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E D G A R D O C O L Ó N -­E M E R I C

Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor

university of notre dame press notre dame, indiana

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University of Notre Dame Press Notre Dame, Indiana 46556 www.undpress.nd.edu Copyright © 2018 by the University of Notre Dame All Rights Reserved Published in the United States of America Library of Congress Cataloging-­­in-­­Publication Data

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c o n t e n t s

Acknowledgments  ix List of Abbreviations   xv 1


Introduction to a Scandal


Microphones of Christ


t h r e e The Transfiguration of El Salvador



The Face of the Divino Salvador



The Transfigured People of God



The Vision of God


Notes   281 Bibliography  373 Index  395

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c h a p t e r



While studying theology in Rome, Óscar Romero frequented the streets in the vicinity of St. Peter’s Basilica where poor people were to be found. After one such visit, on Christmas Eve 1941, Romero wrote in his journal, “The poor are the incarnation of Christ. Through their rags, . . . the loving soul discovers and worships Christ.”1 Not everyone can see this image. Privilege, ideology, and prejudice have become something like a second nature: a thick veil that prevents our seeing the light of Christ shining from the lives of social outcasts. Saint Paul is right that the “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:5) and, one must add, of believers too. Humanity needs to learn again to see, and for this reason, Romero believes, the world needs the church. It is on the mountain that is the church that the veil of shame that shrouds peoples in darkness is torn off.2 But a blind church is of no use to a blind world. The church too needs to learn to see again. It needs to learn to see Christ’s glory in the “faces of campesinos without land . . . the faces of workers fired without cause, without enough wages to maintain their homes; the faces of the elderly; the faces of the marginalized; the faces of people dwelling in slums; the faces of children who are poor and who from their  1

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childhood begin to feel the cruel bite of social injustice” (Homilías 6:346).3 For Monseñor Romero, a privileged place of encounter with the glory of Christ is on the mountain that tradition knows as Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration. The light of the transfigured Christ has the power to transform the flesh of the poor into an icon of glory and to open the eyes of the blind to behold this glory and be changed. Seeing the glory of God in the face of the poor of Jesus Christ can be costly. In his final Sunday homily on March 23, 1980, Romero offered his congregation a narration of the most noteworthy events in the life of the archdiocese. There was nothing unusual about this. It was his custom to weave church announcements in with the proclamation of the gospel. On that particular Sunday, he gave them a sneak preview of a hymn recently composed by Guillermo Cuéllar in honor of the Divine Savior of the World, the patron of El Salvador (Homilías, 6:445). The hymn would be sung as the Gloria for the Misa salvadoreña. Vibran los cantos explosivos de alegría, Voy a reunirme con mi pueblo en catedral. Miles de voces nos unimos este día Para cantar en nuestra fiesta patronal. ——— The songs resound full of joy, I am gathering with my people at the cathedral. Thousands of voices join together on this day To sing on this our patron feast.

The lyrics describe the people of God gathering in San Salvador to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6. Romero says that he particularly likes the final stanza. Pero los dioses del poder y del dinero Se oponen a que haya transfiguración. Por eso ahora vos, Señor, sos el primero En levantar tu brazo contra la opresión. ———

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Introduction to a Scandal  3

But the gods of power and of money Are opposed to there being transfiguration. This is why you, oh Lord, are the first one To raise your arm against oppression.

The following afternoon the servants of the gods named by Cuéllar assassinated the archbishop. Why? Preaching at the death of other martyrs, Romero himself offered an explanation: “Why are they killed? They are killed because they are obstacles.” (Homílias, 5:354). He got in the way of those who saw El Salvador as their hacienda and worked hard to keep its citizens as their peons. To put it another way, Romero’s message was a scandal. The Greek word skandalon refers to a stumbling block, something that gets in the way. One can be scandalized when seeing someone fall or when stumbling oneself. The reaction to the fall may be infantile, or pharisaical, or just.4 The term scandal can be used to name not only the taking of offense but the giving of it, the cause of the stumbling. The scandal can come from an enemy who sets traps that impede another’s progress in life. Poverty is a scandal in this sense. Poverty is the stumbling block along the way of life for the majority of people in El Salvador. From the country’s conquest in the sixteenth century to the genocides of the twentieth, poverty has been one of the distinctive marks of El Salvador. Years of misguided rule by a powerful oligarchy who saw themselves as the owners of El Salvador led to a massively unequal and unjust distribution of land and goods in the country. In the time of Romero, 60 percent of the rural population owned no land and 90 percent lacked the means for daily sustenance. “Land hunger” and food hunger were the lot of the people of El Salvador.5 The scandal of poverty gave rise to the scandal of violence as the oligarchy colluded with the government to block all attempts at agrarian reform. In the infamous Matanza of 1932, the government ordered the military to repress an insurrectionist movement demanding land reform in the western part of the country. The result was the slaughter (matanza) of roughly 2 percent of the national population. Since most of those killed were of indigenous descent, the Matanza was in effect an act of genocide. It is because of the Matanza that El Salvador lacks a sizable indigenous population

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today. In El Salvador, obstacles to the progress of the people seem to always be popping up . Like the mythical hydra, the enemy who set these obstacles has many heads (the Salvadoran oligarchy, the US military, the multinationals, the powers and principalities, etc.) but has caused one scandalous result—the death of Salvadorans. The scandal can also come from God, whose landmarks on the way to salvation can trip up those walking on the way that perishes. The means that God employs to turn humanity from death to life can give offense. Like Paul, Romero knows that the cross cannot fail to provoke a crisis (Homilías, 3:215). The Transfiguration is a scandal in this sense. Mount Tabor shocks the sensibilities of the wayfarer. It presents a vision of glory that can be attained only through the Passion. As it points forward to the cross, the vision of the transfigured humanity of Jesus issues an imperative to all human beings. Do not be conformed to this world. Do not settle for mediocrities. Be transformed. The Transfiguration is a scandal for the pusillanimous who dismiss its promises as pie in the sky. It is also a scandal for the pharisaical. Tabor threatens to upset an order in which many have a vested interest. The scandal of the Transfiguration has political dimensions.6 It sheds light on a world where glory comes from humility and not from power and privilege. From the heights of Mount Tabor, the glory of God shines forth more from the sore-­covered flesh of Lazarus than from the sumptuous lifestyle of the rich man. In brief, the scandal of the Transfiguration is succinctly stated in Romero’s aphorism Gloria Dei, vivens pauper, “The glory of God is the living poor.”


Who was Óscar Romero? Many excellent biographies have been written about him.7 Indeed, it may seem that stories of his life, especially of his time as archbishop, are about all that has been written about him. In a way, this is quite understandable. The 1970s and ’80s marked a dramatic time for people in Central America. Vast income inequality, failed attempts at land reform, and rumors of a Cuban-­style revolution

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Introduction to a Scandal  5

contributed to a shifting social landscape. Some expected the church to serve as a bastion of national stability, while others dreamed of a Christian guerrilla movement. In this context, the choice of Romero for the country’s premier ecclesial post was greeted with dismay by some and relief by others. However, both reactions misread the man and the moment. Days after his installation, on March 12, 1997, his friend Father Rutilio Grande and two companions (Manuel Solórzano and Nelson Lemus) were murdered while driving to El Paisnal. Some of Romero’s biographers refer to this moment as his conversion. The road to El Paisnal was Romero’s road to Damascus. The sight of those three corpses turned the conservative, timid, bookish bishop into a flaming prophet. Romero himself preferred to speak of the transformation caused by the sight of these bodies not as a conversion but as a growing awareness of what the Lord required of an archbishop in the current context.8 Be that as it may, the death of Rutilio Grande left a deep impression on Romero’s ministry as archbishop. It placed Romero’s service as archbishop under the sign of martyrdom. There was now no doubt about it; he was the pastor of a persecuted church. The murder of Grande was followed by the murders of Alfonso Navarro (May 11, 1977), Ernesto Barrera (November 28, 1977), Octavio Ortíz (January 20, 1979), Rafael Palacios (July 20, 1979), and Alirio Macías (August 4, 1979), to name only the priests. In lieu of another biography of his life, I offer here titles collated from the tradition responsible for his memory Romerismo. The plaque that hangs on the wall of the house where he lived during his time as archbishop features titles like “prophet,” “martyr,” and “saint.” But the tradition of Romero has also included other lesser-­ known titles like “son of the church” and “father of the church.”9 Before we examine these, it may be helpful to say a few words about how the tradition of Romero grew. Romerismo began during the years when Romero served as archbishop.10 Its main sources were the pulpit, the road, and the office. In life, most people encountered Romero through his homilies. The overflowing crowds at the cathedral and the unprecedented radio audience projected his voice far beyond that of the typical priest or even archbishop. The tradition of Romero grew not only from the

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memory of his word but from the personal encounters that many had with him. Romero visited the cantons and poor communities of his archdiocese with greater frequency than what was canonically required or customary. There Romero experienced firsthand the conditions of his people, and the people saw their archbishop walking in their midst. The archbishopric also contributed to development of Romerismo. During his tenure in San Salvador, the thresholds to the archdiocesan offices were crossed by people looking for help in finding relatives who had disappeared or in seeking justice for someone who had been abused or killed. They found in Romero a compassionate shepherd and a fierce defender of his flock. In sum, even before he was murdered people had a rich collection of memories and experiences of Romero. Immediately after his death, the pieces of Romerismo began to be assembled in a mosaic. In the homily at the funeral mass of March 25, 1980, Ricardo Urioste, vicar general for the archbishop, cried in lament, “They killed our father; they killed our pastor; they killed our guide.”11 Urioste went on to speak of Romero as “a man of deep faith, deep prayer, and constant communion with God.”12 He might have been “accused of being a blasphemer, a disturber of the public order, an agitator of the masses,” and derided as “Marxnulfo Romero” (Arnulfo was his middle name), but to the clergy and religious of his archdiocese his martyrdom was the capstone on “the life of a prophet, a pastor, a father of all Salvadorans, especially the neediest.”13 A biographical sketch published a week after his death describes him in the following manner: “He was truly a pastor, a prophet, a friend, a brother, and a father to the entire Salvadoran people, especially to the poorest, weakest, and most marginalized among them. He was the voice of the voiceless. . . . He was a man of prayer; only in this way can his strength in the face of so much adversity be understood. . . . A man of great human quality; he knew how to receive people; how to discover their worth.”14 The rich heritage glimpsed in these descriptions went underground at his burial.15 For the next three years after Romero’s death, the church hierarchy kept silent about its martyred leader. Remembrances of the anniversary of his death at the Hospitalito, the cancer hospice center where lived and died, were low-­key affairs. The name of Romero was not

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Introduction to a Scandal  7

spoken in public. His memory survived in family homes and clandestine organizations. Things began to change in 1983 with the visit of John Paul II to El Salvador. The image of the Polish pontiff kneeling before the tomb of the Salvadoran prelate fixed the eyes of the world and El Salvador on a tradition that had been suppressed but not broken. The plaques adorning the grave gave testimony to the ongoing devotion of the people and their gratitude for his intercession on their behalf in life, death, and life beyond death. The pope’s unscheduled visit to the cathedral where Romero was buried encouraged Romerismo to leave the catacombs and go public. The archdiocesan paper, Orientación, published excerpts from Romero’s homilies. The University of Central America “José Simeón Cañas” (better known as the UCA) built a chapel in honor of his memory. T-­shirts were printed with Romero’s face. For most of the 1980s, the most energetic transmitters of Romerismo were leftist political organizations. Naturally, the Romero that they transmitted was painted in populist and revolutionary colors. Indeed, concerns about leftist exploitation of the martyred archbishop’s memory proved to be one of the main obstacles to the canonization of Romero. A new stage in Romerismo was inaugurated with the signing of the peace accords in 1992. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the civil war opened the door to a wider diffusion of his memory. Massive celebrations were organized for the anniversaries of his birth (August 15) and death (March 24). These dates became holy days in the calendar of Romerismo. Interestingly, the Feast of the Transfiguration (the national feast day when Romero published his pastoral letters) has never been included in this calendar. The growing public acceptance of these celebrations contributed to the consolidation of a geography of Romerismo. The Hospitalito and the cathedral (and to a far lesser extent his birth home) became places of pilgrimage that drew Catholics and non-­Catholics from all over the world. The people who knew Romero became star witnesses in the transmission of this tradition, and formal organizations were constituted for this very purpose. The latest stage in Romerismo was made possible by the official processes of beatification and canonization. In the apostolic proclamation of his beatification, Pope Francis calls Romero a “bishop and

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martyr, shepherd after the heart of Christ, evangelizer and father of the poor, heroic witness of the kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice, fraternity, and peace.”16 Archbishop Paglia, the biographer for the ceremony, speaks of Romero as a defender of the poor, defensor pauperum, like the ancient church fathers.17 The scholarship that supported the processes and the ceremonies surrounding his beatification gave official sanction to the inherited traditions at the same time that it transformed them by incorporating them into the cult of the church universal. There are tensions within Romerismo that the beatification exposed. Rodolfo Cardenal points to three dueling versions of Romero: the nationalist, the spiritualist, and the liberationist.18 The Vatican’s declaration of the archbishop as martyr forced the government to craft their own version of Romero as national hero. Indeed, all travelers by the departure gates of the Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport walk past a mural displaying the archbishop in service to the poor. Next to the mural is a plaque with an apology from the government for its complicity in the civil war. Romero in this version of the story is a patriot whose memory promotes national unity in a factious society. By claiming to be inspired by Romero, the government seeks to have some of Romero’s aura rub off and lend credibility to its political agenda. Even the news media have seized on Romero’s hagiological coattails and promoted his figure widely without accounting for their own role in besmirching his image or explaining the reasons behind their change of attitude. The nationalist version of Romero places him on the high altar of public opinion usually reserved for the founding fathers of El Salvador and the national soccer team. Within the Catholic Church, the process of beatification promoted an image of Romero that in Cardenal’s view is overly spiritualized. This version presented a bishop who was pious, compassionate, traditional, and loyal to the magisterium. These features belong to Romero, but a full portrait cannot be painted from them alone. The promoter of the spiritualist version that Cardenal focuses on is Roberto Morrozzo della Rocca. For Cardenal, Morozzo’s biography of Romero, Primero Dios, is defective on many grounds: tendencies to spiritualize Romero, to downplay his conversion, to highlight

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tensions with liberation theologians and leftist groups, and more. In all, Cardenal charges Morrozzo not with poor historiography but with bad ideology. The spiritualist reading of Romero rules out a priori vital aspects of Romero’s life in order to make him more palatable to a sector of the church that will never tolerate even this watered-­down version of Romero. Finally, there is the liberationist version. For Cardenal, there is no doubt that this is the most authentic version. “While the institutional church washed its hands of Monseñor Romero, other ecclesial sectors kept his memory alive and cultivated his tradition. The obstinacy of the communities, lay groups, especially, of the women, of several priests, male and female religious, and, in general, of the poor kept alive the memory of the martyred archbishop.”19 Even as Romero belongs to the church universal and to the world, the chief responsibility for safeguarding his memory falls to the Salvadoran Church and in particular to the poor. El Salvador has a long way to go before the jubilant titles attributed to Romero can be spoken without blushing. Romero will be “the saint of all of El Salvador” and a “symbol of peace” when justice is done, forgiveness is asked for, and embrace is offered. “Only then will Monseñor cease being a stone of stumbling and scandal, because he will have become the stone on which is raised an El Salvador that is reconciled with its past and present and opened to the future of the kingdom of God.”20 This survey of Romerismo depicts a living tradition that cannot be reduced to a few slogans or captions. In addition to Romero’s written works (homilies, diaries, letters, and newspaper columns) and the testimony of those who knew him, there is a vast production of cultural artifacts that reach a much larger audience than the first two media.21 Romero’s face is visible all over El Salvador in murals, portraits, posters, and T-­shirts. His story is told through music of diverse genres, from the classical “Elegía Violeta para Monseñor Romero” to the popular “Corrido a Monseñor Romero.” Novels have been written and films have been made about him. It is important to note, in transmitting the story of Romero, that his story is not his alone but also that of the people whom he served and for whom he died. The density and diversity of Romerismo are signs of vitality, not incoherence, and

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do not preclude us from identifying recurring themes. Óscar Romero is a prophet. This is one of the most common and enduring images of him. The song “El profeta,” by the musical group Yolocamba-­Ita (the same group that wrote the music to the Salvadoran Gloria mentioned earlier), paints a vivid picture.22 Por esta tierra del hambre Yo vi pasar a un viajero Humilde, manso y sincero, Valientemente profeta, Que se enfrentó a los tiranos Para acusarles el crimen De asesinar a su hermano, Pa’ defender a los ricos. ——— Throughout this land of hunger I saw a pilgrim pass by Humble, meek, and sincere, Courageously prophetic, Who confronted the tyrants To accuse them of the crime Of murdering their brother To defend the rich.

In the popular imagination, the act of raising one’s voice against the status quo is considered prophetic. A prophet is someone who speaks truth to power. Romero fits the popular mold, but he overflows it because he is also a prophet in the biblical sense. In scripture, a prophet is a herald of God for the people of God. Prophets are not simply pious social critics; they are also dreamers who dare to imagine a world where God is king, and for this reason they are persecuted. Romero’s homilies strongly denounce the injustices in Salvadoran society but even more strongly announce the good news of Jesus Christ. The best witnesses to Romero’s prophetic vocation are his enemies; by assassinating his character and his body they ironically confessed through gritted teeth that he is a prophet.

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Excerpt of "Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision"  

On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated as he celebrated mass in El Salvador. As the Catholic Church prepares to declare...

Excerpt of "Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision"  

On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated as he celebrated mass in El Salvador. As the Catholic Church prepares to declare...

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