, and year by year listens to, the message, the activity, and the person she has to embody on behalf of all Salvadorans of every generation.

The Person of Christ

It is the mysterious voice of the Father from out of the bright cloud that, on the high mountain, presents Jesus to us as my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him (Matthew 17:1-9). True God and true man. He is, as eternal Son, a mystery inaccessible to human reason. He can be accepted only in faith by believers. In saying that he is true God, faith asserts that in him is the ultimate truth, the ultimate answer to the mystery of the existence and of the history of humankind. Faith also asserts that this Christ, in his humanity, was brought back to life by the Father, and that he is now seated at the Father’s right hand as the only Lord of the living and the dead. But the Christian faith makes another fundamental assertion as well, one that is still, as it has ever been, to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness (1 Corinthians 1:23): the Father’s eternal Son became man, became our brother, became like us in all things except sin (Hebrews 4:15).

Only in the light of that Christ, of his actions and his teachings, can the Church find the meaning of, and guidance for, her service in the world. The study and contemplation of Christ, therefore, should constitute the chief preoccupation of those of us who make up his Church. I am now going to put before you a brief summary of Jesus’ message. By comparing it with our Church’s stance we can see if, here and now, we are still the authentic Body of Christ in history.

Jesus Proclaims the Kingdom of God Especially to the Poor

The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News (Mark 1: 15). This is the way Christ begins, and the way he sums up, his gospel message. His hearers understood what was meant: that they should live together in such a way that they feel themselves to be brothers and sisters, and hence also children of God. In the words of Jesus there were echoes of the ancient prophecies that proclaimed God’s plan for the salvation of humankind. But in Jesus they come together to make a final impact: here and now upon this earth, the kingdom of God has the mission of turning all men and women into children of the Father of Jesus Christ, whereby they become brothers and sisters. Or, to put it another way, in the effort to become brothers and sisters they also become children of God. Faith in God requires a certain moral conduct in this world, and in fulfilling this ethical requirement one is also building up faith in God.

In Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, his preference for the poor is also evident. In his programatic discourse, he reads the prophecy of Isaiah that he himself fulfills: The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor (Luke 4:18-19). This preference of Jesus for the poor stands out throughout the gospel. It was for them that he worked his cures and exorcisms; he lived and ate with them; he united himself with, defended, and encouraged all those who, in his day, were on the margin of society, whether for social or for religious reasons: sinners, publicans, prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers. This closeness of Jesus to those who were marginalized is the sign that he gives to confirm the content of what he preaches: that the kingdom of God is at hand.

Jesus Calls to Conversion

That message of hope is, in Jesus, linked to a call to conversion. Jesus does not want to exclude anyone from God’s kingdom; he calls everyone to a sincere conversion of heart, a conversion that manifests itself in objective deeds. Without that conversion there is no chance of entering the kingdom, for the entrance gate is narrow (Matthew 7:13) and the road difficult. One has to be ready to leave everything, even home and family. One has to be ready to lose an eye, an arm, or even life itself in order to enter the kingdom. In the gospels there are many examples of conversion, of every sort of person: the rich Zacchaeus, Nicodemus the lawyer, the Roman centurion, the woman who was a sinner, Levi the collector of taxes — sinners who became his faithful followers.

Jesus excluded no one, either from his message or from the invitation to enter the kingdom. He loved all his contemporaries. And because he loved them he sought their conversion, the change of heart that makes a person more human, and that is overshadowed by, or submerged under, riches, power, pride, security in the traditions of the law. What Jesus sought was that everyone should become a new person, a member of the kingdom.

Jesus Denounces Sin

Jesus carried out his mission, his preaching, his service to men and women, in a particular world, a particular society. That is the profound meaning of what we Christians affirm when we speak of the incarnation of the Son of God: that he took flesh in the real history of his age. Like so many other eras of human history, that era was dominated by sin. To the positive proclamation of the kingdom of God, therefore, Jesus added the denunciation of the sin of his age. The kingdom of God is what Jesus proclaims; for him, then, sin is everything that gets in the way of the coming of the kingdom, makes it impossible or even destroys it. With the courage of a free man, therefore, he denounced the distorted image of God created by the manipulation of human traditions that destroy the authentic will of God (Mark 7:8-13). He denounced the distortion of the temple: from being a house of God, it had been turned into a den of thieves (Mark 11:15-17). He denounced a religion that was devoid of works of justice — as in the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). He also denounced all those who made of their power a means to keep the weak and powerless in a state of oppression, rather than using it to serve them. He accused the wealthy of not sharing their wealth, the priests of imposing intolerable burdens (Luke 11:46), the wise of carrying off the key of knowledge and leaving the others without learning, the rulers of looking only to their own advantage and not to the service of their people (Matthew 20:25 ff.).

From the beginning of Jesus’ public life, these denunciations brought in their train frequent attacks upon him (Matthew 2:1-2). They brought personal risk and even persecution. The persecution was to go on through the whole of his life until, at the end, he was accused of blasphemy (Mark 14:64) and of being an agitator among the masses. For these reasons he was condemned and executed.

The Church Continues the Work of Jesus

This is the message and the mission of Jesus that he, after he had risen, intended to go on preaching and living in the history of the world by means of his Church. The Church is the community of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as the only Lord of history. She is a community of faith whose primary obligation, whose raison d’dtre, is to continue the life and work of Jesus. To be Church is to preserve in history, in and through the lives of men and women, the image of her Founder. The Church principally exists for the evangelization of the human race. Yes, she is an institution; she is made up of persons, and she has forms and structures. But all that is for a much more basic reality: the exercise of its task of evangelization.

The Church has always borne it in mind that in this task she has to go on proclaiming her faith in Jesus Christ and that she has to continue, in the course of history, the work that Jesus carried out. When doing this she is the Body of Christ in history.

The Sphere of Its Rights and Duties

This well-defined purpose of the Church also defines her duties and her rights — above all, the right and duty of following and loving in freedom her only Lord, Jesus Christ, known in faith. Then comes the right and duty of proclaiming the gospel without hindrance and of cooperating, in accord with its proper autonomy, in building up the kingdom of God among men and women in the way Christ wants it to be done today. For that purpose she will use the means with which Christ himself has endowed her: preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, above all celebrating the Eucharist — which will remind her, in an active, vital way that she continues to be the Body of Christ. And she will also use those particular means that throw light on the question of what path is to be followed if the kingdom of God is to be realized. In other words: the Church has to clarify faith in Jesus Christ and procedures for building up the kingdom of God in this world.

This is what the first Christians understood and lived out, those who remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers … The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed (Acts 2:42, 44).

Throughout her history the Church has carried out, with greater or lesser fidelity, that ideal of those first Christians in her following of Jesus. There have been times when the Church has more clearly been the Body of Christ. There have been times when she was not so clear — indeed, when she has been disfigured because she has accommodated herself to the world, seeking rather to be served by the world than herself to serve the world. But at other times her sincere wish has been to serve the world. On those occasions she has experienced rejection by the sinful world, just as her Founder did, even to the extent of persecution. That was the fate of the first Christians, of Peter and John before the courts, of Stephen the deacon, of Paul.

Like Jesus, the Church Proclaims the Kingdom of God

In Latin America, in El Salvador, the Church, like Jesus, has to go on proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand, especially for the great majority who, in worldly terms, has been estranged from her — the poor, the low-income classes, and the marginalized. This does not mean that the Church should neglect the other classes in society. She wants to serve them also, to enlighten them. She also needs their help in building up the kingdom. But the Church should share Jesus’ preference for those who have been used for others’ interests and have not been in control of their own destinies.

The Church Denounces Sin and Calls to Conversion

The Church, like Jesus, has to go on denouncing sin in our own day. She has to denounce the selfishness that is hidden in everyone’s heart, the sin that dehumanizes persons, destroys families, and turns money, possessions, profit, and power into the ultimate ends for which persons strive. And, like anyone who has the smallest degree of foresight, the slightest capacity for analysis, the Church has also to denounce what has rightly been called structural sin: those social, economic, cultural, and political structures that effectively drive the majority of our people onto the margins of society. When the Church hears the cry of the oppressed she cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.

But also like Christ, this denunciation by the Church is not inspired by hatred or resentment. She looks to the conversion of heart of all men and women and to their salvation.

The Church Throws Light on the Kingdom of God

Jesus fulfilled his mission in a particular kind of world, in a particular sort of society. Like him, the Church does not simply proclaim the kingdom of God in the abstract. She also has to promote the solutions that seem most likely to bring the kingdom into being, those that are most just. The Church is well aware that to solve today’s problems is a supremely difficult and complex task. She knows, furthermore, that in the last analysis it is not for her to put forward concrete solutions. And she knows that, in this world, it will never be possible fully to achieve the kingdom of God. But none of that exempts her from the pressing duty of publicizing and promoting the means that seem best able to help toward the partial realization of the kingdom.

In recent years everyone has come to know that the Church has an interest in speaking out on matters concerning the ordered, rational, living together of human beings. A great number of documents have been issued by the Church, from Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) to the recent exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi by Paul VI (1976), which attempt to give guidance on what, at particular moments, have been the crucial problems facing society. The Church has done so in order that, in denouncing sin and drawing attention to the paths to solutions, she may bring to the world the kingdom of God.

On March 5 of this year we Salvadoran bishops wrote, in fulfillment of this duty incumbent on the Church:  Just as injustice takes concrete forms, so the promotion of justice must take concrete forms. It should come as a surprise to no one that the Church encourages particular methods of achieving justice. Among those particular methods there will be some that are matters of opinion, and the Church, too, will have to continue to learn which methods best bring about the ideal of the kingdom of God.  And we added in our collective message of May 17: The Church believes that the world is called to be subject to Jesus Christ by way of a slow but sure establishment of the kingdom of God…. It believes in the kingdom of God as a progressive change from the world of sin to a world of love and justice, one that begins in this world but has its fulfillment in eternity.

Duty arises from Loyalty to Christ

Only by fulfilling its mission in this way can the Church be faithful to its own mystery, which is to be the Body of Christ in history. Only by living out her mission in this way, with the same spirit in which Jesus would have lived it out at this time and place, can she preserve her faith and give transcendent meaning to her message so that her message is not reduced to mere ideology or be manipulated by human selfishness or false traditionalism. She will move toward that final perfection of the kingdom of God in the world to come only if she strives to achieve, in the history of human society here on earth, the kingdom of truth and peace, of justice and love.


On her titular feast this year, the Archdiocese presents to her divine patron, as her most precious offering, herself — marked with the sad yet glorious signs of martyrdom and persecution. The marks are there precisely because she is being faithful to her vocation to be the Body of Christ in our history. In effect, the whole of the ecclesiology sketched in the doctrinal part of this letter has been lived out by our Archdiocese in the intensive work for the social apostolate carried on by my venerable predecessors, especially by Archbishop Luis Chávez y González. Our Church’s actions are not the result of some sudden or imprudent change. They follow the well thought out approach urged on the whole Church by Vatican II, and on our own continent by the Second Latin American Episcopal Conference at Medellin. It was this that Archbishop Chávez y González tried to implement in our archdiocese.

There is need for a calm reflection on our Archdiocese and upon her stance, both in order to strengthen sincere Christians in their faith and to clear up the confusion that the media have recently created in public opinion. The media have been vehicles of calumny against the Church, and of attacks on her nature and her mission. Would that such reflection might also bring about a conversion deep in the hearts of those who, because of their own particular interests, go on attacking the Church, or have doubts about it. Here, then, I shall try to show that the Archdiocese has been faithful to the gospel, and for that very reason she has been persecuted. Yet out of this persecution arises a stronger unity that helps her to offer the people more effectively her message of hope and love.

Faithful to the Gospel

Precisely when the Archdiocese is making a great effort to be faithful to the gospel one hears voices raised with the accusation that causes her the greatest distress: the charge of having betrayed the gospel. They are many and varied, these accusations, but they can be reduced to three headings: (1) the Church preaches hatred and subversion; (2) the Church has become Marxist; (3) the Church has overstepped the limits of its mission and is meddling in politics.

These are serious accusations. They deserve serious treatment. But the following brief reply should be enough to convince those of sincere heart.

Neither Hatred nor Subversion

The Church has never incited to hatred or revenge, not even at those saddest of moments when priests have been murdered and faithful Christians have been killed or have disappeared. The Church has continued to preach Jesus’ command love one another (John 15:12). This is a command that the Church cannot renounce, nor has she renounced it, not even in recent months. On the contrary, she has recalled that other command, pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).

The Church has also recalled that the love that she preaches has Jesus’ love for her model, love others … as I have loved you. There is no reducing this to a sentimental, or to an abstract, sort of love. It was a love freely given and it was an effective love, for he came to bring life even to his enemies. He sought their conversion so that he might free them from sin and bring them out of darkness. That is why the Church, like Jesus, has no alternative but to extend her love to the rich and to the poor. She ought to sit down at table with all — but in the spirit of Jesus. Jesus entered the house of the rich man Zacchaeus in search of the conversion of that household (Luke 19:9). Zacchaeus repaid fourfold the goods he had defrauded others of, and he gave away half of his possessions to the poor. Jesus sat down at the table of the poor and of sinners to defend their rights, calling them, too, to conversion. Jesus’ love was directed toward all men and women, but in different ways. To those who had become dehumanized because of their desire for profits, he clearly demonstrated, through his love, how to recover their lost human dignity; with the poor, dehumanized because pushed to the margins of society, he sat at table, also out of love, to bring hope back to them.

In what the Church has done, there has never been any sign of hatred or revenge, only a remembrance of that great truth of Jesus: that love wants to make all men and women truly human. For that purpose she has to seek out the best way to restore human integrity to those who have lost it.

If one understands the words of love that the Church preaches in this way, one can also understand what is meant by accusations of sermons of subversion or violence. The Church has not called upon the people to rise up against their brothers and sisters. But she has recalled two fundamental things. The first is what Medellin has to say about institutionalized violence. When there really is present a situation of permanent, structured injustice, then the situation itself is violent. Secondly, the Church is aware that anything said in that situation, even something undoubtedly prompted by love, will sound violent. But the Church cannot refrain from speaking out. She can in no way reject what Jesus said: The kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm (Matthew 11:12). For there is the violence of the struggle against one’s own selfishness, against the inertia of one’s own existence — more inclined, as it is, to dominate than to serve. And there is the violence with which one denounces what is wrong in a violent situation.

Nor Marxism

Another way of accusing the Church of infidelity is to call her Marxist. Marxism is a complex phenomenon. It has to be studied from various points of view: economic, scientific, political, philosophical, and religious. One has, moreover, to study Marxism in terms of its own history. What the Church asserts, and what, in its joint message of May 1, the episcopal conference has recalled, is that insofar as Marxism is an atheistic ideology it is incompatible with the Christian faith. That conviction has never changed in the Church’s history. In that sense, the Church cannot be Marxist.

The real problem, however, arises from the fact that alongside the traditional condemnation of Marxism the Church now lays down a condemnation of the capitalist system as well. It is denounced as one version of practical materialism (See Joint Message of the Episcopal Conference, May 1, 1977). 

The Church is very well aware that she coexists with a variety of ideologies and social practices. She has analyzed and reflected upon what there is for good or ill, what there is of attraction or temptation, in socialist thought and liberal ideology (Octogesima Adveniens, #30-37).  When listening to, and rendering her judgment upon, the various ideologies she is influenced in the first place by the moral concerns proper to the faith. She is not so much moved to give technical judgments about the concrete proposals that spring from different ideologies. With regard to this moral concern, the Church’s attitude has been constant from Leo XIII to Paul VI. Although there have been different ways of stating the Church’s concern, it has always been to defend the rights of the individual in the use of material goods so that human beings may live with dignity. When Pius XII, for example, spoke about private property he pointed very clearly to moral problems: We wish to refrain from approving the conduct of some of the advocates of the right to private property, because, in their way of interpreting the use of, and respect for this right, they manage only, even more successfully than their opponents, to put it in danger (March 7, 1948). 

The Church is not dedicated to any particular ideology as such. She must be prepared to speak out against turning any ideology into an absolute. As several of the Latin American hierarchies have said time and again in recent years, worldly interests try to make the Church’s position seem Marxist when it is in fact insisting on fundamental human rights and when it is placing the whole weight of its institutional and prophetic authority at the service of the dispossessed and weak. As the Episcopal Conference of Chile has said, and as our own has repeated, it is also a help to Marxism — though indeed without wishing it — to regard as Marxist or to suspect of Marxism every effort for human dignity, for justice, and for equality, everything that seeks participation and opposes domination.

Nor Meddling in Politics

Lastly, the correct relationship between the Church and politics has to be recalled. It is understandable that the Church’s message and her activity, because it is Christ’s message and activity, should have very lively repercussions, including repercussions on matters that may be called political, in the society within which she is active. But the Church’s activity does not take in — as an appropriate method of pursuing her goals — political parties or equivalent groups. It has to be repeated emphatically: the Church does not engage in party politics.

The correct relationship between the Church and the political community was defined by Vatican II. In the first place, both groups work for the same constituency: both, under different titles, are devoted to the personal and social vocation of the same human beings (Gaudium et Spes, #76).  Therefore the Church holds out as the ideal that there should be a sincere cooperation between itself and the political community so that the people may be served more effectively — both parties, however, safeguarding their own autonomy. But in addition to such desirable collaboration the Church has a right and an obligation to speak about the political sphere:  It is only right … that at all times and in all places, the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to teach its social doctrine, to exercise its role freely among men, and also to pass moral judgment on those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it. In this, it should make use of all the means — but only those — which accord with the Gospel and which correspond to the general good according to the diversity of times and circumstances (Gaudium et Spes, #76).

It is for those reasons that, over recent months and years, the Salvadoran Church has been speaking out. Far from betraying the gospel, she has done no more than fulfill her mission. She has spoken out about events in this country precisely because she is interested in the good of each and every individual. This has been required of her for the defense of human rights and for the salvation of souls.

The Testimony of a Persecuted Church

To the calumnious accusations that the Church has been adulterating the Christian message has been added a series of events that amount to persecution of the Church. An Archdiocesan communique dated July 11th sums up the principal abuses to which the Church has been subjected: priests expelled from, or prevented from entering, the country; calumnies; threats and assassinations; entire parishes deprived of their clergy; lay ministers of the word and catechists prevented from carrying out their duties; the Blessed Sacrament profaned in Aguilares. And all are aware of the lengthy, anonymous, and calumnious campaign being waged in the press against Church-related persons and even against the Church herself and her mission have been understood ever since Medellin.

But rather than simply detail such sad memories again, it seems to me more important to engage in a Christian reflection upon all these abuses now that some persons have been denying —despite all these outrages — that there is any persecution. They are saying that what has happened is in fact the Church’s fault, and blame her for the violent situation that exists in our country.

In the first place, no one should be surprised that the Church is being persecuted precisely when she is being faithful to her mission. The Lord foretold it: A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too (John 15:20). Christians have been subjected to persecution from the very beginning.

Why is the Church persecuted? As I said earlier, the Church is not an end in herself; she has a mission to pursue. Persecuting the Church, therefore, does not consist only in attacking her directly, depriving her of privileges, or ignoring her juridically. The most serious persecution of the Church is that which makes it impossible for her to carry out her mission, and which attacks those to whom her word of salvation is directed.

Even though the Church is juridically recognized in our country, in recent months her mission has been attacked, and so have her priests and catechists who were trying to proclaim, and helping to bring into being, the kingdom of God. The Salvadoran people have been subjected to attack. Its human rights have been trodden underfoot — and protection of these rights falls under the Church’s responsibility. It is the Church’s belief that this persecution affects Christ himself: what touches any Christian touches Christ, because he is in personal union with all Christians —especially in anything that involves the poorest of society. Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? asks Christ of everyone who is persecuting his members. And at the last judgment Christ will reveal that in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me (Matthew 25:40).

It is in this profound sense that the Church can speak of persecution and can plead that this persecution cease. The Church is persecuted when she is not allowed to proclaim the kingdom of God and all it entails in terms of justice, peace, love, and truth; when she is not allowed to denounce the sin of our land that engulfs people in wretchedness; when the rights of the people of El Salvador are not respected; when the number mounts steadily of those who have disappeared, been killed, or been calumniated.

It is also important to keep in mind that the Church is persecuted because she wills to be in truth the Church of Christ. The Church is respected, praised, even granted privileges, so long as she preaches eternal salvation and does not involve herself in the real problems of our world. But if the Church is faithful to her mission of denouncing the sin that brings misery to many, and if she proclaims her hope for a more just, humane world, then she is persecuted and calumniated, she is branded as subversive and communist.

During this time of persecution the Church of the Archdiocese has never returned evil for evil, she has never called for revenge or hatred. On the contrary, she has called for the conversion of those who persecute her, and, in our country’s difficult problems, she has tried always to promote justice and avert worse evils.

The Church hopes, with the help of God, to continue to witness with Christian courage in the midst of all difficulties. She knows that only by so doing will she win credibility for what she is proclaiming: that she is a Church that has taken her place alongside those who suffer. She will not be frightened by the persecution that she undergoes, because persecution is a reaction to the Church’s fidelity to her divine Founder and to her solidarity with those most in need.

The Unity of the Church

Service of the gospel and the persecution of the Church have brought forth, as a precious fruit, a unity in the Archdiocese to a degree hitherto unknown. It is a great joy for me to be able to say that so many barriers have been removed. Never has there been such a degree of unity among clergy, religious, and laity. Letters of solidarity and of encouragement to go on living out this testimony have been innumerable. They have come from cardinals, bishops, episcopal conferences, from clerical, religious, and lay societies. Support has also come from many of our separated brothers and sisters, both inside and outside the country. I wish publicly to thank them for their fraternal, Christian solidarity. I also remember — and with great happiness, because they have been expressions of unity — the many and various liturgical gatherings, the processions, the countless meetings and private contacts with communities, and with all kinds of persons. This unity, this solidarity, is to me a clear sign that we have chosen the right course.

But, yet again, the events of recent months remind us that Christian unity comes not only from a verbal confession of the same faith, but also from putting that faith into practice. It arises out of a common effort, a shared mission. It comes from fidelity to the word and to the demands of Jesus Christ, and it is cemented in common suffering. Unity in the Church is not achieved by ignoring the reality of the world in which we live. So, even though the demonstrations of unity have been impressive, they have not been complete. Some among those who are called Christians have not contributed to the unity of the Archdiocese, either out of ignorance, or in order to defend their own interests. Anchored in a false traditionalism, they have misunderstood the actions and the teachings of the contemporary Church. They have pretended not to hear the voice of Vatican II and of Medellin. They have been scandalized at the Church’s new face.

Therefore I once again appeal for the unity of all Catholics. It is something for which I have a keen desire. But we cannot, as the price of this unity, abandon our mission. Let us remember that what divides us is not the Church’s actions but the world’s sin — and the sin of our society. What has happened in our Archdiocese is what always happens in the Church when she is faithful to her mission. When the Church enters into the world of sin to liberate and save it, the sin of the world enters into the Church and divides her: it separates those who are authentically Christian and persons of good will from those who are Christian only in name and appearance.

The Archdiocese needs unity now more than ever before, to make it credible and to make it more effective. The Church becomes credible when she unifies all her efforts not for her own benefit but in the service of the gospel of Christ. And the Church needs unity to be effective. The Church has lost many priests and catechists in recent months. On the other hand, happily, her pastoral work is increasing through the increasing awareness of many Catholics. The Church sees that she must take on new tasks in social communication, such as by our weekly publication Orientación and our radio station YSAX, new tasks in the Catholic schools, to move forward in an authentically Christian and social apostolate, new tasks in the parishes where the laity really want to put their voice and their effort to the service of the Church’s mission of evangelization.

In our particular circumstances, and at this especially privileged time for our Archdiocese, unity ought to be brought about around the gospel, through the authoritative word of the divine Pastor. I earnestly want all priests, diocesan and religious, and all other members of religious orders, to unite their efforts around the directives that come from the Archdiocese, even if that means giving up long-established points of view and perspectives. I above all want the laity also to be effective collaborators with the bishop, especially so today when the number of clergy has noticeably declined.

There is no doubt that courses of action taken by the Archdiocese in recent months have borne fruit in the interest shown by many young persons for the priestly and the religious life. But there is also no doubt that through the persecution of the clergy the Lord is clearly calling upon the laity to shoulder its responsibilities within the Church. This is a time when all of us Catholics should feel ourselves truly a Church, when we should give to all the testimony of our faith, when we should all collaborate in evangelization, both by spreading faith in Christ and by extending his kingdom, translating it into structures of justice and peace.

The Hope of the Church

It may seem paradoxical, but in our Archdiocese there has never been as much hope as there is now, at one of the most difficult times in its history. Persecution has not produced discouragement, retreat, or confusion. It has rejuvenated Christian hope. This has been demonstrated by the bravery with which many Christians, clerical and lay, rural and urban, have acted in recent months. It has been shown, too, in a tide of conversions. And, according to what has been said in hundreds of letters and telegrams, it has been demonstrated by the solidarity of many Christians with our actions.

Christians have hope. Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ, said St. Paul (Romans 8:35). And taking this idea further, we may say that not even all the deaths, the expulsions, the sufferings are able to part us from the love of Christ, and from following his way. Here, in the love of Christ, is the foundation of our hope.

But this hope takes shape only when persons work together as brothers and sisters. That is why our hope in Christ makes us wish for a more just world, a more comradely world. That is why the Church of our Archdiocese takes interest in, and hopes for, a new and better image for El Salvador, at home and abroad. Precisely for that reason our Church says again that the object of her hope is linked inseparably with social justice, with a real improvement in the lot of the people of El Salvador, and especially an improvement in the lot of the impoverished, landless masses, with defense of their human rights, such as the right of life, to education, to housing, to medicine, and to organize, particularly in the case of those who more easily fall victim to the oppression that strips them of that right.

Finally I want to repeat my hope, which is the hope of all in the Archdiocese, that the government may understand how right and humanitarian has been the Church’s course of action, and that the Church cannot cease to act in this way, for it is part of her mission of integral evangelization. The Church has no desire that her relationship with the government should continue to be tense. On the contrary, the ideal put forward by Vatican II was that of arriving at sincere cooperation. But for that to be the case, there has to exist a solid basis of sincere service to all Salvadorans. To the president’s offer of dialogue, therefore, the Church repeats her readiness, so long as dialogue uses a common language, and not a vocabulary that runs down and defames the Church, and provided that events restore to the Church the confidence she has lost in the government. Examples of acts of justice and reconciliation would include: an explanation of what has happened to the many citizens who have disappeared; an end to arbitrary arrests and torture; permission to return home, under a guarantee of liberty, to all who have fled as victims of terror; the return to El Salvador of those of the clergy who have been banned without just reason; a review of expulsion orders served on clergymen, giving them a hearing in court.

Church-State conversations, in a climate of justice and confidence, of love for the common good of the people, would in no way be a matter of seeking privileges. They would not be based upon any competence of a political kind. They would be intended to bring about sincere cooperation between government and Church so as to create a just social order, one that would gradually eliminate unjust structures and would encourage the new society that the country needs in order to maintain and live within new structures of justice, peace, and love.


Each year this Body of Christ in history, this Church of the Archdiocese, understands better that the August 6 feast day is something more than just a titular feast. It is rather the celebration of a covenant that binds all Salvadorans to each other, all Salvadorans baptized with the baptism of the world’s divine Savior, even to the extent of an identification in thinking and in destiny. All of us who have been baptized form the Church, and the Church makes Christ present in the history of our country.

In constructing the history of El Salvador our Christian commitment leaves us no room for any inspiration, or for any objective, distinct from the message and the inspiration of Christ. If we are not faithful to this commitment, if we do not construct a better homeland that reflects, within our history, the final kingdom of heaven, then we would be betraying our faith, and even betraying our homeland. Our fidelity to Christ, the Lord of our history, will bring us the deep satisfaction of having been, with him, the builders of his kingdom here in El Salvador, for the happiness of all Salvadorans.

The Queen of Peace is also one of our country’s principal patrons. She is the mother of the first body of Christ and so mother also of the Body of Christ that continues through history. May she look after our Church and our homeland with a mother’s powerful protection.  Beneath the sign of her peace may there come to be, here among the people of El Salvador, the kingdom of God that through his Church, Christ continues to preach, a kingdom that does not interfere with your prerogatives but heals everything human of its fatal weakness, transfigures it, and fills it with hope, truth, and beauty (Vatican II, Message to Governments).

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First Pastoral Letter – THE EASTER CHURCH

To my beloved brothers and sisters, the auxiliary bishop, the priests, religious, and laity of the archdiocese of San Salvador; to you and to all men and women of good will, the Easter greeting of Jesus: peace be with you.


On February 22, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the Archdiocese of San Salvador lived through that mysterious moment of apostolic succession, a characteristic of the human and historical side of Jesus’ divine and eternal Church. Salvadoran episcopal history began on September 28, 1842, when Pope Gregory XVI erected the diocese of San Salvador as a suffragan See of Guatemala. Four bishops followed each other in the new See until, on February 11, 1913, St. Pius X, the father of our ecclesiastical province, elevated it to the rank of Metropolitan See. Since that date three important figures in the Salvadoran hierarchy have held the office of archbishop.

For the past thirty-eight years of turbulent history, Archbishop Luis Chávez y González successfully guided the ship of our local church. Now his distinguished but weary hands have turned over the finely balanced rudder to a new successor of the apostles. I have taken hold of it with all the respect and delicacy of one who feels that he has received an inheritance of inestimable value to help him continue to guide and sustain the Church toward new and difficult horizons.

The work of my venerable predecessor will stand out when the ecclesiastical history of El Salvador comes to be written. During the thirty-eight years of his apostolate, God abundantly blessed the life of the Church. The seminary, the number of vocations, the priests, the parish communities, the religious communities, the colleges, the schools, the work of catechesis, the organizations and initiatives taken for the betterment of men and women, the luminous teaching in his pastoral letters — all of these will be chapter headings in the written record of his episcopacy. And it was backed up by the personal testimony of a holy life that faithfully traversed the road of his priestly vocation. Against this rock of authenticity and virtue have broken cowardly storms of calumny, but they have succeeded only in adorning his life, rather as rocks in the ocean are adorned by the furious foam of the waves.

A Paschal Moment

Were I to search for an appropriate adjective to describe this moment of apostolic succession in the Archdiocese, I should have no hesitation in calling it paschal.

Yes. We are passing through a very beautiful Eastertide. It coincides with the Eastertide of our liturgical year. Only the spirit of a risen Christ who, down the years, lives in and builds up his Church, can explain the rich heritage that my venerable predecessor Archbishop Chávez has handed on to me. Only the divine impulse of the Spirit of Easter can explain this unexpected beginning of my hierarchical service to the Archdiocese. Never did I imagine so beautiful an entrance as pastor into this Church of the divine Savior. In the special circumstances of this past Lent, the ecclesial mystery of Easter, which never fails to delight me as a Christian, has enriched my life, not only as a private individual but also as I have lived it from my position as a pastor in communion with the whole Church: in a dialogue of common responsibility with my beloved clergy, in close involvement of concern and prayer with ecclesial communities and with the faithful. In communion with the Church universal, I have shared in the fellow feeling and the solidarity of many of my brother bishops and of other dioceses. And, above all, I have had once again the support of the successor of St. Peter who, during my recent trip to Rome, entrusted to me Christ’s charismatic commission: strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:32).

An Easter Greeting

All of this imposes upon my first pastoral letter addressed to the whole Archdiocese a paschal theme and manner. It is my letter of introduction, my first greeting. In a spirit of optimism and of Christian hope it seeks to express:

— first of all, to my brothers and friends who are the priests of the Archdiocese, my offer of, and hope for, a dialogue with each other, and of collaboration in the service of the People of God whom together we have to evangelize, sanctify, and rule;

— to the communities of religious, my pastoral affection and my gratitude for the way they enrich the life of prayer and contemplation, and for the many ways in which they bring into being, among our people, the divine mystery of the Church;

— to generous lay people, all the vision and all the hope that the Second Vatican Council aroused in the hearts of pastors for the promotion of the lay vocation as a call to sanctity in the world, which they are to order according to the plans of God in committed collaboration with the Church’s apostolic mission;

— and to all men and women who await from the Church an answer that will throw light on their doubts, their disquiet, and their problems, the certain promise that God is holding out his hand to them from the Church, to all who seek him with a sincere heart (Eucharistic Prayer IV).

Especially is this Easter greeting directed to all my friends who, in different ways, expressed to me their loving welcome of, and adhesion to, the will of the Holy Father when he appointed me to this Metropolitan See. It is also directed to those who, with much display of solidarity, shared the grief and the hope that were aroused by the murder of the never-to-be-forgotten Father Rutilio Grande — may he rest in peace — and by other attacks on the freedom of the Church.

Toward Thoughtful Dialogue

And now, brothers, sisters, and friends, the greeting and the introduction become an invitation to thoughtful dialogue. I represent a Church that wants always to converse with all men and women, so that she may pass on to them the truth and the grace with which God has entrusted to her, in order that she may guide the world in conformity to his divine plan. Let us put the theme forward in the language of Easter, so as to retain the style of this letter’s title: the Church does not live for herself, but in order to bring to the world the truth and the grace of Easter. This is the essence of my letter. Its purpose is simply, in the daylight of this paschal hour, to present — with the sincere offer to enter into dialogue with everyone on — the Church’s identity and mission in these terms: (1) Easter: the origin and content of the Church; (2) the Church: sacrament and instrument of Easter; (3) the world: designated recipient of the truth and grace of Easter.


What is Easter? What is the paschal mystery? It is simply the event of Christian salvation, through the death and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Second Vatican Council made the paschal mystery the center of its reflections upon the Church and her mission in the world. The council explains: The wonderful works of God among the people of the Old Testament were but a prelude to the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God. He achieved his task principally by the paschal mystery of his blessed passion, resurrection from the dead, and glorious ascension, whereby dying, he destroyed our death and, rising he restored our life (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #5).

The Old Covenant Passover

The event of Christian salvation, then, which we call the paschal mystery, was being prepared for by the wonders wrought by God among the people of the Old Testament. Hence, in order to understand the meaning and the manner of Christian redemption a little better, it is necessary to go back to the wonders of the Old Testament. The historical and salvific manner of the redemption is mainly revealed to us in the Book of Exodus: God saves Israel, and thus will it be for every people, each within its own history. It is also revealed to us there what this redemption involves: a ransoming from death by means of the protection afforded by the blood of the lamb, while the avenging angel passes over, taking only the lives of the firstborn of the Egyptians. It also involves a passage from slavery, through the sea and the desert, to a promised land, to freedom and repose.

The redeemed people celebrated that Passover every year. But its celebration was more than simply a remembrance of things past. The whole process of redemption was made present in a profound liturgical and sacramental, prophetic and eschatological, sacrificial and communal sense. There were lived out again the wonders of the Lord. That is why it was said to those taking part, on this day … you are leaving Egypt. The Passover ritual was to be explained: this is because of what Yahweh did for me when I came out of Egypt (Exodus 13:4, 8). The Passover was always something in the here and now. God was the savior of Israel by way of its own history. The wonders were praised, and the sins against the covenant were denounced. The failures and the imperfections in their history did not dishearten them, because the Passover was open to the eschatological future. In the strivings of the present there always shone out the hope of a more perfect Passover, one beyond history, where there would be the happiness of the perfect paschal feast. The immolation of the lamb conveyed a sacrificial and communitarian meaning, as did the gathering of the family or group, which patriotism later extended to take in the entire national community.

Christ Our Paschal Victim Is Sacrificed

The whole of Israel’s paschal mystery comes to its fulfillment in the final Passover of Jesus. The preparatory symbol is transformed into the reality of the Christian Passover. Upon the structure of that ancient Passover Christ himself becomes its wondrous personification by means of his own passage from death to resurrection. Christ our paschal victim is sacrificed sings the Church among the alleluias of the resurrection. The whole of his life and work are marked by that paschal sign: the Passover was the hour appointed by the Father for the redemption of the world in Christ, and it was with a keen awareness that Christ approached his own Passover hour.  His death upon the cross was the immolation of the true paschal lamb and in a Passover meal Jesus instituted a memorial, a Eucharistic representation, which, in the midst of any human situation, will make present the wonder of the redemption. Who can measure the redemptive power of this passage from death to resurrection? If in his death there were destroyed the empire of sin, of hell, and of death itself, in his resurrection there began now in history the reign of eternal life, holding out to us the opportunity for bold changes in history and in life (cf., Gaudium et Spes, #22, 38). In the resurrection God glorifies the Son (Acts 2:22 ff., Romans 8:11), places the divine seal upon the act of redemption, which began at the incarnation and reached its consummation upon the cross. The resurrection made Jesus Son of God in all his power (Romans 1:4), Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36), leader and Savior (Acts 5:31), judge and Lord [of] everyone, alive or dead” (Acts 10:42), the first to rise from the dead (Acts 26:23; Revelation 1:5), and Lord of glory (I Corinthians 2:8). He is the first to have entered into the new world that is the ransomed universe. He has the power to offer to all who believe in him the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

For Easter is also the coming of the Holy Spirit, the power from on high, the spirit of truth and love, the advocate and consoler, the spirit of God through whom men and women can identify with Jesus in his victory over evil and in the renewal of their own lives. The kingdom of heaven is not something that comes only after death. That will be its perfect fulfillment. But it has already been inaugurated in history, among men and women, by the Risen One, by his passage from death to resurrection.

In Him Is Our Hope

When I described this moment in the life of our Archdiocese as a paschal hour, I was thinking of the superabundant power of faith, hope, and love that the risen Christ — living and working — has called forth in different sectors of our local Church — even in sectors and persons who do not belong to, nor yet share in, our paschal faith. With the feelings of a pastor, I see that the spiritual riches of Easter, that greatest inheritance of the Church, abound among us. I see that there is already being achieved among us here what was expressly desired by the bishops at Medellín, when they were speaking to young persons: That the Church in Latin America should be manifested, in an increasingly clear manner, as truly poor, missionary and paschal, separate from all temporal power and courageously committed to the liberation of each and every person (Medellín Documents, Youth, #15).


Christ’s Church has to be an Easter Church — that is to say, a Church that is born of Easter and exists to be a sign and instrument of Easter in the world.

The Church Born of Easter

In the story of the lance (John 19:35) the Fathers of the Church found a mystical parallel between the birth of the Church from the side of Christ sleeping upon the cross, and the formation of Eve from the side of Adam. There is also a beautiful paschal connection in St. Paul’s linking the origin of the Church with the sacrifice of Christ: Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Jesus, who brought about our redemption beneath the paschal sign, longed to live on, in a paschal manner, in the life of the Church. The Church is the body of the risen Christ. Through baptism all those who belong to her live out that paschal tension, that passage from death to life, that crossing over that never ends and is called conversion, the continual demand upon us to destroy whatever is sin and to bring into being ever more powerfully all that is life, renewal, holiness, justice. The Holy Spirit began to quicken this life of resurrection in the Church from the very day of the resurrection itself when Jesus breathed the recreating Spirit upon the Apostles (John 20:22). With Pentecost — fifty days after Easter — came the fullness of Easter. There then took place the great pouring out of charisms that were to make the Church manifest to the world, and publicly to sanction the testimony of the Apostles. God thus forever anoints his Church. He does so to identify her with Jesus in order that all the faithful may, in the same Spirit, have access with Jesus, to the Father (cf. Lumen Gentium #4; cf. Ephesians 2:18).

In other words, the Easter Christ continues, lives, in the Easter Church. One cannot be part of this Church without being faithful to his manner of passing from death to life, without a sincere movement of conversion and of fidelity to the Lord.

Sign and Instrument of Easter

It was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church (Sacrosanctum Gentium, #5), the universal sacrament of salvation, as Vatican II most beautifully describes it (Lumen Gentium, #48). The council made the paschal mystery the central focus of its reflections on the Church, for the whole purpose of the Church’s existence is to make obvious and operative, in the midst of humanity, the abundant energy of the death and resurrection of the Lord.

From this there arises the attractive characterization of a Church that does not live for herself but so as to serve as Christ’s instrument in the redemption of the whole of humanity. It is a great joy to me to emphasize this sense of service in a letter whose purpose is to introduce to you a pastor who wants to live out, and, as closely as possible, to share in, the feelings of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life (Matthew 20:28).                                   

The Church, born at Easter to bring to all the grace of Easter, is described thus in one of the most profound Vatican II syntheses: Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope, and charity, as an entity with visible delineation, through which he communicates truth and grace to all (Lumen Gentium, #8).

There are here the three elements that make the Church to be the universal sacrament of salvation: as the visible part of the sacrament, the hierarchical community; as the invisible sacramental content, the truth and grace of the Redeemer. To build the Church will always mean to build upon these three foundational stones, so beloved of Christ himself: to gather a community in faith and love around the shepherd, and so make Christ visible; to evangelize that community with Christ’s unique truth, and from that community to evangelize the world; and to live out and pass on that Easter grace, which means to liberate oneself from sin, and to become a sharer in the divine Sonship that Christ merited through his death and resurrection.

Or, to put it in the terms used by Pope Paul VI in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi: Those whose life has been transformed enter a community which is itself a sign of transformation, a sign of newness of life: it is the Church, the visible sacrament of salvation. But entry into the ecclesial community will in its turn be expressed through many other signs which prolong and unfold the sign of the Church. In the dynamism of evangelization, a person who accepts the Church as the Word which saves normally translates it into the following sacramental acts: adherence to the Church, and acceptance of the Sacraments, which manifest and support this adherence through the grace which they confer (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #23).

What Fidelity Demands

If the Church’s preaching is the truth that saves (Romans 1: 16), and if the Eucharist and the other sacraments she administers both signify and communicate the power to become children of God, this is because grace . . . flows from the paschal mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #61).   

Its paschal origins require of the Church, as a demand of Christ, a careful fidelity to the risen Lord in order that she be true to her identity, and so she is obliged by the requirements of a world in need of salvation not to water down in any way her teaching and her ministry. This obligation arises from her service as sign and instrument of the truth and grace that, through the paschal mystery, redeem the world. The prophetic, priestly, and social functions that the Church, in the name of the risen Christ, carries out among men and women, ought to be in perfect harmony with the mind of Christ. This is more true today than ever before, when persons expect of the Church an answer from the only Redeemer who can save them.


The Church does not exist for herself. Her raison d’etre is the same as that of Jesus: service to God to save the world. Vatican II said as much when treating of the mission of the Church in the modern world: The council can provide no more eloquent proof of its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up, than by engaging with it in conversation about these various problems. The council brings to mankind light kindled from the Gospel, and puts at its disposal those saving resources which the Church itself, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, receives from its Founder (Gaudium et Spes, #3).

And when, in August and September 1968, the bishops of Latin America met together in Medellin under the authority of the Pope to determine the form this noble service would take for our continent, they kept well in mind the fact that the Spirit of Easter urges the Church to dialogue with, and to serve, our peoples. We are, they said, on the threshold of a new epoch in the history of our continent. It appears to be a time full of zeal for full emancipation, of liberation from every form of servitude, of personal maturity, and of collective integration (Medellin Documents, Introduction, #4).  The Church cannot be indifferent, they proclaimed, when faced with a muted cry [that] pours from the throats of millions of men, asking their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else (Medellin Documents, Poverty, #2).

A Religious and Human Mission

These legitimate aspirations of our people here and now are directed toward the Church in the form of a challenge or, better, an evangelical appeal. That is one side of the coin. The other side is a growing awareness that the Church has of her own mission and cannot to shrink from this appeal but must have the wisdom and fortitude to speak the words, and to adopt the attitude, that Christ requires of her in this complicated situation. This is typical of the difficult times in which we live. It is a time, Cardinal Pironio says, of the cross and of hope, of possibilities and of risks, of responsibility and of commitment (Escritos Pastorales, p. 206). It is, above all, a time for prayer and contemplation so as to interpret, according to the heart of God, the signs of our times. They will help us to know how to offer the service that we, as Church, owe to the just aspirations of our brothers and sisters.

The Church cannot be defined simply in political or socio-economic terms. But neither can it be defined from a point of view which would make her indifferent to the temporal problems of the world. As Vatican II puts it: the mission of the Church will show its religious, and by that very fact, its supremely human character (Gaudium et Spes, #11). And this is how Paul VI explains the blending of the Church’s two aspects, the religious and the human: Hence, when preaching liberation and associating herself with those who are working and suffering for it, the Church is certainly not willing to restrict her mission only to the religious field and dissociate herself from man’s temporal problems. Nevertheless she reaffirms the primacy of her spiritual vocation and refuses to replace the proclamation of the Kingdom by the proclamation of forms of human liberation; she even states that her contribution to liberation is incomplete if she neglects to proclaim salvation in Jesus Christ (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #34).

While taking account of the supremacy of the Church’s spiritual vocation and the predominant role of salvation in Jesus Christ, Pope Paul VI defends the linkage of true evangelization and human advancement, both because anthropology, theology, and the gospel demand it, and because to dissociate evangelization from human advancement would be to forget the lesson which comes to us from the Gospel concerning love of our neighbor who is suffering and in need (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #31).  I very earnestly recommend that you study the whole of the third chapter of Evangelii Nuntiandi. It will help you to have a clearer idea of the liberation that the Church promotes.

Service that Demands Conversion

The service offered by an Easter Church to the needs of her people ought to begin, as the bishops at Medellin said, in a spirit of eagerness for conversion and service. We have seen that our most urgent commitment must be to purify ourselves, all of the members and institutions of the Catholic Church, in the spirit of the Gospel (Medellin Documents, Message to the Peoples of Latin America).

In a sincere analysis of this confession, Cardinal Pironio thinks along three basic lines:

We Christians have not thoroughly assimilated ourselves to Jesus Christ (we may have known the gospel superficially, or have studied Christ technically, but we have not fully savored his mystery).

We divorce faith from life (we content ourselves with preaching the faith or celebrating it liturgically, but we do not put love and justice into practice).

By the same token, we have lost that Christian sensitivity to the anxieties of others, we no longer know how to brighten their hopes, and we have lost interest in the constructive molding of history.

An Easter Church, a Pentecost Church, ought to be a Church of conversion, of a fundamental turning back to Christ — whose mirror we should be — and to the radical demands of the Sermon on the Mount (Escritos Pastorales, p. 211).

Sincere Cooperation

From the perspective of our identity as Church, we also realize that our service to the people, precisely because it does not as such have a political or a socio-economic character, must seek sincere dialogue and cooperation with whomever holds political and socioeconomic responsibility. The Church does not do this because she has some technical competence or because she wants temporal privileges, but because the political community and other elements of society need to be reminded that they are at the service of the personal and social vocation of men and women. As Vatican II teaches: [The Church] is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person ….  [Therefore] it is only right … that at all times and in all places, the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to teach her social doctrine, to exercise her role freely among men, and also to pass moral judgment on those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it. In this, she should make use of all the means  . . . which accord with the Gospel and which correspond to the general good (Gaudium et Spes, #76).

Vatican II, while advocating this sincere cooperation, which in no way compromises the freedom and the autonomy of the Church, is ready to renounce any kind of privilege when there is danger of tarnishing the purity of the church’s testimony. The Church in El Salvador, out of her concern for the welfare of her people, and because of her love for them, is always ready to enter into dialogue with civil authorities and with those Salvadorans who are economically or socially powerful. She has been grateful when she could count upon them, just as she suffers when relationships have deteriorated — to the detriment and confusion of the people — by misunderstandings or a lack of comprehension of her difficult responsibility to defend the rights of God and of humanity. The search for this understanding is one of the Church’s Easter hopes, the object of her prayers, and one of the aims of her apostolic work, so that she may be able to live out in its fullness the peace that the Risen One came to give us, and for which El Salvador has always dreamed.


Beloved brothers, sisters, friends. We have together lived through a Lent that was a Way of the Cross, and a Good Friday that has come to full flower in this bright and hopeful hour of the Easter of resurrection. Those of us — bishops, priests, religious, and laity — who are aware of what it means to be a Church, the depository of all the energies working for the salvation of humanity in Christ, also understand the challenges and the risks of these difficult times. The major challenge arises from the hope placed in the Church by the world. Let us be worthy of this hour. Let us know how to give reason for this hope by the witness of unity, of communion, of Christian authenticity, and of apostolic work. While carefully honoring the supremacy of the Church’s religious mission and of salvation in Jesus Christ, this apostolic work should also take into account the human dimension of the gospel message, and the demands that the religious and eternal spheres make upon history.

Our divine Savior will not cheat us of our hope. Let us appeal to the Queen of Peace, the heavenly patroness of our people, to intercede with him for us. May the Mother of the Risen One defend our Church, the sacrament of Easter. Like Mary, may the Church live out this happy balance of the Easter of Jesus, which ought to characterize the true salvation of men and women in Christ — namely, to feel oneself already glorified in heaven as the image and first flowering of the future life, and at the same time to be, here on earth, the light for God’s pilgrim people as a sign of sure hope and solace until the day of the Lord comes (Gaudium et Spes, #76).  

I beg my beloved priests, religious, catechists, the Catholic colleges and schools and other agencies of our apostolate to study throughout the whole of Eastertide — that is, until Pentecost — the theme of this pastoral letter: Easter, the Church, and the world.

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