Why I can’t keep Romero at a safe distance
Since 1995, I have taught more than 50 sections of “Faith and Moral Development,” an upper-division undergraduate seminar at Creighton University and also a required course in the justice and peace studies program that I direct. The course is innovative in several respects, but particularly in subject matter, for we study personal exemplars of faith and moral development and various theoretical perspectives on that development.
Recently, the case study for one section was Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador. We read two books: Romero: A Life, by James Brockman, S.J. (2005), and A Sacred Voice Is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience, byJohn Neafsey (2006). Despite the centrality of Romero to my own sense of vocation, this was the first time I had taught a course on the archbishop. Indeed, the previous summer was the first time I had read Romero’s biography, although I certainly knew the outline of his story from the powerful film “Romero,” starring Raul Julia. That was enough to help change my life. I became a Catholic, discovered a vocation in social justice ministry and education and moved my young family across the country so I could study at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, then in Cambridge, Mass.
A Model and Guide
I think I was afraid that getting closer to Romero by reading his biography would be too demanding, would set the bar (or should I say the cross?) way too high. But after visiting our son, who was then a student in Santa Clara University’s Casa de la Solidaridad program in San Salvador in March 2006, and after visiting Romero’s small apartment and the chapel of the cancer hospital for the poor where he fell to an assassin’s bullet on March 24, 1980, I could no longer keep him at a safe distance. I screwed “my courage to the sticking place” (as Lady Macbeth put it) and ordered the Brockman book.
Midway through that semester, during one of our first sessions together, a wonderfully simpatico spiritual director asked me where or how I had experienced consolation and desolation over the last month. As he allowed me quietly to settle into that question, I felt welling up within me the very Ignatian experience of tears. Gradually regaining my composure, I suggested that teaching the life of Óscar Romero, the one figure above all others who had brought me into the life of Christ as an adult, had given me—and was giving me at that very moment—an experience of both consolation and desolation.
I was consoled, as I had been when I first heard Romero’s story, because he made it plain that it ispossible to live a life of profound Christian integrity and commitment to the kingdom in our day. But 27 years of my own vocation and one biography later, I knew much more intimately, if still at some distance, what that integrity had cost Romero, even before his death. As Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., has said, in the person of Archbishop Romero God visited El Salvador. That visit, that life, conformed to the life and passion of El Salvador (the Savior) almost 2,000 years before. That was deeply consoling. Christ had risen again magnificently in a humble priest from the hinterlands of a poor developing country.
Desolation and the Dark Spirit
Yet my experience of Óscar Romero 24 years after I had become a Catholic was also one of desolation. I was too timid to take Óscar as my confirmation name. One of my students expressed my own feelings well: “When looking at what Romero had done with his life and how he essentially gave his life to others, I feel very self-centered about what I have done in my life thus far.” In the midst of a vicious civil war, often in bitter dispute with a majority of his fellow Salvadoran bishops and with the papal nuncio, libeled repeatedly and outrageously in the reactionary national press and seen as suspect by some in the Vatican, and with his life under constant threat, Romero grew stronger, deeper and more prophetic. Accused of betraying the Gospel of love and justice for self-promotion, ideology or even terrorism, Romero lived it out ever more authentically. By comparison, in my comfortable circumstances, I seemed a fraud.
Desolation is the work of what Ignatius called the “dark spirit” of the Enemy, of the anti-kingdom. I have been learning the hard way just how seductive, perverse and persistent the voice that insinuates “Fraud!” can be. I know the need to confront that dark voice head-on. But I also know that Ignatius instructs the retreatant in the first week of the Spiritual Exercises to pray for the grace of shame and confusion—the only sane, honest responses to one’s own complicity in the sin against God’s world. What was I experiencing in my relationship to Óscar Romero: consolation from God, desolation from the Enemy, or the grace of honest self-assessment? So I made my own prayer:
God, grant me the grace to accept, with gratitude, shame and confusion when they come from you, courage to resist them when they come from the Enemy, and the wisdom to discern the one from the other.
I do not pretend to know fully what goes on in the hearts and consciences—the “secret core and sanctuary,” in the words of Vatican II—of my students in this course. Occasionally they give me glimpses of something like consolation, which they feel when inspired by exemplars and saints like Óscar Romero or Dorothy Day. Since the world they are about to enter as idealistic young adults is riddled with injustice, violence and suffering, such guides and models are crucial. And occasionally they allow me to glimpse something of the shame and confusion they feel in the very same context. God help us, we are not yet who we need to be.
I once heard that teachers should never give students an assignment that they themselves have not undertaken. To that I say Amen.