Friday, March 04, 2016

El Salvador’s forgotten martyr

Fr. Nicolas’ church.

#BlessedRomero #MartyrOfMercy
The first priest assassinated in El Salvador was not Father Rutilio Grande, killed in March 1977, who forever changed the trajectory of the archbishopric of Blessed Oscar A. Romero. Seven years before Grande, Fr. Nicolas Aguilar Antonio Rodríguez had been murdered and, incredibly, Blessed Romero had also played a part in the story of this true “proto-martyr”.

Archbishop Romero commemorated his death alongside that of other slain priests, remembering the dead as one “whom I went to pick up near San Antonio Los Ranchos, Chalatenango, together with other priests charged by Mgr. Chavez [the former Archbishop].” (His Journal, November 28, 1979.) “It is only right that now when we remember the heroism of our priests,” said Romero, “we should also remember him.” (November 27, 1977 Homily.) Thus did Romero make memory of the first Salvadoran martyr: “He had come from hearing the confession of and anointing one the parishioners who was about to pass on to eternal life and he died in the service of his priesthood.”
Msgr. Romero recalled the sad details: “I went to claim his body that was already decaying.” It was a grizzly scene. Mauled and devoured by dogs and birds of prey, the priest’s body was found with his right hand severed by machete, a head injury and other signs of the violence he had suffered. Along with his body, authorities found the holy oils, a stole, a corporal and the cardboard the priest used to shelter himself from the sun. The delegation that came to claim his body in the place where they found him put it in a box and carried him in procession with the prayers and cries of the people who accompanied them; they put him into a canoe to cross the river, and continued the uphill walk to Cojutepeque’s public cemetery. The simple cross on his grave bore the epitaph: “He died in the line of his pastoral duty”—just as Romero described.
Father Nicolas had been born in Cojutepeque on May 15, 1921. He was ordained a priest on January 16, 1949. “Nicolas was an easygoing priest, a man of few words, a pleasant fellow, cut from the old mold,” the former Salvadoran priest Innocent “Chencho” Alas, who was kidnapped and tortured in the same period, told Super Martyrio. “He did not belong to any of the change movements.” But according to the perverse logic of the persecution of the Church of the era, the neutrality of Father Nicolas was what made him a target for his executioners. “He was an ideal target because it was taking aim at priests without letting them know where the action was coming from,” recalls Jose Alejandro Duarte Fuentes in his book Borbollones: Padre Nicolás Rodríguez, Mártir, Imprenta Universitaria, San Salvador, 1999, p. 19. And according to a 1977 report by the archdiocese, the motive of the crime was to intimidate the clergy. Rivera Damas, “La labor pastoral de la arquidiócesis de San Salvador,” ECA 348-349 (1977), p. 809.

Fr. Nicolas’ people in a refugee camp during the civil war.
November 28 is a fateful date in the Salvadoran martyrology. It was on that day that Father Ernesto Barrera was killed in 1979, and Father Marcial Serrano in 1980. On Saturday November 28, 1970, Father Nicolas had gone to celebrate a marriage in San Jose Cancasque, a village located two miles from his parish, San Antonio Los Ranchos, in Chalatenango. This was the time of the beginning of the peasant movements, union organizing and setting up of Christian Base Communities. His mission was embedded in the conflict zone where the Sumpul River flows into the Lempa River, the same region that produced the martyrdom of Father Grande and the Sumpul Massacre; the same area where the American churchwomen Ita Ford and Maura Clarke worked before their murder in 1980.
Father Nicolas—who lived and moved like the poor—had traveled by bus to a place called Santa Teresa.  He was intercepted there by criminals who offered to take him on horseback to a place where he was to administer the last rites to a dying man. “This was to be the occasion of his death; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,” writes Duarte. (Op. Cit., p. 24.) The murderers tortured the priest and tried to inebriate him so that he could endure the torments. When he refused to drink, they lacerated his hand, but this caused him to bleed excessively. To try to stop the bleeding, they submerged his hand in boiling water. When he continued gushing blood, they decided to “finish” him. Because his body continued to bleed, they bathed it in lime. They kept his corpse lying over a hammock for several days, and when it began to smell, they forced villagers at gunpoint to carry it to the place where they dumped it.
Father Juan Leon Montoya was a military chaplain (who later clashed with Romero), but the cruel murder moved him to recognize the death as a martyrdom. Father Nicolas “found death disguised as an assassin, and he celebrated his last Mass in an ordeal of pain, offering his life on the same corporal on which the Eucharistic Christ had rested upon the Comforter Viaticum,” wrote Fr. Montoya, “a corporal that was found stained with the blood from his priestly bosom.” His death was a testimony: “His disfigured face, his amputated right hand, give us the image of the Broken Christ, the priest without name, but a priest in the greatness of the sacrifice of his life and the immolation that identifies the priest with Christ”.
Notwithstanding the shock of the moment, Father Nicolas’ murder was forgotten, and was eventually displaced by the figures of the Salvadoran martyrs who came a decade after his slaughter. This was due in large part to the fact that his assassination did not trigger a wave of persecution against the Church like the aggressive persecution unleashed after the death of Father Grande. Therefore, the death of Father Nicolas remained an isolated event that has not been linked in the popular imagination with the other crimes.  Father Nicolas is included among the 500 martyrs the Salvadoran Church is preparing to beatify in the near future.
Some have groused that Father Nicolas’ death did not lead to the “conversion” of Archbishop Romero as did Father Grande. Romero had been ordained a bishop just five months before the crime, in June 1970. Romero may have had Father Nicolas in mind when he reflected in January 1971: “A priest is above all a man of faith and prayer. Prayerful priests are the most audacious leaders because they live the biblical truth: ‘I can do everything through Him who gives me strength’.” Romero, La Prensa Grafica, January 11, 1971 (Cf. Philippians 4:13).  Clearly, seven years after the death of Father Nicolas, Romero had not forgotten him, because he commemorated his death while he was archbishop, which is natural because he had gone to claim his remains. In fact, a few days after the crime, Romero celebrated the marriage that Father Nicolas could not officiate, saying “I will relieve Nicolas of this commitment.”
In the end, Blessed Romero recognized the significance of the crime for Salvadoran society … “a society that kills its priests.” (Dec. 9, 1979 Hom.)

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