WASHINGTON, D.C. — At 51, Bishop Oswaldo Escobar Aguilar is the youngest prelate of El Salvador, and one notably influenced by his country’s Catholic martyrs.
During a Nov. 10 visit at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, he said goodbye to Sunday Massgoers outside the church with a gentle smile and a simple, “Good morning. I’m Oswaldo,” while donning a replica of the miter worn by martyred Salvadoran St. Oscar Romero with the saint’s episcopal motto “to feel with the Church.”
After greeting the Massgoers, many of them Salvadoran immigrants, he asked about their lives, where they were from, how they and their children were doing, while accommodating a line of elderly women waiting for a hug.
There was a time, he said, when some associated becoming a bishop with becoming a prince. But to him, it was clear from the moment he received a call in 2016 from El Salvador’s then apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Leon Kalenga, that Pope Francis was looking to appoint a bishop the likes of Oscar Romero, one focused on the poor and underserved wherever he went.
And that’s what Escobar does on a regular basis in the rural Diocese of Chalatenango in northern El Salvador, the place where he was born and where he serves as its third bishop.
The riches to be found there are abundant stories of pain and poverty. But like the mountainous landscape of Chalatenango, to him, it wasn’t unfamiliar territory.
One rural parishioner posted on Facebook a photo of the bishop passing through the countryside on a horse, clad in a cowboy hat, and wrote the words: “A bishop for all terrains.”
And indeed, from a young age, Escobar had to learn to navigate various terrains — physical, spiritual, psychological and political.
When he was 11, his family was forced to flee the rural environs of their native Chalatenango after he witnessed his older sister be snatched away by a group of men — presumably death squads. He was walking with her near a river when it happened, he remembers, and “she yelled and told me to run.”
His older brother, too, was killed. His mother took her remaining children to the capital of San Salvador in the early 1980s seeking safety.
“We left with nothing. It was a reality faced by many Salvadorans,” he explained to a group of students at Georgetown University, where he spoke about a variety of topics Nov. 8. “My story is common and it’s the story of many Salvadoran families.”
In San Salvador, they started over again from scratch, and at age 12, to help his mother make ends meet, he took a job making hooks for metal bed frames to help his family’s financial situation.
“Since my childhood, I’ve known persecution,” he said in a Sept. 16 telephone interview with Catholic News Service. “I have known hunger. But God gives you strength in the worst moments and even during them, we experienced moments of happiness. Without God, I don’t know where we’d be. He was the panacea.”
He also credits the spirituality he learned as a Discalced Carmelite, an order he entered in 1988 after reading St. Teresa of Avila, and the life of Romero, his country’s first saint, with helping him through the process of grappling with what happened to him, his family and country.
“When I entered the (Carmelite) order, I began a process of healing of all this,” he said. “The environment I’m in has fostered it, but the population I serve has not had the same means, nor have they resolved it.”
He often refers to them as his “martyrial diocese” because many of the local Christian families there lost a loved during the country’s civil war, from 1980 until 1992. However, Chalatenango, with its rugged terrain, became a haven for rebels, and because of it, a target for the military, suffering more than its share of atrocities long before the war officially began.
Those atrocities include a massacre in May 1980 of more than 600 residents of Chalatenango slaughtered by soldiers as they tried to find safety in the province’s Sumpul River, bordering Honduras. They also include an untold number of slain children, men and women, including many catechists and pastoral ministers.
“They died fighting for ideals” in a time when anyone who clamored for justice was labeled a communist, the bishop said during a Dec. 2 Mass he celebrated for the martyrs of his diocese. “They died for the Gospel.”
“The conflict was entrenched in my diocese,” he told the Georgetown students. “People still suffer, they still cry. About three months ago, I was very moved by a woman celebrating her 79th birthday. I always like to pray with them (those celebrating birthdays) and I asked her, ‘How many children do you have?’ and she said, ‘I had nine but only three are alive.'”
The others were killed by rebels during the conflict. That’s when you realize that you can’t take political sides, Escobar said.
“My job as a pastor is to be with the victims, even if they favored one side or the other,” he said. “There has been suffering on one side as well as the other. Both cry for their families.”
That’s a lesson learned after reading about the Salvadoran saint he often references.
“Romero greatly healed me,” he said. “The only thing we can hang on to is the Gospel and not compromise ourselves ideologically.”
Romero “pummeled” the extreme right as well as the extreme left when he had to because the only side he could take was that of those suffering violence, he said.
“He spoke with military (soldiers) and with ‘guerrilleros,'” Escobar said of the archbishop of San Salvador martyred in 1980. “He spoke with everyone to try to avert a war.”
Romero’s courage didn’t come from a social conviction, he said, but, like St. Teresa of Avila, the founder of his order, it came from experiencing God in difficult times — something he’s familiar with.
He recalls moments as a child, listening to the future saint via radio at home with his family. When he was appointed bishop, Romero became the model for his new ministry.
It has meant attempting to heal wounds that remain from the war, accompanying the peasants as they deal with the effects of climate change, and keeping in touch with those who left Chalatenango for other countries, seeking work.
He often asks others to pray for the migrants and interacts with them through a radio program broadcast on Facebook Live and frequently receives responses from the U.S., Canada, and Italy. In the comments, they sometimes ask for his blessing, which he happily gives through the internet.
“What gives me life is being in contact with people,” he told CNS. “I’ve been bishop for three years and I feel like it was yesterday. There are many responsibilities, joys, problems, worries, but what I like most is being a pastor. That’s my vocation. I like to listen. Because I am a bishop, I have a lot of administrative work, but what I enjoy most is being with people.”
He assured his new parishioners, in a July 2016 interview before assuming his new role, that even though he was taking the post after long stints as a religious formator, prior and president of the Conference of Religious of El Salvador, he would try to be a pastor worthy of them, “with the heart of God and the smell of the sheep,” he said.
“I ask you to pray for me … because in this ministry, one lives from the prayers of the people … please ask the Lord that I measure up to what the Lord wants.”
He also reassured them that even though he had been away for a while, he remained familiar with the countryside, and had worked in a similar rural region of Honduras, “and I know how to ride a horse,” he said.
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