Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters Series)

Review & Commentary

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  1. Review

    The year 2000 marks the twentieth anniversary of assassination of Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, as he celebrated the Eucharist in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital. This book of reflections on the life and writings of the rnartyred Romero is the latest in a series entitled Modem Spiritual Masters, intended to provide "guides and companions to a new generation of seekers."

    When Romero was installed as archbishop in 1977, his country was engulfed in violent political turmoil driven by gross economic inequality. Fourteen families controlled over sixty percent of the arable land and an estimated 65 percent of the peasants were landless. A guerrilla insurgency dedicated to land reform and supported, according to the military authorities, by 90 percent of the population, arose to challenge the oligarchy. A year before Romero came to office, the large plantation owners and the right wing of the army escalated a systematic campaign of repression, supported and funded by the United States, which included a full-scale attack on the church because of its support for the peasants. Thousands of people were killed, including priests, nuns and lay members of the church while other thousands fled the country.

    During the 1960’s as an auxiliary bishop and the early 1970’s as a diocesan bishop, Romero was known as conservative and cautious, although he was sensitive to the suffering of the poor in his diocese and condemned the injustice of their plight. He was wary of the changes occasioned by the Second Vatican Council and disturbed by the thinking of the Latin American bishops at Medellin in Columbia 1968, and their declaration of the "preferential option for the poor." At that time of his life, the authors write, Romero understood the "Gospel message to be one of peace and reconciliation. The pursuit of social justice and liberation too often seemed to lead to division and conflict."Knowing this background, his election as archbishop was not welcomed by the oppressed people of his country. Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino observed, "We all thought we faced a very bleak future." Shortly after his installation as archbishop in February 1977, his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande, who helped build base Christian communities in rural areas, was murdered. Many friends said that this tragedy changed his life. From that day he moved into the world of the poor whom he found to be "the place of God’s revelation in history."

    During his three years as archbishop, Romero embraced the world of the poor, which brought him "face to face with his people crucified by poverty and tortured by violence." He was a pastor to his people in their impoverished communities, opening his heart to them and receiving in return, he said, a hundred fold. He wrote that the world of the poor "provides us the key to understand our Christian faith. . .The poor tell us what our world is really like, and what the mission of the church should be." He also was a prophet who,

    for the sake of the Gospel, engaged the structural and institutional powers that produced and maintained poverty for their own wealth. He no longer understood the Gospel as simply a message of "peace and reconciliation" and he "refused to ameliorate the desperation of the poor with charity." He now understood the Gospel as the "good news" of liberation from political and economic oppression. This drove him to give "voice to the voiceless" and engage, by non-violent resistance, the structural and institutional powers that produced poverty. He wrote, "The church’s role is to defend the cause of the poor when they demand their legitimate rights."

    In choosing the poor, Romero did not turn his back on the wealthy, the government, and the military. He called for their conversion. He spoke of them as his "dear brothers and sisters". He pleaded with "those of you who hate me, who think I am preaching violence, who defame me and know it isn’t true, you that have hands stained with murder, with torture, with atrocity, with injustice — be converted. I love you deeply."

    The world of El Salvador and Oscar Romero in the 1970’s and 1980’s is foreign to the experience o f a majority of Americans, especially most of the readers of this publication. There are, however, 37 mi11ion people in our country who live in poverty. One of the legacies of Romero is that he discovered the poor ‘as the sign, the sacrament of God in the world." He wrote, "The poor have shown the church the true way to go. A church that does not join the poor, in order to speak out from the side of the poor against the injustices committed against them, is not the true church of Jesus Christ." Ariana Huffington, syndicated political columnist, spoke recently in Washington, D.C., at the launching of the Campaign To Overcome Poverty by sixty Catholic, evangelical, mainline Protestant and African-American churches. She declared, "There is only one litmus test of public morality — where do you stand on the issue of poverty?"

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