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Romero’s transformation still fascinates


By Maria Lopez Vigil
EPICA (1470 Irving St. N.W., Washington, DC 20010), 424 pages, $19.95


By Maria Denis, Renny Golden, Scott Wright
Orbis Books, 127 pages, $13.


We don’t expect old people to change. At age 60, Oscar Romero had clearly established a life pattern. He was a traditional cleric, a conservative theologian, a man given to regular, solitary times of prayer. With admirable humility and propriety, he had followed a classical path from seminarian to priest to monsignor to bishop to archbishop without once stepping out of line. The rest of his life was clearly mapped out, destined in all likelihood to be crowned with a cardinal’s hat.

The assassination just weeks after Romero had become archbishop of El Salvador of one of his priests, Rutilio Grande, proved the catalyst of a total transformation. His understanding of the world in which he lived, as well as of his own role in that world, altered radically. He had to face realities he had previously avoided, to recognize that presidents and generals had been lying to him, and that the priests living close to their oppressed people had been right in challenging him to apply to his own diocese what Vatican II and Medellín had said about institutionalized violence.

James R. Brockman and Jon Sobrino (both published by Orbis Books) are among the many who have tried to understand and explain this conversion, one that recalls that of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. Now Maria Lopez Vigil adds another rich layer of insight, that of the people who touched Romero and were touched by him. She talked for a total of a thousand hours to some 200 people who had known the archbishop at various points in his life, gleaning from each a significant anecdote. The result is a mosaic that provides new depths of understanding into how this remarkable man thought and how he allowed himself to be led by the poor.

A few extracts will give the flavor of the fascinating work of this brilliant political analyst and poet:

“Why are you coming in so late, young man?”
“I was at the Mass celebrated by a new priest.”
“What priest?”
I gave my grandmother the little prayer card they’d given out during the Mass. I couldn’t read it, but his name was written there: Oscar Arnulfo Romero. First Solemn Mass. Ciudad Barrios. January 11, 1944. “I have a feeling that priest is going to be a bishop,” I told her.
“Oh, so you’re a fortuneteller, are you?”
* * *
“Damn, now we’re ruined,” we seminarians said. Monseñor Chavez had been increasing his commitment to the poor, and Rivera had supported him for 17 years. What would happen now with Romero? What could we do? It was hard for us, because if we didn’t support our new bishop, we didn’t stand much of a chance of becoming priests.
* * *
The plaza was full to overflowing. As the Mass began, I noticed that Monseñor Romero was sweating, pale and nervous. And when he began his homily, it seemed slow to me, without his usual eloquence, as if he were reluctant to go through the door of history that God was opening up for him. “I want to give a public thanks today, here in front of the archdiocese, for the unified support that is being expressed for the only gospel and for these our beloved priests. Many of them are in danger, and like Father Grande, they are risking even the maximum sacrifice.” Hearing the name of Rutilio, thousands exploded into applause.
“This applause confirms the profound joy that my heart feels upon taking possession of the archdiocese and feeling that my own weaknesses and my own inabilities can find their complement, their strength and their courage in a unified clergy. Whoever is touching one of my priests is touching me. And they will have to deal with me!”
Thousands of people were applauding him, and something rose within him. It was then that he crossed the threshold. He went through the door. Because, you know, there is baptism by water, and there is baptism by blood. But there is also baptism by the people.
* * *
The line of people passing by to see him didn’t diminish day or night. They came from all over the country, from every canton, from every corner. We men cried the same as the women.
* * *
The cathedral can’t adequately hold more than 3,000 people standing up. After half an hour of battle in the plaza [where soldiers had fired on worshippers at Romero’s funeral Mass], more than twice that many were squeezed inside. ... I was in the second line of people counting from the wall, and Cardinal Corripio was on my right. On my left, in the line behind me a woman was praying to God as she was beginning to die. I could barely turn my head toward her but that’s all I could do. I was a Presbyterian layperson but I improvised the Catholic last rites. “Your sins are forgiven. Go in God’s peace,” I prayed. The woman died but she remained standing.
* * *
I heard a nun shout: “Let us pray, for this is the final hour!” You could feel the fervor of that conglomeration of people, each one praying his or her prayers, asking for a peaceful death. And flies swarmed around the dead bodies that were falling around us and that no one could retrieve.
* * *

The Dennis/Golden/Wright book is a very different but complementary work. The authors have analyzed the homilies and other Romero writings to determine the distinctive characteristics of his spirituality. Ultimately, they agree with Lopez Vigil that what was decisive was his ability to see Christ in the poor, or as he put it: “The face of Christ is among the sacks and baskets of the farm worker; the face of Christ is among those who are tortured and mistreated in the prisons; the face of Christ is dying of hunger in the children who have nothing to eat.”

Reflections is an excellent addition to the Orbis series of Modern Spiritual Masters.

Gary MacEoin may be reached at gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000