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George M. AndersonApril 01, 2000

Oscar Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980. Marking the 20th anniversary of the death of this saintly manthe process for his beatification has already beguntwo books have appeared. One is Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writing, by Marie Dennis, Renny Golden and Scott Wright (Orbis). The other is Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic, by María López Vigil (EPICA [Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean]). Interspersed with theological reflection and excerpts from Romero’s writings, the former provides a useful overview of his life. But it is the latter, Memories in Mosaic, that conveys a palpable sense of who he was and of the remarkable transformation he underwent in the three brief years (one thinks of the three years of Jesus’ public ministry) prior to his murder.

The mosaic referred to in the title of María López Vigil’s bookoriginally published in Spanish in 1993 and now translated into Englishis composed of conversations she had with some 200 persons who personally knew Romero. Segments from these conversations take the reader from Romero’s early years to his last hours. In them we hear the voices of those who knew him not just as the prophet he became, but as the human being he wasdeeply prayerful, shy and often fearful, yet determined to continue his increasingly outspoken defense of the poor and disenfranchised. At first gratified when he became archbishop, the oligarchy considered him a safe, conservative prelateas indeed he initially was. In 1972 he even supported the military’s takeover of the National University, because he saw it as full of subversive activity.

Gradually, however, as he came to understand the rich landowners’ exploitation of the campesinos, his awakening began. How is so much injustice possible? he asked after visiting a friend’s coffee plantation, where the workers were paid even less than the tiny minimum wage set by the government. But the turning point in his transformation came with the assassination of Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit who had been organizing base Christian communities in Aguilares. Romero arrived at the rectory in Aguilares at midnight to find the bloodsoaked bodies of Grande and two campesinos killed with him lying on a table. Almost immediately he began preparing for a Mass before dawn in the town church. Then, as described by a village woman, Ernestina Rivera, in saying the Mass it seemed to us right there, the words of Father Rutilio had been passed to Monseñor.

To commemorate Grande’s death, Romero ordered that there be a single Mass for the whole archdiocese the following Sunday. He celebrated the Mass in the plaza in front of the cathedral in San Salvador before over 100,000 people. A co-worker who was present described how, although seeming nervous at first, Romero’s eloquence took hold and after about five minutes...something rose within him. It was then that he crossed the thresholda threshold that would open the way to his death. Military atrocities against campesinos grew, with massacres of whole families. More priests were murdered; signs appeared saying, Be a patriot, kill a priest.

Death threats against Romero himself increased, but he remained undeterred in speaking out against the military and the oligarchy. Shortly before his death he made his now-famous statement to a group of Mexican journalists: If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. The Gospel reading on the day of his death was from John 12: Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.

As he stood at the altar of the little chapel of the Divine Providence hospital where he lived in great simplicity, the single shot of a marksman in the doorway went straight to Romero’s heart. Readers’ own hearts may well be touched by these books, possibly even to tears. (Both are available from EPICA, 1470 Irving St., Washington, DC 20010; tel: (202) 332-0292. Mosaic, $19.95; Oscar Romero, $12.95; plus $3.50 handling.)

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