I could see his slow and gentle steps seeking distance from the woman's story near the tree. When friend Thierry Bonaventura told me he wanted to come with me to El Salvador, I warned him that my native country was a complicated place -- one of great natural beauty, materially poor, with generous and spiritual people, but whose past and difficult present you can't and shouldn't ignore.
I could see during a Jan. 30 visit to El Mozote that he found himself deep in that complicated place. We made what I thought would be a quick stop en route to visit places in the life of El Salvador's St. Oscar Romero when we ran into Serapia Chicas, a native of El Mozote, near a monument in the center of the village.
She told us how soldiers murdered almost a thousand of her fellow villagers in 1981, including hundreds of children, some whose remains were buried in a common grave close to where we were standing.
The monument lists the names and ages of some of the victims: Santos Argueta, 15; a tot with the last names Vigil Marquez, 2; Catalino Rodriguez Guevara, 70. When Serapia started telling the story of a baby thrown in the air by a soldier and shot in mid-air, it seemed to be more than my Italian friend could take.
El Salvador's war criminals did not spare victims because of age, nor gender, nor because they served in one the most powerful institutions in the country: the Catholic Church.
Though his name was not on the wall at El Mozote, a bronze statue of the saint we were traveling to learn about, and who was killed in a similarly violent manner, overlooks the village on a mountain nearby, depicted in his bishop's robe and miter with his hallmark glasses. His image brings a calming effect over a place whose name evokes great horrors.
Near the statue, Sister Ana Rios of the Centro Romero retreat center had greeted us, a trio of unexpected visitors, with a warm smile. The retreat center is operated by her religious community, Communio Sanctorum. She opened the doors to the building decorated inside with wall-size, larger-than-life paintings of St. Romero. The murals include quotations of his homilies, drawn on the walls, and murals by artist Oscar Naranjo, who painted St. Romero in the company of other saints and friends.
We arrived with a priest, our friend Father Moises Villalta, whom Sister Rios knew and was happy to see because it meant the center would have Mass that day. The breathtaking view, the statue of the prophet perched on the mountaintop, the fraternity made you forget that El Salvador had or has any troubles.
"We wanted to turn a place of damnation into a place of blessings," Sister Rios told us.
Though most of what's written about St. Romero is centered around San Salvador and his three years as archbishop there, the more remote towns and cities of eastern El Salvador, where the saint spent a good chunk of his life, have much to teach about who he was, what shaped his thinking, why he was drawn to certain parts of the Gospel more than others.
But it takes time to get to these less-traveled landscapes. It takes time because, even though El Salvador is about the size of Massachusetts, the condition of the roads is not the best, and the routes are not well-marked, if at all. It's worth making the effort, however, to at least visit St. Romero's hometown of Ciudad Barrios and the bigger city of San Miguel, about a two-and-half-hour drive from the country’s capital, San Salvador.
The slower pace of Ciudad Barrios was a respite from the frenetic traffic of the city. I pictured a young Oscar Romero as a boy running through its streets, papers in hand, helping his father, the local telegrapher, deliver some of the correspondence. From this simple town paved in brick and rock where we were walking came our great Salvadoran prophet, martyr and saint, and, in some ways, I was still in awe to have a friend from Europe make the effort and expense to come to a place such as Ciudad Barrios to learn about him.
I'd be willing to bet that a majority of Salvadorans have never traveled there, although during the last few years, Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez began a "walking to the cradle of the prophet" pilgrimage, encouraging more Salvadorans to visit St. Romero's hometown.
A spiritual byproduct of any pilgrimage is that, by putting the life of the saint into his or her physical landscape, you can develop an idea of what the holy person saw, what motivated him or her. We watched peasants, some with machetes in tow, stream by the main plaza of Ciudad Barrios, and the poor who gathered on the steps of the church named after its most famous son, a friend and defender of the poor, someone like them, like us, now a saint, a model for the rest of the world's Catholics to follow.
The scene reminded me of the lyrics of a song written about St. Romero, "Through this land of hunger, I saw a traveler pass by, humble, meek and sincere, a brave prophet ... he defended the peasants, illuminating the way for the liberation of the people ... his sin was wanting workers to eat."
I pictured the people St. Romero met in San Miguel, the workers he fed, the prisoners he visited, the alcoholics he tried to help when he served there for more than 20 years. During our visit, it had a different, more urban feel than Ciudad Barrios. Young men and women, some with clear worries reflected in their gaze, sidled up to a statue of Our Lady Queen of Peace at the San Miguel Cathedral, whose construction the saint oversaw, the place where he championed popular devotions to the Salvadoran Madonna, who still comforts the afflicted of the city today.
In San Miguel, because of the unrelenting heat, I woke up early the next day, and watched through the darkness the bright stars above. Lots of thoughts ran through my head, especially when I realized that the likely reason I had not been able to access the internet to check in for a flight was that we were staying close a prison, and authorities jam the signals within a certain distance.
Almost 40 years after the brutal death of our saint at the altar of the chapel at a hospital in the capital, El Salvador is still dealing with the fruits of violence left over from the war -- a violence St. Romero gave his life trying to prevent. It filled me with tension and sadness and manifested itself in being overly careful with my out-of-town friend.
Should I have taken him to the country's better hotels, perhaps to some of the fancier corners and more picturesque locales, where I wouldn’t have been as worried about his safety? Should I have taken a more careful approach with the stories he heard, knowing that the history El Salvador isn't something easy for people from outside to digest?
But I had prayed to St. Romero at the beginning of our journey, at his tomb. I asked him to guide our steps, to lead us where he wanted, and always, that path pointed toward the poor.
I remembered the words Pope Francis had said days earlier in Panama, words I had seen on a wall when we arrived in El Salvador on the first day of our pilgrimage, saying that Jesus "invites us to look toward a horizon capable of creating a new life, of making a new history."