Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., America’s literary editor and the most unrelenting and exacting (for my own good) professor I had at Fordham University, assigned me a double book review. It seemed at first a generous offer, a chance to read a book I’d already been planning to read and yet be able to call it work. But immediately the assignment came to seem like a perverse challenge. I was to review two biographies, about two radically different kinds of Catholics, in the same piece. It reminds me of a trick my father used to play on us kids, urging us to pat our bellies and rub our heads at the same time. But I suspect the old Jesuit is still trying to teach me something.
Blessed Oscar Romero and Flannery O’Connor do not have much in common, except that they are among the most recognized 20th-century Catholics—particularly among non-Catholics. They appear to represent polar extremes of Catholicism, not in the way of our current quasi-left/right, evolutionist/orthodox antagonisms but in the age-old tension between the cloister and the cathedral, the private and the public. Flannery O’Connor is the reclusive Southern Gothic writer, stricken with lupus as a young woman and forced to abandon a nascent literary career in New York to convalesce on her mother’s farm in Georgia. Her fiction lingers on the grotesque and strange. Her stories are populated by misfits and castoffs, ugly people acting badly whose marginality elucidates the broken, beautiful nature of God. O’Connor’s Catholicism was daily Mass with her mother, a near-monastic schedule and the contemplation of evil, truth and beauty.
Blessed Oscar Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador assassinated by a government-backed death squad sniper as he celebrated Mass. He was killed because he loudly and steadfastly condemned the state terrorism committed against religious educators, peasants, workers and students—a popular movement for political change in El Salvador—and against anyone remotely suspected of sympathizing with that movement. Romero had turned his Sunday homily into a weekly catalogue and denunciation of massacre, murder, abduction, rape and torture. His was the Catholicism of community, the establishment of a human rights office of the archdiocese, the running of a refugee and relief operation, meetings, speeches, defending God in the dispossessed and finding himself in advocating for them.
Flannery O’Connor: Fiction Fired by Faith, by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, and Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out, by Kevin Clarke, are both carefully crafted, slim but densely packed books. They are part of Liturgical Press’s fine “People of God” series on the lives of prominent contemporary and near-contemporary Catholics. (Both authors are America contributors.)
O’Donnell, a poet and professor at Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, introduces us to Flannery O’Connor’s childhood, family and the social world of a small Southern Catholic community. But we really grow to know O’Connor as a young writer leaving her parochial home for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a naif with incipient talent carrying her God-haunted vision into the secular literary establishment.
“O’Connor’s artistic vision is radically incarnational, in every sense of that word. Her deeply Catholic sense of the world posits belief in the creation as good (albeit misshapen by sin), in the human being as made in the image and likeness of God and in a world that is immanent with the divine presence,” O’Donnell writes.
O’Donnell does good work weaving the story of O’Connor’s life, examining her cherished, intimate and, for much of her life, long-distance friendships, exploring the tension in the oddball author’s relationship to her rural community. O’Connor was from Georgia—its people and mores populate her stories—but she was not of it. She was an outsider, a watcher. Drawing on O’Connor’s letters, O’Donnell helps the reader understand O’Connor’s vocation as an artist and her embrace of her own suffering as a way to draw closer to God.
But the strength of O’Donnell’s book, what makes reading it as enjoyable as dropping in on a senior seminar led by an expert professor, is the deep literary exegesis of O’Connor’s work. Many of us have read O’Connor’s stories at some point, and probably a visceral impression of the haunted characters remains with us. But O’Donnell plumbs each short story and novel, examines its meanings and relates the themes to profound Christian ones. Through O’Donnell, the reader comes to know O’Connor as an artist whose vocation is to contemplate the Incarnation, to make us recognize, even—especially—in the horrors, that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, the world is charged with the grandeur of God.
The learned and loving discussion of O’Connor’s work in this book makes the reader want to go back and read O’Connor’s stories again, one by one, while flipping back to Fiction Fired by Faith.
Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out is a deeply researched and carefully annotated retelling of the archbishop’s conversion from a clerical and rule-bound, though gentle and sincere, practitioner of charity to an inspired and daring advocate for justice. Clarke, like O’Donnell, synthesizes earlier biographies of his subject but brings his own reporting and analysis. What he achieves, in a fast-moving 140 pages, is an intimate portrait of a man searching for God, struggling against his own demons of scrupulosity, need for control and loneliness before he becomes the Monsignor Romero we know.
This is a valuable examination of Romero’s inner life, his longing for connection—communion—particularly now as canonization approaches, elements of the Salvadoran church and society attempt to depoliticize him, and gauzy pieties threaten to reduce him an image on a T-shirt. Through Clarke we meet a stilted and often awkward man who struggles to serve God in his people, as the world and his church shift beneath him. We meet a pastor forced to confront horror and evil.
Love Must Win Out lays out the political realities of 1970s El Salvador in some detail, a welcome and necessary inclusion if readers are to understand the promise and challenge of Romero’s martyrdom. He did not speak on behalf of some faceless and mute “poor.” Romero was critical of a specific economic system and the state violence employed to preserve it. Readers learn about the primacy of the export economy, the steep stratification of Salvadoran society, the role of the church as ally in enforcing the status quo and the bubbling up of resistance to this system.
Clarke spends ample time exploring Romero’s early antipathy to liberation theology and his contentious relationship with Jesuits. He was so frightened by the thinking emerging from the Latin American Episcopal Conference meeting at Medellín, which articulated a preferential option for the poor and condemned the violence of structural or social sin (concepts now closely associated with him), that he developed a facial tic at the mere mention of the name Medellín, Clarke tells us.
Before becoming archbishop, Romero used his weekly column in the diocesan newspaper and appearances on television and radio to call out “subversives” in the church and attempted to roust the Jesuits from a San Salvador high school where they had established night classes for poor students and their parents and were taking rich students on eye-opening visits to poor barrios. These Jesuits taught that Christ was incarnate in the suffering people, the body of Christ broken again and again in the violence of poverty. When Romero was invited by members of the already numerous base Christian communities to a Mass in the early 1970s, they admonished him for his positions. Romero grew uncharacteristically hot-tempered, shouting, “You are not doing pastoral work here at all. You are doing political work. You haven’t called me to a Mass, you’ve called me to a meeting of subversives!”
His conversion to a Catholicism that specifically embraced liberation from poverty and degradation and celebrated the incarnational notion of God beside the brutalized people was anything but a road to Damascus. It played out slowly and interpersonally, spurred famously by his friendship with Rutilio Grande, S.J., who was assassinated by the right wing in 1977. But it emerged earlier, too, in 1975, when as auxiliary bishop in Santiago de María he witnessed the aftermath of a National Guard massacre. “The villagers reported that the victims, all members of one extended family, had been pulled from their beds, tortured, then murdered in cold blood with bullets and machete.... Their blood still stained the walls, the floorboards still held the stench of blood.”
The violence and ugliness O’Connor invoked in fiction to expose readers to deeper lessons were real in Romero’s El Salvador. One saw Christ cut down every day.
Clarke tells us that Romero was silent and pensive as he walked to his car one day with one of his priests. Once inside he said, “We have to find a way to evangelize the rich, so that they can change. So that they convert.”
As Romero saw firsthand the grotesque horrors inflicted on suspected subversives and witnessed the daily brutality of poverty in a country with an infant mortality rate of 60 percent, he changed. His lifelong devotion required that he defend that Incarnate God in the people being cut down. But in finding courage, including the courage to allow himself more love and less judgment, he also found connection. His loneliness abated.
Can there be different kinds of Catholics, one private, one public? Clarke and O’Donnell tell the stories of two dramatically different people, each haunted and driven by the Incarnation.