PEASANT PENTECOST: Archbishop Romero's 'Lost' Pastoral Letter
Legend has it that, before he was chosen Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero was a "conservative ... friend of the wealthy elite ... supporter of the military" who "appeared oblivious to the conditions of the poor and the growing military repression" in El Salvador. (Fr. John Dear, "Archbishop Romero's Conversion.") Only after Romero assumed his post as Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977 and his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande was killed in March 1977, the story continues, did Romero experience the transformation that put him on the right side of history: "He underwent conversion when he saw the bloody body of his friend, Rutilio, and he never turned back." (Id.)
But a pastoral letter Msgr. Romero wrote in May 1975 while he was Bishop of Santiago de Maria, a rural diocese in agricultural Eastern El Salvador, reveals the pastoral sensibilities of a post-Conciliar bishop beginning to work out the practical application of the Second Vatican Council -- the set of Church reforms that later would lead Romero to become an outspoken champion of social justice. ("El Espíritu Santo en la Iglesia," Romero, 1975. (In Spanish.)) Romero's pastoral letter was entitled "The Holy Spirit in the Church," and it was released on Pentecost Sunday 1975. In this letter, Romero invokes the Pentecost theme to confirm his own ministry. Pentecost marks the descent of the Holy Ghost over the Apostles, depositing authority in them and in their successor, the Bishops. But Romero clearly also acknowledges in this letter the validity of the Second Vatican Council. The title, "The Holy Spirit in the Church," acknowledges it implicitly, and Romero acknowledges it more explicitly in the contents. He cites to the documents of Pope Paul and the Council, exclusively, including 12 cites to Lumen Gentium. Other documents cited include Sacrosanctum Concilium and Paul's Populorum Progressio. (Romero also implicity acknowledges the Latin American Bishops' pronouncement at the Medellin conference, because he cites the Pope's message in response to the "social concerns" of the Bishops.)
More explicitly, Bishop Romero tackles head on, in this first pastoral letter, the question of social justice and he calls the lack of it an impediment to a purely spiritual ministry. "We are seriously concerned," he writes, "[about] the unjust social, economic and political inequality that our brothers and sisters live in." (Id.) Bishop Romero laments that this inequality presents an "obstacle" to his spiritual mission and he adds that, "My word as a pastor would be incomplete if it did not refer to this alarming but concrete situation in which the Church has to live and operate in this region of the country, which is so blessed with natural gifts, but which groans, as St. Paul would say, to be 'liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.' [Romans 8:21]." (Id.) Bishop Romero is not only denouncing the underlying social injustice, but also prescribing its solution -- to be "liberated," pursuant to the tenets of Scripture. (Id.)
Romero was Bishop of Santiago de Maria between 1974 and 1977. His Diocese was located in a rich coffee-growing region of El Salvador. By all accounts, Bishop Romero encountered a situation rife with labor conflict between the rich coffee growers and the peasants:
During his two years as Bishop of Santiago de Maria Romero crisscrossed his diocese on horseback, talking with laboring families to learn how he could best serve them. The reality of their lives horrified the bishop. Every day he discovered children dying because their parents could not pay for simple penicillin; people who were paid less than half of the legal minimum wage; people who had been savagely beaten for 'insolence' after they asked for long overdue pay.
(Biography of Archbishop Romero on Notre Dame University web site.)
Romero's first pastoral letter constitutes a clear, if tepid, declaration of the Bishop's commitment to social justice. In addition to the language cited above from a section called "Social Injustice an Obstacle to Communion," Bishop Romero also includes an embryonic formulation of the "preferential option for the poor," in a section entitled "Blessed are the Poor." In it, he writes that, "because they are better disposed to the virtue of poverty of spirit, they deserved the first Beatitude of the Divine Master" and that "their precarious situation has always deserved the preferential love of Christ and of His Church." (Id.) Romero preached the same point at the end of his ministry. (See, e.g., 2/17/1980 Sermon.)
To be clear, Romero writes tentatively in his first letter, as one would expect he would in the very first written message to his new flock. "Even in the necessary instances of denunciation," he writes, "mine will be the language of love of a pastor who has no enemies but those who willingly wish to be the enemies of the Truth of Christ." (Id.) He also serves up numerous admonitions against liberation that is merely temporal, or divorced of its transcendent aspect. "That paradise which a false liberation seeks to contruct here on earth is a mere fantasy," he warns in one place. (Id.) "The true objective of Christian liberation and the true competency of the Church's work," he writes elsewhere, is "to dignify man to the point of making him, through the conversion of the heart and the acceptance of grace, a true son of God." (Id.) (Compare this to Romero in 1980: "Jesus, on the heights of Tabor, is a wonderful image of liberation. This is how God desires to find people ... freed from sin ... then raised up to the dignity of the children of God." (3/2/1980 Sermon.).)
Much of the content of the letter relates to liturgy and sacraments, but Bishop Romero adds, "With this, I do not pretend to deny the adequate emanations of a temporal and social character that the faith and grace must have in the world." (Romero, "Espíritu Santo," supra.)
One month after this pastoral letter, the Salvadoran National Guard carried out the Tres Calles Massacre in Romero's territory, killing five peasants. Romero denounced the attack as “a grim violation of human rights,” he wrote a letter of protest to the head of El Salvador's military dictatorship and he appeared in person at the National Guard barracks to lodge a protest. (Notre Dame bio, supra.)
In Msgr. Romero's first pastoral letter, we do not see a Bishop reluctant to apply the teachings of the First Vatican Council. Instead, we see a bishop who picks up the major documents of the Council and begins to implement them. We do not see a Bishop who is "oblivious to the conditions of the poor and the growing military repression." Instead, we see a Bishop whose first steps are a tentative but determined motion in favor of social justice.