Catholic school students from several schools throughout the Archdiocese of Washington listen as Salvadoran Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez delivers a homily during a Nov. 13 Mass at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in northwest Washington.
Catholic school students from several schools throughout the Archdiocese of Washington listen as Salvadoran Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez delivers a homily during a Nov. 13 Mass at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in northwest Washington.

Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez, El Salvador’s first cardinal, is carrying out the legacy of his friend, Blessed Óscar Romero, by being a pastor who is close to his people, even once they no longer live nearby. During the weekend of Nov. 10, he visited the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Parish in Washington, where more than half of the parishioners are originally from El Salvador. The most important part of his visit, the cardinal said, was meeting the people.

“A pastor has to be united to his people and they have to feel united with their pastor,” said Cardinal Chávez in an interview with the Catholic Standard, which was translated from Spanish by Father Moisés Villalta, the parish’s pastor, who came to the United States in 1981 as a refugee during the civil war in El Salvador.

During that war, Cardinal Chávez worked closely with Blessed Óscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who spoke out against violence and human rights violations committed by the government, and was known as a pastor to the poor. Because of his critiques of the government and his solidarity with the country’s poor, he received threats on his life, and was eventually assassinated by a right-wing death squad while he was celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980.

“[He was] a pastor that gives his life for the sheep,” said Cardinal Chávez.

Cardinal Chávez first met Blessed Romero when he was 14 years old, and eight years later went to work with him as his assistant in a minor seminary in San Miguel.

“From that, we became friends. We walked together,” said Cardinal Chávez, adding that in Blessed Romero’s diary, his name is mentioned about 40 times, especially during the more difficult times of his ministry.

“It was a big grace to me to work with him,” he said.

Blessed Óscar Romero’s vision for the Church was similar to that of Pope Francis, who says he wants “a poor Church for the poor,” Cardinal Chávez said. Blessed Romero desired a Church that was poor, missionary and Easter-like, free from any power, he added.

Following Vatican II, the bishops of Latin America held a meeting in Medellin, Colombia where they created a document that placed the teachings within their own reality in Latin America. And through his commitment to his people even to death, Blessed Óscar Romero put the teachings of Vatican II into practice in real life, said Cardinal Chávez, adding that Blessed Romero is sometimes called the “martyr of the magisterium” for his loyalty to those teachings.

“It is very easy to talk about documents in a very abstract way, but when you apply it to the reality, that is when persecution starts,” said Cardinal Chávez.

Before Pope Francis appointed him to be a cardinal in June, Cardinal Chávez was serving as an auxiliary bishop in San Salvador. He dedicated the position to his friend, Óscar Romero, saying that it was him who deserved the position, rather than himself.

“[Pope Francis] named three cardinals. There is a fourth cardinal, not by the title but by the blood that he shed,” said Cardinal Chávez. “…So my life is certainly very united to his life.”

Soon after receiving the call telling him that Pope Francis was naming him a cardinal, Cardinal Chávez decided to give a concrete reminder of his closeness to the Salvadorian immigrants in the United States. When they asked him to choose somebody who would accompany him to the consistory at the Vatican as a secretary, to everyone’s surprise, he chose Father Villalta.

His two reasons for this choice, he said, were to give thanks to Father Villalta for his work with the immigrant community in Washington, and to tell the Salvadorian community here, “I am with you. I want to walk with you.”

This closeness was visible during his visit, as Cardinal Chávez walked up and down the center aisle of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart during a Nov. 13 Mass, singing with Catholic schoolchildren and asking them questions about their lives and homes here in the United States. At the beginning of the Mass, he asked students from various Catholic schools across the archdiocese to raise their hands if they were from different Latin American countries, and when he got to El Salvador, a large group of students raised their hands enthusiastically.

While this was his first visit to Washington as a cardinal, Cardinal Chávez has visited several times before as an auxiliary bishop. Over the years, he has observed how the Church has opened its doors more and more to people who speak Spanish, he said, adding that he is grateful for the home that so many Salvadorians have found in this archdiocese.

“We are a pilgrim Church,” he said. “I have felt that very strongly in this [Shrine of the Sacred Heart] parish that I have known for many years…A parish is a community of communities, and Pope Francis said it is a family of families. That is a very strong aspect of this parish. People feel at home here. I think that’s the magic of this parish.”

During one of these previous visits, Cardinal James Hickey had invited then-Bishop Chávez over for breakfast, and showed him his chapel that was decorated with Salvadorian art from when Cardinal Hickey had sent missionaries to El Salvador as the bishop of Cleveland.

On that day, “I felt that the Salvadorians were at home in this archdiocese,” Cardinal Chávez said.

Cardinal Chávez spoke of the many gifts that Salvadorians bring the Church that has received them, such as their natural inclination to serving others without expecting much in return.

“The Church has been enriched by what we can offer,” said the cardinal, noting the treasure of their faith, the culture and traditions of their families, and their ability to persevere through trials as some of the main things that immigrants offer the Church.

The increasing welcome that the Church in the United States has given to the Hispanic community has improved the dialogue between the bishops of North America and Latin America, Cardinal Chávez said. Before, the United States and Canada was one block, and Central and South America was another block, he described, adding that each block had its own dynamics. Now, there is just one block, “finding the ways of God together,” he said.

While in Washington, he also met with a group of “Dreamers” – young undocumented immigrants whose protected status under the DACA program is at risk – and listened to their stories. Through this meeting and in the rest of his visit, he said he has felt united with bishops on both sides of the border in pursuing just and humane solutions to the challenge of immigration.

“Now, together we see the problems, together we look for solutions, and together we walk,” said Cardinal Chávez.

Cardinal Chávez also hopes that he can work with pastors both from El Salvador and the United States to determine the best practices to solve the problem of gang violence. Two important factors in this solution, he said, are to listen to the youth and to offer them an opportunity to succeed.

In an effort to give these youth opportunities, the small school attached to San Francisco de Asis Parish in San Salvador where Cardinal Chávez is pastor enrolls about 300 students in the middle of a gang-infested neighborhood. After attending this school, “[the students] see the future with hope,” the cardinal said. One-half of the proceeds of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart’s Nov. 11 gala, where Cardinal Chávez was a special guest, went to support that school.

During the Nov. 13 Mass, students from the Archdiocese of Washington offered their own gifts to the Salvadorian cardinal, with each gift representing a piece of the shield in Cardinal Chávez’s coat of arms.

The students processed down the center aisle with a painting of Mary’s Star of Evangelization, a poster of their hand prints, a palm plant, and rosemary, or “Romero,” sprigs grown in the Sacred Heart School’s playground. Other students were dressed in traditional Latin American clothing and processed in to do a liturgical dance.

“It’s a great honor” to have Cardinal Chávez visit the parish, said Father Villalta, adding that the cardinal challenges him to be a good pastor. “He has brought so much joy and hope to our people.”