VANCOUVER—Hero. Martyr. Disrupter. Rebel. Archbishop Oscar Romero was many things to many people. To Surrey resident Pablo Morales, the shepherd of San Salvador was a big brother.
“He treated me like family,” said Morales, who moved to Canada after leaving El Salvador in 1986. “He was like a father or brother.”
Morales was 10 years old when he met the man who would become one of the most influential figures in El Salvador’s history.
At the time, Morales’ father was the hired hand at a seminary in San Salvador and his family lived in a house on seminary grounds. When Romero was appointed an auxiliary bishop in 1970, he frequented the seminary and hired one of Morales’ sisters as his secretary.
“Almost every day, people from the towns and villages wanted to [see him] because they wanted to listen to his word and how he was talking about Jesus,” Morales told The B.C. Catholic. “Every word from him, you feel something special.”
Archbishop Romero spent Monday to Saturday until around noon in his office, Morales said. Then he would get in a car and drive for three or four hours on poor roads to the Diocese of San Miguel, where he was born, ordained, and served a total of 23 years.
There he would celebrate marriages, funerals, and other special events before making the long, bumpy ride back to his home in San Salvador. When his secretary mentioned she had a 10-year-old brother, he took the boy under his wing.
“Almost every Saturday, he called me to go. He would buy me some food or something like that. He treated me like a little brother,” Morales said. At night, the boy would help the bishop stay awake as he drove.
“He said: ‘Don’t sleep. We start to pray. If you don’t know how to pray, I’ll teach you how to.’ That’s how I learned to pray the rosary.”
Their weekly trips out of town were put on hold when Morales entered the seminary at age 13, a decision Archbishop Romero was thrilled about. He gave the boy a Bible and a rosary as gifts and even paid Morales a surprise visit, much to the joy of all of his fellow seminarians.
Three years later, their relationship became even stronger. Morales changed his mind about the priesthood and, returning home, became Archbishop Romero’s driver.
“I was about 16 years old. He asked me: ‘Do you want to learn how to drive?’ I said, ‘Of course!’ So he paid for school for me.”
The unlikely pair spent hours together once again. With Morales behind the wheel of a Toyota Corona, Archbishop Romero could rest or pray between Masses and meetings.
Morales remembers stopping on the side of the road for lunch on especially long drives. “We’d sit under a tree with probably one soda, one sandwich, and one fruit, and that was lunch. He didn’t like to go to expensive places,” he said.
Archbishop Romero, known for his advocacy for human rights and the preferential option for the poor in the midst of El Salvador’s civil war, would eat simple meals and give money to any beggar who asked. One day, in his early driving days, Morales remembers spinning the car out and getting stuck. Archbishop Romero, clad in a cassock, tucked the loose fabric into his pockets, got out of the car, and helped push it out.
Another time, they were on the road when Archbishop Romero pulled out two sandwiches a nun had packed for them. Because Morales was driving, the archbishop peeled back the paper and held the food out for his driver to eat, one bite at a time.
“He was very friendly with me,” he said. “He was very confident. He trusts how I work.”
Soon, Archbishop Romero gave Morales the keys to his office and asked him to unlock it in the morning and lock it in the evening, to act as a quasi-security guard, and to deliver important mail personally to his home.
Archbishop Romero became the archbishop of San Salvador, the country’s capital, in 1977. In the next three years, some of his friends and priests were assassinated and the archbishop gained many enemies as he spoke up for the poor and opposed human rights abuses and oppressive political systems.
Morales said he believes Archbishop Romero knew his life was nearing the end. “He talked about that with me. He asked me if I was scared about that. I said no. The only thing I worried about was my mom, if somebody killed her.”
On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was gunned down while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel. Morales, then 21 years old, had driven him there only two hours before.
“The only thing I remember is I took my books, put them in my pocket, ran to the bus, ran to the house, and when I arrived my sister was waiting for me,” he said, head hanging low.
“She already knew. Everybody knew.” The news of Archbishop Romero’s sudden death exploded all over T.V. and radio stations. Universities and public transportation were shut down. “I dropped my books and ran to the hospital to see for myself.”
The trip from his home to the hospital, where Archbishop Romero lived, was a well-worn path for Morales; he would often walk that way to deliver important letters and documents.
When he arrived at the scene of the crime, his beloved archbishop, who he had planned to pick up for another appointment at 4 p.m., was not in the chapel, having been rushed to hospital.
“He lived in the poor cancer hospital. He didn’t live in a big house. He preferred to live with the poor people,” Morales said.
The heartbroken young man refused offers to work at the Archdiocese of San Salvador or to drive for any of Archbishop Romero’s successors. “I didn’t feel well. I said I didn’t want to work with a different bishop.”
He attended Archbishop Romero’s funeral, which itself became a tragedy as gunmen opened fire on the massive crowds of mourners at the cathedral in San Salvador.
“The people started to run,” recounted Alina, Morales’ wife, who was also at the funeral. “They were shooting and shooting and the people were running and running.”
Alina dropped to the ground and covered her head in an attempt to dodge the bullets. She was trampled underfoot and says it was a miracle she survived.
Morales and his wife moved to Canada and today they live, work, and go to church at Our Lady of Good Counsel, where they love to talk about their hero, Archbishop Romero.
“After celebrating at the cathedral every Sunday, he was at the front of the cathedral and he would shake their hands for everybody who wanted. People were happy when he talked. He was a special person.”
Archbishop Romero was beatified May 23, 2015. The Vatican is studying a possible miracle attributed to his intercession which could lead to his canonization.