Six years earlier, government-backed paramilitary forces had murdered a religious sister from Antall’s home diocese of Cleveland, along with two other sisters and a lay missionary. Nine months before that, Archbishop Oscar Romero had been gunned down while celebrating Mass in the capital city of San Salvador.
Msgr. Antall said he felt the tensions of the war when he first arrived at Immaculate Conception parish in La Libertad. He was greatly affected too by the heat, the smells and the poverty of the port city. But, he added, “as I grew to know the people, I fell in love with the parish.”
He spent 20 of the last 25 years there in La Libertad and in four other rural parishes. For much of the past decade, he has served as one of the highest-ranking officials in the Salvadoran Church — as moderator of the curia for the Archdiocese of San Salvador, a position akin to chief executive officer, reporting directly to the archbishop. In addition, he was head of the archdiocesan charities network and was responsible for the Salvadoran bishops’ outreach to immigrants.
For many years, he wrote about his missionary experience for the U.S. Catholic weekly, Our Sunday Visitor. He also wrote three books of theological reflections rooted in his work among the poor, “The Way of Compassion” (1997), “Witnesses to Calvary” (2000), and “Jesus Has a Question for You” (2002).
Msgr. Antall left El Salvador for good last week, returning home to Cleveland at the request of Bishop Richard Lennon, the head of his home diocese.
“The people of El Salvador have evangelized me, although I am the missionary,” he said. “With gratitude I say that I have received much more than I have given here.”
Upon departing Msgr. Antall was awarded the highest honor that the Salvadoran government gives to foreign nationals serving in the country. The national legislature voted unanimously to bestow upon him the title of “Noble Friend of El Salvador.”
The award reflected what legislators said was the widespread respect that this Cleveland priest had earned at all levels of Salvadoran society – despite strong political disagreements that some have with him.
Msgr. Antall has been an articulate advocate for the poor – and a pointed critic of efforts to change El Salvador’s ban on abortion and to legalize gay “marriage.”
In a special Jan. 27 legislative session, representatives from each of the country’s six main political parties paid tribute to Msgr. Antall.
Rep. David Reyes thanked him for always “reminding us so clearly of our duty.”
“We will not forget the people to whom he has dedicated many years of his life and we promise him that we will not forget him, that his words will be a landmark for our thinking,” he said.
Rep. Roberto D’Aubuisson said the country would never forget the missionary.
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“When we voted to decree him ‘Noble Friend of El Salvador’ we were conscious that we were recognizing a man who truly deserves it and whom we’re going to carry in our hearts forever, because the work he has done in El Salvador left a lasting impression,” he said.
D’Aubuisson’s speech was reminder of the troubled days of the 13-year civil war, which ended in 1992. His father, a politician and army officer, was linked to the war’s notorious paramilitary “death squads” and was widely accused of directing the assassination of Archbishop Romero.
In his address to the legislature, Msgr. Antall recalled the Church workers slain during the war. He dedicated his award to the memory of Sister Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, the two Cleveland missionaries assassinated in 1980 along with two Maryknoll sisters. “They loved this people to the point of giving up their lives,” he said.
He reminded the legislature of the many missionaries and Catholic charitable groups still working to improve the quality of life for the people of El Salvador. “The Church does not have borders,” he said, quoting the late Salvadoran Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas. “There are many of us here, sometimes struggling with the language, but always working for the common good.”
Msgr. Antall recalled his 10 years working for San Salvador’s now retired Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle.
“I admire him very much,” he said. “I am only sorry that in all that time so little of his wisdom and holiness rubbed off on me.”