Archbishop Oscar Romero comes to life as never before in this wonderful set of memories of his life and martyrdom. Edited and collated by Maria Lopez Vigil, Romero's coworkers, fellow priests and friends tell stories that add up to a portrait of a man who tried to make the gospels a tangible reality. Snippets of Romero's homilies and diary entries add his own voice to the mix.
Romero was thrust into a position of leadership in the late 1970s, during the turbulent and violent El Salvadoran civil war. The book makes it clear that he started not from a position of radicalism, but from the same blinkered, knee-jerk anti-communism that was the stock in trade of his brother bishops. The difference between him and the others, however, was that Romero had the capacity to learn from the real lives of his people. His episcopal brothers were satisfied with lives of "holiness," separated from their flocks, oblivious to their troubles and uninterested in their corporal well being.
Romero was radicalized by the death of his friend, Father Rutilio Grande, who was gunned down by Salvadoran military men. His death was one of countless thousands that epitomized the mindless slaughter of civilians by a military pledged to protect the interests of a few wealthy landholding families. Grande's funeral was one of many military murders that Romero presided over.
Romero is shown as a man of the people, sacrificing comfort and sleep to celebrate Mass in far-flung, hard-to-access villages. He preferred the company of old campesinos to rounds of meetings with his fellow bishops. He even worked out a system of pretexts with one of his parishioners to get him out of dull meetings. His homilies were broadcast on the archdiocesan radio station, and listened to by the entire country, including hopeful peasants as well as ill-intentioned military men. He was adored by the ordinary and the poor as much as he was reviled by the rich families. That went doubly for the wealthy matrons, who were interested in helping those less fortunate as long as their place of privilege was never threatened. His battles with the Vatican hierarchy were most disheartening. Even Pope John Paul II couldn't understand his fierce defense of the gospel, as viewed through the lives of the suffering of El Salvador. In the end, Oscar Romero was forced to tread his
alone except for his enemies, as are most of the world's great martyrs.
I couldn't help but think back to the wonderful Paulist film made about Romero's life. That Romero was timid and quiet, though capable of bold words and deeds. The Romero of
, by contract, is passionate, wildly generous and full of fire. He gets irritated, he sweats in the heat, he lashes out in anger at his stubborn subordinates. But he also loves greatly, and is humble to the point of apologizing to those he has hurt.
There is no question that Romero could have lived a longer life had he tempered his critiques of the Salvadoran government and of their US backers. But politics was not his strong suit. He saw suffering in front of him and demanded that it end. He saw the wretched lives of the poor and demanded that they be succored. He saw thousands of dead and demanded that they be honored and buried.
Truth be told, some passages from that could easily be taken as coming from a man who had crossed the line into radicalism."As for the left, I don't call them leftist forces, I call them forces of the people. Their violence is likely to be the result of rage that people feel from having confronted so much social injustice....We can't say that there is a formula for moving from capitalism to socialism, if you want to call it socialism, well that's just a name. What we are looking for is social justice, a kinder society, a sharing of resources." You don't have to be a rabid anti-communist to hear what might have come from a rebel's mouth.
Perhaps this is a lesson for us who have grown up on tales of tepid saints sanctified for helping the poor. Perhaps their struggle was no less harrowing than that of Oscar Romero. Perhaps the gentle holy men and women who clothed the naked and fed the hungry were not so gentle after all. Or perhaps they played it safe by tended to the outcast without challenging the societal structures that required poverty as a side effect.
shows that Oscar Romero, like Jesus, chose another path: to point the holy finger of blame at the economic structures that breed poverty. He made a career of living the words of Dom
Hélder Pessoa Câmara
, who said famously, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a
Memories in Mosaic
shows how one man came to embody Camara's words and paid for his commitment with his blood. His sanctity was not one of quiet piety but of an active, almost violent clash of the gospel against the world. That the world struck back with fury is no surprise. Neither is it surprising that Romero's death is fated to overcome that fury.