To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, Orbis Books has published a pictorial biography of Romero that is beautifully rendered. It will serve for years as a substantive introduction to the life, death, and legacy of this great Latin American saint—there can be no other word for him.
The text is by Scott Wright, a North American who met Romero in Mexico in 1979 and subsequently spent years living with villagers in the mountains of El Salvador. He accompanied those forced to flee to Honduras during the bloodiest stages of the Salvadoran civil war, that barbaric conflict in which the United States played a nefarious but still officially unacknowledged role. For decades, Wright has worked with Salvadoran refugees in this country and has lobbied to change U.S. policy toward Central America.
Wright intimately understands the spirit of the Salvadoran people and what they suffered during the war. He also has a thorough knowledge of the literature (in Spanish, English, and other languages) that has examined Romero’s life and thought over the past three decades. He draws on previous biographies, on the remarkable stories of Salvadorans who personally knew Romero, and on Romero’s own writings, radio speeches, episcopal homilies, and pastoral letters. Romero had been an editor, had run a diocesan radio station, was the secretary of his country’s bishops’ conference, and served as bishop for seven years before being appointed archbishop by Pope Paul VI—an office he held for only three years. Wright invariably chooses just the right quote or anecdote to illustrate Romero’s development and progress. And change there certainly was in Romero’s life, as anyone who has seen the popular film Romero remembers. Wright retells the story with energy and with flair, and his text is accompanied on almost every page by black-and-white photographs. Many are by Octavio Duran, a seminarian who worked with Romero and photographed him over the years, but there are also archival news pictures and several remarkable photos by Wright himself. Like Eknath Easwaran’s Gandhi the Man, this biography seamlessly weds text and image.
The book makes the case that we live in a period of remarkable Christian witnesses (the “communion of the saints” in Wright’s title). Romero responded to the threats on his life with resolve and incredible self-possession (see Robert E. White, “Romero Remembered,” Commonweal, March 26), and seems to have conducted his myriad duties with fidelity and a certain delight.
Some of us have been blessed, at one point or another, to encounter or even to know an exemplary Christian: someone of whom we are able to say, spontaneously and without reservation, “This person really lives the gospel,” or “This person is truly Christlike.” Such individuals may not be well known outside their circle—family members, neighbors, co-workers—but their lives inspire us with a confidence in God’s love and presence that heightens, however briefly, the way we apprehend everything. And then again there are the Bonhoeffers, the Helder Camaras, the Dorothy Days, and the Romeros, who seem to be given as exemplars for the whole church because of their unmistakable intellect, courage, faithfulness, prayer, or service. We are the richer for seeing our lives in light of their witness, and for knowing, in some real manner, that they accompany and encourage us.
If there is a flaw in Wright’s book, it is perhaps that it says too much in one respect and too little in another. Wright becomes somewhat didactic toward the end. He rightly wants to call our attention, and the church’s, to love and service of the poor, but this point has already been made convincingly. The final chapter on Romero’s “enduring legacy” seems redundant, abstracting Romero’s life by casting it in the particular mode of liberation theology, and thus limiting the man.
What is not said? It is a paradox, alluded to by Wright but not developed, that the rather retiring, conservative Romero—by temperament, background, and training in pre–Vatican II theology, ecclesiology, and spirituality (at points he was apparently close to members of Opus Dei)—should become, in later years, more outgoing, more concerned with the daily struggles of Salvadorans and how the political culture was crushing them, and emerge as a prophetic voice. He not only loved to listen, eat, converse, and relax in their company, but he became their spokesperson and champion. Furthermore, in church matters he became the exemplar of Vatican II as it was implemented in Latin America, even in the face of criticism from the new pope, John Paul II.
Wright and others note that it was the assassination of Romero’s admired friend Rutilio Grande, SJ, only weeks after Romero became archbishop, that occasioned a conversion—a word Romero didn’t associate with his own process—from the “safe bishop” the Salvadoran oligarchy had anticipated to the country’s arch-defender of the poor. That Grande’s murder was a pivotal event is undeniable. Yet perhaps it should not be seen so much as a conversion but as a further catalyst in Romero’s coming forth. God seems to have spent a long time preparing Romero for what only Romero could do—as Jacob was required to spend long years laboring in Laban’s fields. For Romero, that preparation included decades of study and prayer, self-discipline, obedience, and small horizons—and even ridicule and isolation from some of his more liberal fellows. Yet Romero remained faithful to the gospel as he saw it and did not deny his limitations. How he broke the very mold that helped fashion him is especially intriguing. It seems akin to the personal evolution of John XXIII, that most unlikely but path-breaking pope. Just how resilient Romero became precisely because of that mold is not explored at length in this book, but it too is part of Romero’s unique legacy and deserves fuller examination.