Monday, October 04, 2010

The CONSCIENTIOUS CONVERSION
of ÓSCAR ROMERO

“[T]hose who want to subvert the Church’s authority and preach a liberation divorced from God, and those who look for power in the class struggle and hatred are upset that the Church reminds them that there is no solution in communism, that subversion is not the way.” In fact, “the Church wants to sow peace and harmony.” Harmony between the rich -- to whom God sends His Spirit, “so that the capitalist, who truly believes in the Church, might be transformed and humanized and thus give a sense of charity, justice, and love to his capital” -- and the poor, to whom God sends His Spirit, “so that they might see the Church as the one who transforms their poverty into redemption, so that they will not be led down paths of resentment and class struggle.” After all, “The Church does not offer then a Paradise on this earth.” Catholics should not “be spectators of the Church looking to see” the Church confront the state; they should not “act like [a] group of children who are looking at two individuals fight,” because “We are not fighting.” In fact, “The government and the Church, from their distinct competencies, want to look for peace, have to look for peace, in fact, have an obligation to look for peace and true progress.”

So preached Archbishop Romero in May 1977 (5/15/1977 sermon, Spanish audio of Romero’s voice here, Spanish text here, English translation here), as he sought to stabilize his social preaching after a decidely turbulent start earlier that year after he became archbishop in late February; Father Rutilio Grande was assassinated in early March; and Father Alfonso Navarro was assassinated a few days earlier, on May 11. This May 15 Sermon defies the popular notion of a sudden and radical “conversion” in Archbishop Romero, following the Grande assassination. Clearly, the May 15 Sermon retains many of Romero’s traditionalist themes that typified his “conservative” years, including his insistence that the Church was “not fighting” with the state and was trying to salvage class harmony, by showing the poor how to ‘transform their poverty into redemption.’ Nor was the May 15 Sermon an outlier. On June 19, Romero marked the return to “Ordinary Time” in the liturgical year (the period outside of Easter and Christmas). Romero seemed to wish for a return to an “ordinary time” in the political climate: “hopefully this long nightmare will cease, and like people who awake to a normal life, we will once again experience peace and tranquility and be able to live as sisters and brothers.” (6/19/1977 sermon, Spanish audio of Romero’s voice here, Spanish text here, English translation here.) “May the people of El Salvador no longer take up arms against one another,” he continued. “May the people of El Salvador no longer abuse their sisters and brothers, sisters and brothers who often live together in the same town or village. May we clothe ourselves in Christian attitudes.” (Id.)

Once again, Romero shuns a Marxist solution: “A liberation that places hope in the heart of humankind: the hope of a paradise that is not given on this earth. From this point of view the Church cannot be Communist.” (Id.) Instead, Romero urges a recourse to spirituality, rather than materiality: “The Church does not look for a liberation that has a worldly character. The Church does not want to liberate poor people so that they can ‘have’ more but rather wants them ‘to be’ more. Yes the Church promotes the human person ‘to be’ more. The Church has little interest in whether people have more or less.” (Id.) And, once more, Romero offers an olive branch to the wealthy: “This does not mean that we have to cast aside the upper class. We esteem them, we love them, we want to give our life for them, we want to serve them.” (Id.) And he urges, “Let us not make distinctions between rich and poor but between those who have been converted to Christ, even though they lose their life and all their comforts, but have the satisfaction of following in the love of the Redeemer, who being rich, became poor so that we might have the richness of heaven.” (Id.)

These sermons provide strong evidence of an Archbishop Romero who is still open to dialogue, still looking for a middle ground -- providing strong denunciation from the standpoint of the social doctrine of the church, but clearly trying to negotiate with reality. There is further evidence that Romero adapted his preaching to the developing political and social conditions around him. A 2001 study using “multidimensional scaling” to track themes such as “faith, hope, sin, salvation, love, conversion, church, poor, oppression, justice, and liberation” found that ‘radical’ themes in Romero’s sermons generally tracked increases in state oppression. (Timothy SHORTELL, Radicalization of Religious Discourse in El Salvador: The Case of Oscar A. Romero, SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION, Vol. 62, No. 1, March 22, 2001.) This evidence of Romero’s sensitivity to his environment is consistent with a more nuanced view of Romero’s conversion -- a view endorsed by Romero himself when he says, “What happened in my priestly life, I have tried to explain for myself as an evolution.” (James BROCKMAN, Romero : A Life. New York: Orbis Books, 1989, p. 128, emphasis added.) It is an evolution we can map out through a few snapshots into Romero’s thinking:

• Dec. 24, 1941: seminarian Óscar Romero writes that, “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.” (More.)

• Jan., 1967: Romero pledges to, “Give a characteristic of penance and mortification to my duties.” (More.)

• May 18, 1975: Bishop of Santiago de María Óscar Romero slams “the unjust social, economic and political inequality that our brothers and sisters live in,” 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” ... “Blessed are the Poor,” Romero writes, “their precarious situation has always deserved the preferential love of Christ and of His Church.” (More.)

• August 5, 1976: Bishop of Santiago de María Óscar Romero speaks of Christ as liberator, but most of his words are a warning about merely temporal liberation. He criticizes the “new Christologies” because they seem to him to threaten the church’s teaching and belief in the divinity of Christ. (More.)

• May and June 1977: Romero says Church “not fighting with state;” not interested “in whether people have more or less;” offers poor to “transform their poverty into redemption.” (Sermons cited above.)

• February 24, 1980: Romero preaches that the promise of the Kingdom to come can inspire us to work for justice in this world and that the hardships of this life should be
offered as penance for the world to come: “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.” (More.)
The “evolution” he underwent, Romero explained, was “an evolution of the same desire that I have always had to be faithful to what God asks of me.” (BROCKMAN, supra.) “If I gave the impression before of being more ‘discreet’ and ‘spiritual,’ it was because I sincerely believed that thus I responded to the gospel, for the circumstances of my ministry had not shown themselves so demanding of a pastoral fortitude that, in truth, I believe was asked of me in the circumstances under which I became archbishop.” (Id.) In that respect, what changed over time was what “was asked” by “the circumstances” -- or, at least, what Romero perceived that the circumstances required and, in this sense, Father Grande’s assassination was an external signal which jolted Romero to re-evaluate his circumstances. As Father Sobrino has famously characterized it, “As Archbishop Romero stood gazing at the mortal remains of Rutilio Grande, the scales fell from his eyes.” (Jon SOBRINO, S.J. Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections. Translated by Robert B. Barr. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990, p. 10.)

The model that emerges from this evidence refutes the theory of a “reluctant conversion.” (See, e.g., Carmen CHACÓN, Salvador CARRANZA, et al., The Reluctant Conversion of Oscar Romero: Memories of the archbishop on the 20th anniversary of his assassination, SOJOURNERS MAGAZINE, March-April 2000.) The “reluctant conversion” is refuted in both its terms: It was not a “conversion,” because Romero already embraced the tenets in his spirituality that would allow him to snap into action when the time came. And it was not “reluctant,” because Romero was vigilant and attentive to changing circumstances and dutifully adjusted course as he saw fit. Finally, it was by no means, sudden. Romero saw conversion as a life-long process that was never complete. Therefore, Romero’s conversion was a deliberate, conscientious, and constant process of conversion.
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