Saturday, September 11, 2010



FIRE BRAND

On May 24, 1941, a young Oscar Romero, studying for the priesthood in Rome, prayed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus to, "Burn off the slag and make me an iron, red hot with your love." (J. Delgado, "Romero, Un joven aspirante a la santidad" (Romero, a young aspirant to saintliness), ORIENTACIÓN, Vol. LV Nº 5463, March 25, 2007.) Overlooked by most Romero biographers, the young seminarian's notes from the era open a window into the deep intense devotion that set Romero on a path to martyrdom. "I want to suffer!!" Romero exclaims in November 1939, soon after he had arrived for his priestly training. "Study is hard, hunger humbles me, everyday living torments me, my thesis worries me. It matters not! Avanti!! (It., for 'onward')." (Id.) On the day he was ordained, Romero goes much further, making a pledge that he would live to fulfill:

Yes, Christ! By your Sacred Heart I promise to give myself entirely for your glory ... I want to die this way: in the middle of work, fatigued by the journey, tired and weary ... I will recall your toils and they will be the price of redemption ... promitto (It., for 'I promise').
(Id., April 4, 1942 notes.)

Msgr. Jesús Delgado Acevedo, who worked with Romero as Archbishop, gathered and published the fragments of Romero's seminary notes in the San Salvador Archdioce's newspaper, which Romero himself had once edited. (Id.) "A human being's youthful years," Delgado wrote in the introduction, "reveal his aspirations and the human values that are becoming settled in his personality." In addition, Delgado pointed out, "these are years in which the young person still possesses a see-through sincerity that facilitates a truer ... projection of his real personality." (Id.)

Romero's personality was a mixture of shyness covering up an inner intensity which often bubbled up as excess nervousness. Romero's hands trembled when he had to lead the readings, and he suffered headaches that robbed his nights of sleep. Yet he struggled to overcome his "natural timidity." (Id.) Romero's religious fervor comes across like young love: blinding and tempestuous. More than once, Romero describes his spiritual yearning as akin to being 'virile.' "I spoke to [a fellow seminarian] during the recess and during the after-lunch break," Romero wrote in February 1940. "How the heart flares when the fiery love of the Sacred Heart is blowing! Pray so that you can be holy and pure. Be strong. Virile."

These heady days of zeal and passion were tempered by Romero's encounter with two themes that would become even more relevant in Romero's latter years: war and poverty. War was ever present when Romero arrived in Rome. "Europe and almost the whole world were a conflagration during the Second World War," he later recalled. (Romero, CHAPARRASTIQUE, September 29, 1962; quoted in Jesús Delgado, Oscar A. Romero, Biografía, Ediciones Paulinas, Madrid, 1986, p. 21. Translated by James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life, Orbis, New York, 1999, p. 38.) "Fear, uncertainty, news of bloodshed made for an environment of dread," Romero recalled. "At the Latin American College rations grew smaller by the day. Father Rector would go out looking for something to eat and return with squashes, onions, chestnuts, whatever he could find, under his cloak ... Almost every night sirens warned of enemy planes and one had to run for the shelters." (Id.)

Romero also confronted the specter of poverty, and reacted with an abiding compassion that would later characterize his ministry. On November 9, 1940, Romero reported taking a stroll along the Tiber River and coming across a beggar who offered to fix things in exchange for a handout. Apparently heart-broken, Romero reflected, "What a face of anguish he presented!!!" (emphasis in original). Romero tells of another pauper who was begging for bread near the Latin American College. Romero confesses that he had been stashing bread in his dorm room, against seminary regulations and that he gave his stash to the beggar.

Romero also confronted the inequities of the world, with its haves and have-nots and acknowledged the inherent unfairness. On Christmas Eve 1940, Romero reflected on a rare snowfall over Rome, commenting how, "Here I am savoring very comfortably this beautiful white panorama," from his heated dormitory, "while outside how many poor people suffer from hunger, cold and broken spirits." Exactly one year later, on Dec. 24, 1941, Romero makes an observation that has resonance in his final years: "The poor are the incarnation of Christ. Through their tattered clothing, their dark gazes, their festering sores, the laughter of the mentally ill ... the charitable soul discovers and venerates Christ." (Compare, 2/17/1980 Sermon: "As we draw near to the poor, we find we are gradually uncovering the genuine face of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. We are getting to know, from first hand experience, the mystery of Christ who became human and became poor for us").
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