Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 20, 2000
Romero rooted in the here and now
Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings, by Marie Dennis, Renny Golden and Scott Wright. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2000. 127 pages, softcover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador used the following illustration in a homily he presented on May 12, 1977: They say that a desert caravan, led by a Bedouin, was desperate with thirst and looked for water in the mirages of the desert. (He) guided them, "Not there, but here." This happened several times.
Finally, somebody got annoyed, took out a pistol and shot him. In his agony, the Bedouin stretched out his hand and said, "Not there, but here." And so he died, pointing the way.
The story proved to be both prophetic and illustrative of Romero's brief but momentous three years as the Catholic and popular leader of his nation during an era of unspeakable tragedy.
From the time he became archbishop until his death Romero anticipated that he would die violently though he did not consider martyrdom something of which he was worthy. Frequently, during his tenure his sermons referred to the role he saw himself fulfilling as a pastoral guide to both the privileged few and the many impoverished in his care.
Romero experienced a spiritual conversion during his early months as archbishop. One of his priests who spoke out against the slaughter of the poor was brutally murdered. It was an experience that would be repeated but this first calamity shook Romero to the core.
The "other worldly" spirituality which had formed him as a seminarian in Rome and through which he developed as a young priest was inadequate and he was dramatically transformed. The heroic people and priests who lived and died around him caused Romero to become profoundly engaged with a spirituality grounded in history - the here and now.
The essence of his new vision was this: the Church exists to serve the poor, not the other way around; trust the people and discern God's Spirit working among them.
Romero believed that the best way to model hope in the midst of despair was to live out the meaning of Good News within, not outside, the pain and destructiveness he encountered daily.
Romero's commitment to the defence of the poor who loved and revered him required that he do more than sympathize and pray with them. It caused him to challenge the structural forces in Salvadoran society that produced their poverty in the first place.
Accompaniment, a venerable spiritual practice Romero had learned, took on new meaning as he practised one-heartedness (mistica) with the poor. This ancient discipline of "walking with" another was adapted into a postmodern spiritual way as Romero immersed himself - got into the skin - of his flock.
He never promised his people what he could not deliver in terms of political resolution or escape from poverty; but he did incarnate the profound hope of Christian resurrection through his ministry and vowed to accompany them in their struggle for liberation. The poor literally lived in him and he in them. They "accompanied" one another.
"Not there, but here" means that this prophetic priest lived a Gospel way that liberated his people to become the subjects - no longer the objects - of their own history. This unusual initiative for a bishop threatened the status quo and those in positions of power. The government authorities rejected him. So did many of his colleagues in the Church. They did not understand how an establishment churchman could act like this.
On March 24, 1980, Romero was assassinated as he celebrated the Eucharist at a local city hospital. One week later, 150,000 attended his funeral Mass at the cathedral in San Salvador. The event was ignored and largely forgotten, even by Church authorities, during the protracted Salvadoran civil war. The media shifted their focus to other global stress points.
The poor of El Salvador, however, have never forgotten him. Annual memorial services draw ever-larger attention to the martyred archbishop. One subscription, written in his memory, said: "They killed you because you were with us. . . . They tried to eliminate us, but you have not died. You live on in our struggle."
Several years after the martyrdom, Jon Sobrino, Central American theologian, wrote: "His presence extends beyond the borders of his country. He has become a universal Christian and perhaps the most universal Christian of our time. . . . We don't say this out of any triumphalism, but with the same humility and simplicity with which (he) himself spoke. . . . How we wish that there were more Romeros in the world!"
Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings authentically mirrors a latino emotional quality that may sometimes seem overly sentimental to more jaded northerners. Yet, there is no mistaking the authentic change that occurred in Romero's life; his historic witness and the Church's increased reverence for him.
"My voice will disappear," he once said, "but my word remains in the heart of those wanting to receive it. . . . As a Christian, I don't believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people."
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a lecturer at the University of Calgary. He was a pastor, missionary and Church executive for 25 years.)