by Mark Chmiel
The Violence of Love (reprint). By Oscar Romero. Translated and compiled by James R. Brockman, S.J. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004. Pp. xvii, 214. Notes. $15.00 paper.
Monsignor Romero: A Bishop for the Third Millennium. By Robert S. Pelton, C.S.C., ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. Pp. vii, 128. Notes. Bibliography. $22.50 cloth.
March 24, 2005 marked the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador. He held that position for only three years, but committed himself with increasing vigor and courage to the defense of the poor masses of his country, precisely in response to the demanding call of the Gospels. Since his death, he has become an icon for many in Latin America, while some others detest his memory. His fellow bishop in Brazil, Pedro Casaldáliga, once observed, “The history of the Church in Latin America divides into two parts: before and after Romero.”
Robert Pelton has collected various essays that attempt to reckon with Romero’s formidable influence. Drawn from lectures given over the years at the University of Notre Dame, the book offers several appreciations of Romero. Romero is regarded as a “legend for generations of Salvadorans and an icon all over the world” (36), “the first human rights ombudsman in the history of El Salvador and its people” (38), and “[a]s a prophet and a martyr, Oscar Romero is the most important figure in recent Christian history” (46).
Writers in this volume—from El Salvadoran political leader Rubén Zamora to U.S. activist Margaret Swedish to Chiapas bishop Samuel Ruiz García—would surely agree with Archbishop Luciano Mendes de Almeida who points out that, “Romero always spoke the truth about the situation of oppression and repression being lived by the poorest of the poor—even risking his life to do so” (29).
Such commitment to the truth, then, is what makes Romero an exemplary bishop for the third millennium of Christianity. American Jesuit Dean Brackley explains, however, that we ought not expect scores of bishops eager to follow so closely in Romero’s footsteps. In 1997, Brackley averred that “[t]he church’s credibility depends on whether its future leadership will stand by the defenseless in the spirit of Romero and Rutilio [Grande].… Church leaders who opt for the poor are suspected and investigated; those who opt for prestige and personal power are frequently promoted…. Romero is never mentioned in episcopal documents in El Salvador, for example. Nor was he mentioned during the papal Mass there” (96).
Jesuit James Brockman’s compilation of short reflections from Romero’s homilies and statements helps us to understand how and why Romero may be easy to praise and hard to follow. Proceeding chronologically from 1977, the reflections in each chapter are sometimes in paragraph form, other times in Brockman’s free verse rendering, which is reminiscent of the Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Peter Maurin’s “Easy Essays.”
Taken as a whole, the book reveals the various conflicts in which Romero found himself at such a grave time in the life of his country. He insisted that the church had to be engaged in society, reorienting itself by making the option for the poor. When the church makes this option, it will necessarily comfort the poor and denounce the system and its beneficiaries who sacralize the status quo. He realized, that like the prophets of the Scriptures, the church will be maligned and persecuted for challenging the idols of the time. Indeed, Romero had no patience with contemporary forms of idolatry, such as the elites’ obsession with wealth while the masses are exploited and massacred.
Romero did not mince words and his homilies point to a fundamental “either/or” Christians face as to the Kingdom they wish to serve: either the Kingdom of selfishness and death that is a hell on earth or the Kingdom of sharing, solidarity, and the search for justice. He claimed, “A church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth—beware!—is not the true church of Jesus Christ” (125). With humility and hope, Romero called for persecutors to repent of their crucifixion of the poor and join in their struggle.
Pelton’s book clearly does not attempt a critical assessment of Romero. Such encomia have their place. But only if they lead to the reader’s own serious confrontation with Romero’s example and our willingness to denounce unjust power and care for its victims. Romero is well-known for his dramatic insistence to the Salvadoran military that they were not obligated to harm the innocent. One wonders if there is a Romero-like bishop in our midst in the United States, one who would dare to say, in a sober imitatio Romero to the U.S. military: “In the name of God, I beg you, I order you to stop repressing and killing Iraqis!”
published in The Americas, 2007