How Oscar Romero’s theology sheds new insights on his life
It is getting close to 40 years since an assassin hired by the government of El Salvador fired a fatal shot from the back seat of a car outside a chapel in the early evening as Óscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, was saying Mass. In this theological analysis of Romero’s life, especially his years as bishop, Michael Lee, a theologian at Fordham University, shows convincingly why he is a saint for our time.
Lee is up to more than describing Romero’s life story or the social and political forces that so distinctively shaped it. Lee wants to trace the way Romero understood his Christian faith in the midst of change, crushing social injustice, ecclesial upheaval and the self-interested political uses of power. The Second Vatican Council and the Latin American bishops had sent new messages to the Latin American churches about how to engage the world. Where does the church stand in this tumultuous place?
Lee commands multiple sources to answer these questions: collections of Romero’s homilies, his pastoral letters, his diaries, collected memories of those who knew him. He also brings a deep knowledge of the theology of this time and place, analytical acumen and an ability to write clear, accessible prose.
Lee organizes his book around three major issues, which loosely organize Romero’s contributions. The first is “conversion,” a term frequently used to describe Romero’s tenure as archbishop in the last three years of his life. Lee patiently dissects the meaning of this term relative to Romero, who described his development as an “evolution” to emphasize its continuity with his past. Here the reader can see how a man with a pre-Vatican II formation and a colonial mind-set regarding the alignment of the church with government gradually learns that the rule of God preached by Jesus has critical and prophetic dimensions. Conversion in Romero’s case meant a gradual coming to a new awareness, always precipitated by events. One in particular was decisive: the flagrant murder of his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande because he served the poor. Something was radically wrong there.
The power of Revolutionary Saint lies in Michael Lee’s slow, careful presentation, which allows the person of Romero in his context to take hold in one’s imagination.
The second issue concerns the relationship of “Christian faith,” which refers first of all to the intentional commitment of one’s life, to social matters and politics. This includes an understanding of “liberation theology” and Romero’s relation to it. Here Lee turns to the studied but directly applicable pastoral letters that Romero published as archbishop. With the help of supporting documents, the reader sees how Romero’s language cuts through doctrinaire slogans to the existential responsibility of a pastor for the vast majority of people held in virtual slavery to an oligarchic system. What is a pastor to say to his people in that situation? Romero asked that question, and it had no other answer than a preferential option for the poor. One is struck by the constant analogies of Romero’s words with Jesus’ concern for the poor. Like Jesus’ preaching, which was validated by his life-action, one can read the meaning of liberation theology and the relation of faith to politics by the intentionality and the commitment that impelled Romero’s practical moves. Lee moves us from Romero’s ministerial spirituality to the theology; moving in the other direction gives rise to silly charges of Marxism.
The third issue addressed by Lee deals with the meaning of martyrdom, a title people of traditionalist and vested interests could not let Romero have. But the argument to isolate the “martyr” by canonical definition to a witness who dies for doctrinal truths pales when compared with a full life lived in witness to the values of the rule of God that Jesus too preached in the face of opposition. Here again the life and motivation of the minister of God’s word break open the traditional language and let the substance emerge. Romero changed a restricted meaning of martyrdom by his lived commitment.
Finally, the power of this book, especially for students who are asking critical questions and for reading groups looking for deeper meaning, lies in Lee’s slow, careful presentation, which allows the person of Romero in his context to take hold in one’s imagination. Through his spiritual commitment to his people, Romero gradually learned in a new way the deep meanings of Christian faith and acted them out in our turbulent world. This book represents a new high standard for biographical theology.