Saturday, March 15, 2014

Romero in Rome

Tourists from 2014 mingle with Father Óscar Romero from another era at Rome's Trevi Fountain in this composite  by Roma Ieri Oggi (Roma Yesterday & Today) (Facebook) - exclusive for Super Martyrio.
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Óscar Romero lived in Rome while studying for the priesthood at the Pío Latino Pontifical College. Stranded in the Eternal City by the outbreak of World War II, the young Salvadoran began work on a doctorate in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, but was called home by his bishop before he could finish it. In total, Romero lived in Rome for six years between 1937 and 1943. “I am sad to leave Rome,” Romero wrote many years later. After his prolonged stay for the seminary, “Rome will always be mother, teacher, homeland in our hearts,” Romero wrote. (His Journal, June 29, 1978.)

The original photo.

Importantly, Romero not only studied in Rome but he lived there. Romero lived his own “Gaudium et Spes” (joys and hopes) in Rome. He suffered, experiencing the separation from his family. A few weeks after his arrival, his father died in El Salvador, thousands of miles away. Two years later, his brother died. Romero had to mourn these losses away from his loved ones. The young seminarian faced personal problems, headaches, a pulmonary illness, and personality problems—nervousness and shyness. Romero also achieved great heights, significant spiritual growth and accomplishments: the diaconate in 1941 and the priesthood in 1942. He forged lifelong friendships, and incorporated himself into the life of the Diocese of Rome. On weekends he would teach catechism in the popular parishes of the Eternal City. Sometimes, he would go on holiday with other seminarians to Florence, or the beach.

Most important of all, Rome is a harbinger of Romero's ministry as Archbishop in San Salvador three decades later. Rome is a preview of his pastoral themes: war, poverty, and the Church’s response to these calamities. “Europe and almost the whole world were a conflagration during the Second World War,” Romero recalled in the 1960s. “Fear, uncertainty, news of bloodshed made for an environment of dread,” he wrote.

Romero got to know austerity in Rome during these years: “Hunger forced several Italian seminaries to close.” In fact, Pío Latino stopped receiving new students between 1939 and 1946. Romero was met by misery: “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.” Romero’s brother, Tiberio, remember that one of the other seminarians had the idea of ​​begging squashes from a man who fed some pigs, “and with that blessed idea they managed to survive.”

Romero also saw the face of war up close: “Almost every night sirens warned of enemy planes and one had to run for the shelters; twice they were more than an alarm and Rome's outskirts were scarred by horrible bombings.” He got to know first-hand what it was like to be displaced by war: “The Latin American College had to cope with the situation, since all of its students were foreigners away from home; those who could return to their homelands took their chances in doing so.  Those who stayed suffered more than ever from the separation.” Romero was one of them.

But Romero also witnessed the action of a determined, strong, assured Church. “The serene word of the Vatican in the midst of political storms and great errors has spoken clearly to anyone who wishes to hear it,” Romero wrote in 1945. For Romero, this was particularly true of the actions of Pope Pius XI, whom Romero described as “a Pope of imperial stature.” Many years later, as archbishop, Romero said while praying at his tomb: “This is the pope I most admire.” According to Romero’s vicar, the memory of Pius XI would be a source of inspiration for Romero when he had to confront the dictatorship in El Salvador. Romero recalled and reaffirmed the words of Pius: “When politics approaches the altar,” church leaders “are not only in their right but also under a duty to give instructions and directives that Catholic souls have the right to request and the duty to follow.”

The Pope's opposition to fascism and Nazism impressed Romero, who remained devoted to him for the rest of his life. In May 1938, the year after Romero arrived, Hitler visited Mussolini, and received a triumphal welcome in Rome and other Italian cities. Romero recalled that, seeing the swastika over the Eternal City, Pius declared himself “saddened to see a cross raised over Rome that is not the Cross of Christ.”

During the seminary years, Romero had the opportunity to see the old Pope Pius XI several times and when he died in February 1939, Romero records in his diary that he filed past the Pope's body twice: “I touched my rosary to his foot.” Two days later he confesses, “We gained access to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament through a trick, and were by the side of the Pope from two in the afternoon ... I was fortunate to squeeze his right arm.”

A few months later, Romero writes about his excitement to see the new Pope Pius XII in St. Peter's Square. “He would bless and smile with a fatherly affection,” Romero writes in his diary: “with a sovereign majesty. He would lean to one side and then the other, so that everyone could say: that smile is for me.” 

Romero (top right) gazes at Pius XII (center) and Card. Montini (left).
That September 1939, Romero reports alarming news: “War breaks out between Germany and Poland. Fear spreads throughout Europe.” He adds a prayer: “Grant us peace!

At that moment, Romero became a Roman, because now he would have to live the communal experience of every Roman. In Spanish, “Romero” means “of Rome”, and signifies a pilgrim. In the following years, Romero will develop some of his characteristic social beliefs in the Eternal City. Some of these ideas come from small epiphanies that Romero experienced in his everyday life. For example, on Saturday November 9, 1940, Romero met two marginalized people who forced him to face some socio- economic realities. From his diary: “On the [River bank], I met a poor man who gave me a card offering his ornament repair services.” The man's harsh reality struck Romero: “What a face of anguish he presented!

When he got to the college, Romero found a second man who was begging at the entrance of the Pío Latino. Romero confesses that he had been storing bread in his room, which was against the rules of the university. But when Romero saw this man, he gave him all the bread he had in storage. That Christmas of 1940 it snowed in Rome. Romero gazed from his dormitory over the winter wonderland and wrote in his diary: “Here I am savoring very comfortably this beautiful white panorama while outside how many poor people suffer from hunger, cold and broken spirits.”

In December 1941, Romero was ordained a deacon and on Christmas Eve of that year he documented this thought: “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.” Óscar Romero was prepared for the priesthood. He was ordained the following April, but would stay in the Eternal City until August 1943. To be sure, Father Romero still had much to learn, and many years and dusty roads to walk before arriving as Lord of the Cathedral of San Salvador in 1977. But the fundamentals were in place, and he had learned the most valuable lessons in life during his years in Rome.

A postcard of Oscar Romero's seminary years.

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