It is well known that Óscar Romero’s commitment to the poor was informed by the teachings of Liberation Theology. More precisely -- because Romero never read Liberation Theology -- Romero’s solidarity was grounded on what he called “Transfiguration Theology” -- which can be summed up as: that part of Liberation Theology which Cardinal Ratzinger deemed “valid,” or Liberation in light of Christian Eschatology, which Romero did read. Another important inspiration of Romero’s fervent fellowship with the poor, however, is less understood, and that is Romero’s study of ascetical theology, a subject in which he pursued a doctoral degree in Rome. (James R. BROCKMAN, S.J., The Spiritual Journey of Oscar Romero, SPIRITUALITY TODAY, Winter 1990, Vol.42 No. 4, pp. 303-322.)
Specifically, Romero studied the works of the 16th cent. Spanish ascetical writer Luis de la Puente. (Id.) De la Puente was a renown Jesuit commentator on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. (Prayer Card.) Romero made these Spiritual Exercises in the 1960s, and took his episcotal motto, “Sentire Cum Ecclesia” (To Be of One Heart and Mind with the Church) from them.
Asceticism has been likened to a moth’s “irrisistible desire” to become one with a flame, with little regard to its own physical well being. (Joseph CAMPBELL, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, New World Library, Novato, California, 2001, p. 21.) Romero’s irrisistible desire to burn with grace is evident when he prays, while at the seminary: “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 youth aspiring to holiness), ORIENTACIÓN, Vol. LV Nº 5463, March 25, 2007.) The term ’ascetic’ comes from the Greek word áskesis, which means “exercise” or “training” in the sense of athletic training. St. Paul, who had received Greek training, uses the language of the pentathlon and athletic competition when discussing the quest for Christian perfection:
“Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Corinthians 9:24);Young Romero, too, resorts to the language of physical strength and athletic prowess when he writes: “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.” (Delgado, supra.)
“I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14);
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
Being “holy and pure” is the end goal of asceticism. Romero sets forth the basic tenets of ascetical theology through various sermons: “We were created by God in justice and holiness,” he states, recounting how the earthly paradise was lost by Adam and Eve’s pride and, thus, humanity is fallen from grace: “It is like an eagle that desires to fly but because he has lost his feathers is unable to do so.” (Romero, 8/26/1979 Homily.) In this fallen state, Romero preaches, “The flesh is of no avail” (quoting John 6:63): “When the flesh forgets that which is spiritual and rational, forgets the realities of peace and justice, when secularism encloses people in the idolatry of having more money or power, in the idolatry of repressing people, then in such situations the world becomes a hell because people are not open to heaven which is the Kingdom of God.” (Romero, supra.)
The solution is reconciliation: “to repent is a sorrowful journey in the midst of tears and mourning, in the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of a crown of thorns, lashes and torture: but this journey ends in a victory: the resurrection of the Lord is the resurrection of all of us.” (3/9/1980 Homily.)
While studying for his doctorate in the 1940’s, Romero had learned that this “sorrowful journey” of “pain and suffering,” like an athlete’s training regiment (which “ends in a victory”), was not just a figurative or metaphorical experience. The “lashes and torture” that the penitent subjects himself to in classical Roman Catholic asceticism includes actual flagellation and mortification of the flesh. Notes made by Romero during retreats and spiritual exercises in the late 60s reveal that Romero observed these practices:
BROCKMAN, supra. (The “penitential chain” is a metal chain worn around the thigh to cause some discomfort. The “discipline” involves self flagellation with a corded whip). These practices are consistent with the regiment of self-abnegation that typifies an ascetic life-style. Romero is known to have lived humbly and in poverty. There are countless stories of his turning down or re-gifting presents. Even as Archbishop, he lived in a shack in a cancer hospital, rather than in the Archbishop’s Palace. When Romero was killed, Florentín Meléndez, now with the OAS Human Rights Commission, was a volunteer with the Archdiocesan Legal Aid Office. He had to make an inventory of Romero’s possessions. “He was a man who lived in poverty,” Meléndez recalled, noting that Romero’s possessions were limited to his books, a short wave radio, a rocking chair, and a simple iron bed like those that were sold in San Salvador’s central market. His most valuable possession was his bishop’s ring. (Plática con Florentín Meléndez (Chat with Florentín Meléndez), EL FARO, January 15, 2007.)
6. On Fridays and Saturdays some small fasting or mortification at table in honor of Christ’s passion and of the Blessed Virgin. Abstain from sweets.
7. Wear a penitential chain from rising after siesta until after prayer.
8. Discipline on Friday nights.
In the notes from his retreat in the mid-1960s, Romero pledges, in ascetic fashion, to “Give a characteristic of penance and mortification to my duties.” BROCKMAN, supra. This is the same thing he urges the poor and their advocates to do in 1980: “in El Salvador those who are always hungry should give a penitential meaning to their situation. We must not allow ourselves to become indifferent but must work for the kingdom of justice so that this kingdom might reign in our country.” (2/24/1980 Hom.) It is also a clear expression of the ascetic values that drove Óscar Romero into profound identification with the poor.