Monseñor Urioste: Champion of the Poor & Oscar Romero Sainthood Dies in El Salvador
By Eileen Purcell
January 17, 2016
Salvadoran Monsignor Ricardo Urioste died in the early morning of January 15th, 2016, having suffered a fall in San Salvador. He was ninety years old. Thousands gathered to celebrate his life at a Mass at the National Cathedral in San Salvador.
Ricardo Urioste was a beloved Catholic priest and pastor. Born on September 18, 1925 in San Salvador, he was the youngest of three.
Ordained in 1948, he became a pillar of the Salvadoran Church of the Poor. He served as the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of San Salvador for four decades, founded the Romero Foundation and led the global movement advocating for sainthood for Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was a firm supporter of the human rights organizations calling for “truth, justice, and reparations” as pre-requisites for authentic reconciliation in El Salvador in the aftermath of the Civil War.
But preserving Romero’s legacy and advancing his official sainthood became the centerpiece of Urioste’s work until his death in January, 2016.
The “voice of the voiceless,” Romero had denounced the violence sweeping his country, the egregious human rights violations of the Armed Forces, and the terrible violence of poverty and exclusion. The Archbishop denounced the assassinations of priests, delegates of the Word, students, labor leaders and peasants. At the same time he opened his seminary grounds to refugees and announced the good news of the gospel. He lifted up the “political dimension of faith,” the sanctity of life and God’s “preferential option for the poor.” He battled his brother bishops and the Vatican who accused him of supporting the Marxist “left” and alienating the government. He turned to brother priests like Urioste, Rutilio Grande, the Jesuits of the UCA, the Carmelite sisters of the Hospitalito and lay leaders for counsel. But above all, he turned to the people. On March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass at the Chapel of the Divina Providencia, he was slain. His death occurred one month after he called upon the United States to stop military aid and one day after he called upon the Salvadoran Armed Forces to “stop the repression.” The persecution of the people and of the Archbishop who defended them, catapulted him to international fame and birthed a movement to remember his living legacy.
Much like Romero, Monsignor Urioste was a deeply pastoral and contemplative man. He decried the social sin of poverty and violence and the travesty of war which, by the end of the war, claimed more than 75,000 Salvadoran lives, most at the hands of the US-supported military. Urioste traversed the globe, sharing the story of Romero even as the conservative Salvadoran hierarchy sought to diminish and reinterpret Romero’s legacy.
As recently as 2013, the conservative Archbishop of San Salvador – Jose Luis Alas – began erasing murals on church buildings that depicted the beloved prelate, and removed the famed Francisco Llort mosaic of Romero from the facade of the national cathedral. That same year he abruptly shut down Tutela Legal, the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese, impounded the archives and fired the staff. Tutela Legal had succeeded Soccoro Juridico after Romero’s death, and was widely recognized as one of the most comprehensive repositories of legal affidavits chronicling human rights violations from the war years and beyond. In 2015 he forbad the Romeristas from holding public forums on Romero.
But Urioste persisted, quietly and doggedly, determined to safeguard the memory of Oscar Romero, to advance Romero’s sainthood, and to use the story of the beloved Archbishop to tell the story of the Salvadoran people: their hunger for social and economic justice, their courage in the face of unthinkable atrocities, and their profound faith, organization and resilience. Much like Romero, Ricardo Urioste understood “Con este pueblo, no cuesta ser un buen pastor.” (With this people, it is not difficult to be a good pastor) (Oscar Romero)
In 1983, thirty three years ago, I had the very good fortune to meet Ricardo Urioste. He was sixty three. I was twenty-seven. Little did I know that he would become a lifelong mentor, friend and confidant.
Monsignor Urioste was a senior pastor and church leader, versed in Salvadoran church politics as the country and region were gripped by war and revolutionary struggles.
I was a fulltime organizer at Catholic Social Services at the Archdiocese of San Francisco tasked with developing the Archdiocesan response to the thousands of Central American refugees pouring into the Bay Area, fleeing the US- sponsored wars ravaging their homelands. Like any serious community organizer, I also examined the root causes of migration and the rights of refugees under the law. I worked with my Archbishop, John R. Quinn, and a wonderful Irish American priest, Cuchulain Moriarty, who chaired the Social Justice Commission and who had traveled to South and Central America. We established a Task Force on Latin America and began educating our communities and building relationships with the Salvadoran refugees in San Francisco and our Salvadoran counterparts in El Salvador.
Archbishop John Quinn and Ricardo Urioste were friends, having known each other since seminary days, meeting on a ship while traveling to Rome and the Gregorian University.
They reunited in 1980, when Quinn attended the funeral Mass of the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. More than one hundred thousand people flocked to the open plaza to pay homage to the Bishop who had defended their rights. At the open air Mass, governmental sharp shooters shot into the peaceful crowd of mourners from the rooftop of the presidential palace. Many died. I organized the press conference that greeted Archbishop Quinn at San Francisco International Airport when he returned.
Deeply moved by his experience in El Salvador, Quinn threw his full support behind our work of providing social and legal services to Central American refugees, even though the United States government refused to recognize them as bona fide refugees and summarily deported them. He supported our work challenging US immigration and foreign policy. And he supported the leadership role we played launching the Sanctuary Movement notwithstanding pressure from the Reagan Administration and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Legal Department to stop the work under risk of losing our 501 c 3 status.
With Archbishop Quinn’s blessing, we developed a close, working relationship with the Archdiocese of San Salvador and with Urioste. We invited him and Archbishop Romero’s successor, Arturo Rivera y Damas, to visit San Francisco. We, in turn, visited El Salvador. The close working relationship carried over when I joined the Board of Directors of the Washington DC-based SHARE Foundation in 1983 and later when I became Executive Director in 1986. SHARE was devoted to supporting the internally displaced in El Salvador and refugees locked in UN sponsored refugee camps in Honduras. After the war, SHARE continued under the leadership of Jose Artiga, and in close collaboration with Monsignor Urioste, remains a valuable platform from which to rebuild the hopes and dreams of a war-weary people and to keep the memory of all who struggled for a just society, especially Oscar Romero, alive.
Priest, Vicar General, Diplomat, Pastor
Urioste was unassuming, a brilliant mind and, a problem solver. He was an excellent listener and magnificent in crisis. All were welcome. Rich or poor, believer or nonbeliever, friend or adversary. He had a genial way that immediately put one at east, though he could be direct and firm.
He was a strategist who provided indispensable counsel to five Archbishops, including Oscar Romero. He interfaced with the Vatican, world leaders, the United Nations, the domestic and international press, and an array of governmental and non-governmental organizations during and after the war. He was a consummate and unflappable diplomat, negotiating with the military, the FMLN, and the United Nations. He ministered to countless families who suffered loss, torture, and separation. Whenever he visited a major city, he visited the refugee community. When taken to a restaurant, he would make sure to go into the kitchen to greet the Salvadoran workers.
He was the institutional point of reference for church and political leaders as well as the progressive wing of the Catholic community, not only in El Salvador but across the globe. He was the North Star for those of us who sought guidance and clarity as we navigated the mined fields of Salvadoran, regional and US politics, both secular and religious. I once asked him if he had hoped to be appointed a Bishop, and he answered he’d never held such an ambition. He exercised influence from the ground up and from behind.
But above all, he was a pastor, anchored in the gospels and the life of the communities he served. He lived in his family home with different relatives and was never far from the people – el pueblo. It was they who kept him grounded. He loved visiting parishes and communities, and his door at the Chancery was always open. People traveled days, just to see him.
The Faith of the People & Psalm 92
In 1983, at the height of the war, Urioste shared the story of a campesina grandmother who had traveled by bus from the besieged northernmost province of Chalatenango, making her way to the capitol, San Salvador, and to his office in the Arzobispado. Like so many other men and women, she turned to the Monsignor Urioste for help. The military had come to her humble home and taken her granddaughter and grandniece. She searched for them, begging for answers. Nothing. A few days later, she opened her door to the limp corpses of the girls, who had been raped and killed. “What does our God want of me, Moñsenor?” Monsignor shared that he was deeply moved and momentarily at a loss of words. Sensing his dismay, the old woman said, “No worries, Monsignor. Psalm 92 says ‘ Yahweh is my rock, in whom there is no wrong.’” The woman found her faith and a measure of comfort. And, by his own telling, comforted Monsignor and fortified and nurtured his faith.
GOING HOME: “Stay Close to the People & Popular Organizations”
As the war became more protracted, the plight of displaced within El Salvador and in UN-sponsored refugee camps in El Salvador was becoming more problematic. In 1987, displaced families within El Salvador and in Honduras declared, “We don’t want to be refugees anymore,” and determined to reclaim their lands and homes, many of which were in zones of conflict. Notwithstanding strong opposition from the Salvadoran government and military, the local churches — led by the Archdiocese and DIACONIA (the Salvadoran ecumenical umbrella organization) — joined to provide support services to the refugees as they returned. The refugees asked the SHARE Foundation to accompany them as they crossed the Honduran-Salvadoran border. And thus the GOING HOME Campaign was born. Our mission: to mobilize the international spotlight and moral, political and material support to safeguard the return of 10,000 refugees and help them rebuild their lives. At one critical juncture, the GOING HOME delegation was caught between the refugees on the buses, and the Honduran and Salvadoran militaries and United Nations High Commission on Refugees (and U.S. advisors) who sought to stop them from making the journey. When we turned to Monsignor Urioste who had arrived to the Salvadoran side of the border with the question, “Should we get on the bus?” he answered, “What would Jesus do?” We got on the bus! And crossed the border with the refugees, fortified by Oscar Romero’s reflection “Our persecution is nothing more or less than the persecution of the poor.” Later, in 1988 when some members of the US government and the UN attacked the SHARE Foundation for accompanying the refugees, Urioste defended the foundation and the GOING HOME campaign. In fact, that year he graciously received the SHARE Foundation annual award, recognizing our work and our integrity.
In 1989 Salvadoran Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez fled the country following the November “Offensive,” the assassination of the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, and credible death threats. SHARE met with the Lutheran Bishop in Chicago and asked how we could support him. His hope: to return to his parish and his people. We consulted Monsignor Urioste, and organized a high level delegation of Lutheran and Episcopal bishops, and Presbyterian and Catholic theologians to accompany Bishop Gomez home and to re-open the political space for the churches. We succeeded. Monsignor Urioste greeted Medardo and the delegation warmly and helped organize the first ecumenical service at the Jesuit University of Central America (UCA) since the death of the Jesuits. We returned to the United States with the mandate: “Don’t weep for them, imitate them.“
Later, he and Tutela Legal Executive Director Maria Julia Hernandez led a delegation to Westminster Abby in London to celebrate the installation of a statue of Oscar Romero in the dome of the iconic Episcopalian Church.
Solidarity: An Extra Lung
Following the repatriations, Urioste visited Washington DC and the SHARE Foundation to speak at a national gathering of promoters who were strategizing ways to break the military roadblocks and get food and seeds to the newly repatriated communities in Guarjila, San Antonio Los Ranchos, Santa Marta, and other places. Lay and religious leaders made up the more than 100 people at the meeting. When he spoke, Urioste thanked us for our solidarity, for walking with the people, adding, “You are like an extra lung. You help us breathe.”
During and after the war, Monsignor Urioste met with countless delegations, in San Salvador and in world capitals. On one occasion in El Salvador, when he inquired how the US Congress justified the renewal of military aid to the murderous Salvadoran military, the U.S. congressional delegation spokesperson answered that the Salvadoran government was making progress as evidenced by the recent “democratic” elections. Urioste responded that democracy must be understood as far more than elections. “Democracy is like the keyboard on a piano. There are many notes, many measures, such as economic power, human rights, education, health, housing and many more. Yet you only play one note, elections, and call that democracy.”
Romero and The Romero Foundation
Every year since his assassination, people of faith in El Salvador and all over the world celebrate Archbishop Oscar Romero’s life and legacy on March 24th, the day he was murdered. Urioste was often the keynote speaker. In 1999 he established the Romero Foundation as a way to keep alive the legacy of Oscar Romero in El Salvador and across the world and to support his canonization. The Salvadoran people had already anointed the beloved prelate San Oscar Romero. But Urioste viewed formal recognition by the Vatican as an important step in safeguarding Romero’s standing as a prophet and saint and give voice to his vision. A foundation would provide an institutional platform to advance the cause. Since its founding, the Romero Foundation has given life to Romero and introduced him to the next generation of young people who will carry on his legacy.
After years of stalling by his predecessors, in 2015, Pope Francis beatified Oscar Romero, chastised those in the Salvadoran hierarchy who had sought to thwart his sainthood and announced his imminent canonization.
Accompanying the People Ending Impunity: The Ongoing Struggle for Truth, Justice, Reparations and Reconciliation
For the duration of the war and after, Urioste has been a faithful supporter of the array of human rights organizations in El Salvador. He supported them in the call for “truth, justice, and reparations” as pre-requisites to authentic reconciliation in El Salvador. He celebrated the legal advances calling for Coronel Inocente Orlando Montano’s extradition to Spain for his role in the Jesuit massacre and calls for justice in the high profile cases of Oscar Romero, the four U.S. church women, and other massacres. He also supported the rights of immigrants. In 2015, he shepherded calls from the Salvadoran Bishops to the Obama Administration, imploring them to cease the deportation of women and children. Just weeks before he died, he marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of the deaths of the four US Churchwomen – Ita, Maura, Dorothy and Jean – and greeted the delegation of 115 US women religious who visited El Salvador to celebrate their lives and join with human rights organizations to call for an end to impunity.
Light in the Darkness
Before he died, Archbishop Romero declared that he did “not believe in death without resurrection. For when I die, I will rise in the Salvadoran people.”
So, too, Ricardo Urioste lives on in the people of El Salvador and the thousands of lives he touched. He lives on through his niece, Gloria Sipido, who accompanied him for years in the family home and who cared for him until his death. He lives through his extended family and the countless friends with whom he worked and through the Romero Foundation, the SHARE Foundation, the Tutela Legal Maria Julia Hernandez, the Mothers of the Disappeared, and the many communities he served. He lives on in the generation of young people who heard the stories, who remember and who pass on the living gospel of human longing and hope.
Like the stars in the sky, he shines forever.
Monsignor Urioste, PRESENTE