The Pope meets with Latin American Church folk and speaks about sensitive issues in a thoroughly private encounter. However, a supposed account of what was discussed is leaked out through unofficial channels, creating a media storm. Sound familiar? The Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious (CLAR) has deeply regretted unauthorized disclosures of its dialogue with Pope Francis after the alleged confirmation by the Pope of the existence of a “gay lobby” has been sensationalized; but this is referring to a different matter. To better understand the distortion that can occur in such unauthorized leaks, it is helpful to recall the first meeting of Blessed John Paul II and Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, on May 7, 1979. That first meeting has been painted as a tense encounter, and this impression has come to define (for outsiders) the relationship between the Polish pope and the Salvadoran martyr as one of clash, when the account of that meeting appears to be doubtful.Four days after the meeting with the pope, Archbishop Romero met a reporter named Maria López Vigil. She has represented herself as a great friend and collaborator of the archbishop but, in his diary, he describes how he came to meet her for the first time on that occasion: “I called Father Pedro, of the Passionists, who brought María [López Vigil] with him, the writer who writes in Vida Nueva [this description confirms that it is López Vigil] ... I was very pleased to meet her and to talk with Father Pedro Ferradas and share with them many memories and impressions of our life in El Salvador.” According to López Vigil, during this meeting, Archbishop Romero unpacked an emotional account of his meeting with the pope four days earlier (although Romero, in his journal, just says that he spoke about his impressions of his life in El Salvador). In the version told by López Vigil, Romero complained, “almost in tears”, about his treatment at the hands of the pope. (Dialogue of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, and Pope John Paul II, “Testimony” by Maria López Vigil, author of Memories in Mosaic, UCA Press, San Salvador1993; Journal of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, May 1979.) López Vigil relates that, “I saw him in a state of shock. The first thing that he said to me was, ‘Help me to understand why I’ve been treated by the Holy Father in the way that he treated me’.” (Transcript of TV program, John Paul II: The Millennial Pope, PBS, September 28, 1999.) The first thing he said to her the day he met her!
The account of the meeting between Archbishop Romero and John Paul II which Maria López Vigil published in 1993 has come to be universally accepted. However, a comparison of her version of events with the account Archbishop Romero relates in his own diary on the day of the meeting, and statements he makes in a homily upon returning to El Salvador, differ in significant ways. The differences between the accounts of Archbishop Romero and Maria López Vigil start from the circumstances leading up to the audience. According to López Vigil, Romero had to grovel for a meeting when the Pope appeared in St. Peter’s Square during a General Audience. López Vigil has Archbishop Romero getting up early in the morning to secure a front row placement at the audience. When the Pope comes around, López Vigil has Romero grabbing his arm and refusing to let go. Romero takes on the semblance of a beggar and tells the Pope he is the Archbishop of San Salvador, and pleads for an audience. In his Journal, Romero tells a different story: it is the Pope who proposes that they have a private meeting. John Paul invites some 40 bishops present at the General Audience, including Archbishop Romero, to give a blessing from the dais, and afterward he greets them one by one: “When I took his hand and asked him for a blessing for the Archdiocese of San Salvador, he told me that we should speak privately.”The differences between López Vigil’s unauthorized account and Romero’s telling of the meeting become more dramatic when the day of the meeting arrives. In the López Vigil account, when Romero presents the Pope with several thick reports, the pontiff reacts with displeasure. López Vigil has the pontiff fuming in silence, ignoring the reports, not even opening the folders, and complaining. López Vigil claims that the Pontiff made an aside that he has given instructions that visitors should not come loaded with papers because he and his staff do not have the time to read them. As dramatic as López Vigil’s account appears, the divergence from Romero’s narration is just as dramatic. Where López Vigil describes a pope who remains cold and unengaged during the meeting, Romero described a different reaction: “He began to ask me questions about the situation of my country,” says Romero. Vigil López claims the Pope is disinterested and resists reviewing any documents. Archbishop Romero describes a Pope who is accommodating and is receptive of the information he receives: “A gesture of his has remained engraved in my heart, namely, the attention with which Pope John Paul II listens,” recalled Archbishop Romero. (May 13, 1979 Homily.) “When he had finished his sentences and I began to speak, he was very attentive to my words. He leaned closer to me to listen to my words, to understand what I was saying.” (Ibid.) “I respectfully suggested that we follow the memorandum I had written, and he willingly agreed. We began to read and I handed him the appropriate documents.” (His Journal). And when López Vigil’s Pope responds by complaining, Romero’s Pope responds with a smile: “When I took out the folder of reports from the foreign delegations on the situation of the country, he smiled, seeing how thick it was, knowing that there would not be time to look at it.”
Vigil López claims that John Paul reacted with cynicism when Archbishop Romero told him about the killing of a Salvadoran priest named Octavio Ortiz, and that when Romero told the Pope that Fr. Ortiz had been falsely accused of being a guerrilla, John Paul expressed skepticism that the priest was innocent of the charge. That exchange does not appear at all in the Archbishop’s account; Romero simply states he gave the Pope a report on the assassination: “I also gave him a folder with a photograph of Father Octavio [Ortiz], now dead, which included extensive information on his murder ... I clarified for him (and he said that I was right) that there are circumstances—I mentioned, for example, the case of Father Octavio—in which the accusation has to be very specific because the injustice perpetrated, the attack committed, was very specific.” López Vigil concludes the sequence, out of step with Archbishop Romero’s account of the meeting, by putting these words in the Pontiff’s lips, which seem to summarize the dismissive attitude she attributed to him: “Do not exaggerate, Mr. Archbishop!” Romero, however, leaves off with a different sentence: “[D]eep down I remembered that he had recommended ‘courage and boldness, but, at the same time, tempered with the necessary prudence and balance’.” In subsequent homilies, Romero would refer repeatedly to this phrase of John Paul’s: “courage and boldness.”So, when we read an unofficial version—or fragments collected in such a version, selectively chosen to “make news”—we should remember Archbishop Romero and John Paul II.