Fr Rogelio Ponceele tells Mary Durran about his controversial work with Salvadoran rebels
ON February 1 this year, as a tumultuous crowd of 130,000 sang and cheered in San Salvador's main square to celebrate the end of the civil war, Fr Rogello Ponceele stepped up onto the platform, took the microphone and asked everyone to join hands. For a few moments, jubilant euphoria turned to a prayerful silence of thanksgiving.
Even the critics of Fr Ponceele are moved by the charisma of this tall, sunburnt, middle-aged Flemish priest who speaks the Spanish of a Salvadoran campesino with a slight Northern European accent. Fr Ponceele, 51, is best known for his controversial pastoral work with rival FMLN guerrillas during El Salvador's 12-year-civil war. I met him in his adopted homeland, the mountains of Morazan, in Segundo Montes repatriated refugee village.
The Brussels diocesan priest came to live in this area of Morazan in 1980 when a terrorist bomb ripped apart his parish house in a run down are of San Salvador and he began to receive death threat calls almost every day.
"I had two alternatives," recalls Fr Ponceele, "either leave the country, or go to the mountains." He took the second option, leaving a letter explaining his decision for Archbishop Rivera y Dames, knowing he would never be given permission to carry on his pastoral work in the midst of a war zone largely under guerrilla control.
Suddenly the air is filled with the clatter of the propellers of a UN helicopter bringing EEC personnel to visit the Segundo Montes community. "During the war, that sound was terrifying," recalls the priest. "It meant immediately finding somewhere to hide, or running before the army disembarked."
Fr Ponceele does not romanticise his life accompanying the guerrillas. "Most of the time, it was an incredibly boring life, in some ways worse for a priest than for a "campesino". A priest needs a place to be alone to quietly prepare a homily, a table to work on. Often, we had to sleep in mud, without anywhere to put our bags."
The worst times were when he sensed great fear among the "compas" as the guerillas are known, a fear that was infectious. "Even when your legs are trembling, the priest always has to keep everyone's morale high. You could compare the priest's role to that of a clown making people laugh even when inside, he feels destroyed." But there were also good times. "Every time the people won a victory was a moment of great joy," he recalls.
Fr Ponceele and Spanish diocesan priest Fr Esteban Velasquez did not offer unquestioning support to the FMLN. "Our main role was to advocate life. Sometimes, the compas listened to us. Other times, they didn't." But he believes many controversial FMLN justice-killings of civilian army informers were avoided because of his pastoral work.
Now Frs Ponceele and Velasquez want to stay in the area to help rebuild civilian communities and with FMLN combatants who are in UNsupervised camps until demobilization later this year.
After his nomadic years with only a few belongings in a rucksack, things are looking up. "I have a little house in Segundo Montes, and in the village of Jocoaitique, I've peacefully occupied the sacristy," he laughs. But his days in Morazan could now be numbered, as he is unlikely to get official recognition from local Bishop Eduardo Alvarez, and may have to leave the country.
Fr Ponceele gives the impression that he may find it difficult to settle again in Europe. One of the key responsibilities of a priest, he believes, is to work with the people in their efforts to build God's kingdom on earth. "Here, that goal is clear. But what is the goal of the clergy in Europe?"
Perhaps, too, this modest man whose most expensive possession is the mountain bike on which he hurtles around the remotest communities would find lacking in Europe that quality that he almost seems to embody humility. "We must be humble. The rich are incredibly proud and mighty even the poor are a bit too proud at times."
Fr Ponceele is, however, glad that the war is now over, and sees its negotiated end as highly significant "The peace accords are like the cornerstone for the new El Salvador," he says of the agreement, "They don't give the poor everything they ever demanded, but at least we're no longer under the boot of military repression. It's now time to work for justice in a different way."