Carlos Colon was 12 years old when he saw village lights shutter and darken the night of San Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination in 1980 as people feared his death meant the violence plaguing their country was about to get worse.
Thirty-eight years later, Colon is returning to his homeland with music written to celebrate news of light, Pope Francis’ elevation of Romero to sainthood on Oct. 14.
Colon, Baylor University’s assistant director of worship and chapel, travels to El Salvador on Wednesday to prepare choirs and musicians for three days of solemn Masses celebrating Romero’s sainthood, culminating in a Te Deum Mass Oct. 28 at San Salvador’s Metropolitan Cathedral.
San Salvadoran Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas asked Colon to compose music for the occasion and he’s written a Te Deum Latinoamericano and a setting of Alas’ 2016 pastoral letter based on Psalm 55:9, “I see violence and strife in the city.” Working with Colon is composer-conductor Peter Kolar, who will bring a choir and instrumentalists from the El Paso diocese.
Romero endeared himself to Salvadorans for his outspokenness on behalf of the poor in the country and against the violence that would erupt into full-fledged civil war between the ruling right-wing dictatorship and leftist guerrillas. That 12-year civil war ended in 1992 with a United Nations-brokered peace settlement.
Growing up Catholic in Chalchuapa, Colon recalled walking through the village market and hearing Romero’s homilies broadcast on multiple radios. As the Salvadoran military dictatorship became more brutal in its repression of its opponents, with death squads operating with little restraint, Romero became increasingly outspoken in his messages. A turning point came, some believe, with the 1977 murder of Rutilio Grande, a friend and Jesuit priest who had been organizing farmers and pushing for land reform.
“I think the story is more complicated than that . . . but (Romero) took a new kind of bold stance in the face of the regime,” said Baylor religion instructor Matthew Whelan, whose Duke University doctoral dissertation on Romero and Salvadoran land reform will be published next year as the book “Blood In The Field.”
Romero not only became known for condemning economic inequality and violence, but in calling for the truth in the face of government deception about its complicity in the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of Salvadorans it viewed as opponents. International journalists reporting on the civil war often stopped by diocese offices because its records on citizens reported missing or killed were viewed as more accurate than the government’s, Whelan said.
“He was willing to tell the truth and defend the people in the midst of brutal violence,” Whelan said of Romero.
The archbishop apparently went too far in a message urging Christian soldiers not to obey orders that conflicted with human rights and was shot to death at a hospital chapel altar after celebrating Mass.
Romero’s death stunned his Salvadoran followers.
“It was like a cloud of fear,” Colon recalled. “People thought, If they kill him, nobody was safe.”
That included Colon’s family, who had friends killed by the same death squad. His mother Angela Colon, in fact, was viewed with suspicion because of her involvement with a teachers’ union. Two years after Romero’s death, a 14-year-old Colon was leaving El Salvador for safety in Guatemala City, Guatemala, and, eventually, the United States. His mother and siblings followed months later, escaping minutes before a death squad broke into their home, Colon said.
The young Salvadoran made his way to the United States, became a resident in 1986 and citizen in 2001, earning degrees from Belmont College in Nashville and Baylor University. His contact with Baptists in El Salvador planted seeds that would later shape his life, he said, leading him to a personal conversion to Christian faith and a realization of his musical gifts.
In his years at Baylor, he has continued to compose music for faith and worship, creating settings of texts, prayers and Scriptures.
“His music is very accessible. He writes lovely melodies and with a simple elegance,” noted Randall Bradley, Baylor professor of church music, who has used some of Colon’s songs with his Baylor and church choirs. “He often chooses texts that speak to his sense of social justice and equality.”
The Baylor composer also has been involved in special projects touching on issues of his birth country’s history and the plight of Latin American immigrants crossing the border. His 2008 piece “Requiem, Las Lamentaciones de Rufina Amaya” was a memorial to the sole survivor of the 1981 massacre of the village El Mozote. Colon also wrote music for the 2015 documentary “Lamento Con Alas: Documenting Immigrant Deaths Along the Texas-Mexico Border.”
Colon is presently working with GIA Publications and Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in creating a bilingual hymnal, “Santo, Santo, Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios” (“Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God”), set for a 2019 release. Colon and his wife Susan have three children, 17-year-old twins Elise and Monica and a four-month-old son, David Atanasio.
His participation in next week’s celebratory masses close a smaller Baylor circle for him: a 2015 visit to El Salvador with Bradley and 43 Baylor students. The Baylor group sang at churches, schools, music classes and a soup kitchen during its 10-day stay and traveled to several sites prominent in Romero’s life and ministry.
Their visit serendipitously coincided with the date of Romero’s beatification, an important stage in the canonization process. Approximately 250,000 Salvadorans flocked to the capital San Salvador to celebrate the event, crowding buses to the city and filling San Salvadoran streets.
The Baylor group unexpectedly got the opportunity to sing at Romero’s crypt and performed, unaccompanied, the song “Esto les digo” (“I tell you this”) from the text in Matthew 18 where Jesus tells his disciples of his presence whenever his followers are gathered in his name.
“It was so remarkable,” Bradley recalled. “The whole sense of Oscar Romero’s presence was palpable almost, not only in San Salvador, but the country at the time.”
Colon is anticipating similarly meaningful moments during the masses next week in El Salvador, but with a personal dimension that may be amplified with his mother’s attendance, if her health permits. “I have a long journey with Archbishop Romero,” he said with a smile.