Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pilgrimage Salvadoran-Style

In September we hiked in a procession thousands strong and centuries old to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. Last night we joined a candlelight procession to the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador in honor of Archbishop Oscar Romero. His sainthood by the Vatican is pending, and people here hope the process of beatification will be announced this week, the thirtieth anniversary of his assassination.

But in the eyes of the thousands who walked last night, Romero has already become a saint.

Over and over the loudspeakers announce our procession as a "pilgrimage." That would make us pilgrims, if only for a night. There are similarities between our prior treks and this one-night pilgrimage, and they are both trivial and profound. As with the final summit at Kilimanjaro, we carried light against night's darkness. There we wore headlamps; here we bear candles, lighting and relighting them in the early evening breezes. But as the pilgrims dip under a bridge, I can see lights from the crowd in front of and behind us, just as we saw headlamps snaking up the face of the summit at Kilimanjaro. Now, as then, it gives me hope.

Like pilgrims on the Camino to Santiago, the way is long. A man in our party makes his way on crutches, and his face pours sweat even in the cool night air. His wife wears a neckbrace. She is sweating with the rest of us. We can't carry each other, but we cheer each other on, dropping in and out of conversation along the way.

As on the Camino, there is the frequent boisterous outburst. Last night a group of young people do the "wave" along the way. Every few blocks, they crouch in the middle of their chant, then leap into the air with the word "resuscitado." We join in -- though, for some of us, leaping is a little out of the question.

Along the way, loudspeakers broadcast readings from Scripture, but mostly from Romero. Banners carry sentences from his writings. His words are the people's bibles. Then, when intercessions end at the Cathedral Mass, dozens of white and red balloons are released into the night air. Many carry hand-written prayers aloft, attached to their strings, and a tiny flotilla of balloons elevated a picture of Romero himself. All ascend slowly into the night air.

Who is this man for whom the crowd gathers? To Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who spoke at the beginning of the procession, Romero's agenda is his own, a platform of justice and human rights.

Who is Romero for the thousands of young people in the procession? They are too young to have known him. Yet he stands for them as a hero, political as much as spiritual, who sided with the people and fought for their dignity.

Who is Romero to the many North Americans who came down for these anniversary celebrations? Clearly some have had a long history with Latin America, El Salvador in particular. They accompanied people being repatriated to villages ravaged by war.

Who is Romero to us? Because we are here too. Is Romero the hero we long for, but cannot summon the courage to be? Is he holy on our behalf, relieving us of the burden of discipleship? What does solidarity with this man, these people, and their history mean for us? For me?

I don't know the answer to this question. I only know that my perspective will be altered irrevocably by this pilgrimage. And that's what pilgrimage does, sometimes subtly. You think you're headed for a destination, then discover your vision has changed. Travel has "corrected" it in ways that a prescription could not.

I know something else in addition: Romero was right. Shortly before his martyrdom and knowing that his time had run out, he promised he would rise again in the Salvadoran people. "Resuscitado" was the word he used.

He certainly did last night. And the resurrection continues.

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