Wednesday, April 08, 2015

From Romero to ‘Monseñor’

A little before celebrating his silver anniversary as a priest on April 4, 1967, Oscar Romero received the title that would mark him so particularly: Monseñor (monsignor). A period photo (above) shows a celebration in those days, in which Romero is honored by members of San Miguel’s society and a girl presents him with a lamb—the traditional symbol of the good shepherd. Good fortune has it that Super Martyrio has found the girl who presented the lamb, shedding light on the context of the occasion.

Sonia Sosa now lives in Pasadena, California, and has not seen Romero since those days when the priest was honored in the former Gavidia Cinema, in San Miguel. Worse still, Sosa had not even seen the photograph of the ceremony until her daughter found it recently posted on this blog. Sosa tells a story that has unfortunately been too common in El Salvador during the civil war that followed the tragic murder of Romero: Sosa’s family in El Salvador threw away many intimate photos of Romero (“entire albums,” she says) for fear of arousing suspicion and the persecution of the army.

Everything related to that picture seems to be tinged in a melancholy hue. That point in time in the life of Romero effectively marked his farewell to San Miguel, after many years working in his native land. His friends and followers pleaded and signed petitions seeking his stay, but to no avail. A few months later, he would be named secretary to the episcopal conference, which required Romero to permanently relocate to San Salvador.

Romero was friends with Sonia's grandmother, Emerita Sosa. Her family had an ice cream shop half a block from the seminary, and Romero came to eat at the family home.

When Sosa speaks of that period, it is clear that this was an era now forever lost in time. Sosa recalls that Father Romero was in charge of the Santo Domingo Church in the Barrio de La Cruz in the same area. Romero imparted catechism classes to the local children, including Sosa. He gave her, in fact, her First Communion at the San Miguel Cathedral.

These were fervent times. Sonia recalls praying the Rosary with her grandmother every night, and wearing white with her sisters the whole month of May in honor of the Virgin. Father Romero had a room behind the altar of the Santo Domingo Church. Sonia remembers him as “a very simple person” whose life she never would have expected to have an end so different from the ordinary and pleasant life at the time.

This was also the moment when Father Romero became “Monsignor Romero,” receiving this ecclesiastical honorific after serving 25 years of priesthood. The title would become almost his proper name during his ministry as Archbishop of San Salvador. In fact, many Salvadorans still refer to the late Pastor simply as “Monseñor.”  Part of this idiosyncrasy is explained by the fact that the title carries a larger importance in Latin America than in other parts of the world such as Europe or North America, because historically there have been relatively few Latin American cardinals, and Monsignor has been the highest title attained by prelates (to date, in fact, there has never been a Salvadoran Cardinal). Moreover, by referring to Romero simply as “Monseñor” Salvadorans express intimacy, familiarity and affection, as one does when one calls only “Captain” a person of that rank.

The idea of presenting Archbishop Romero the lamb had been Sonia Sosa’s grandmother Emerita Sosa’s. Sonia recalls the restlessness of the animal as she held it before the presentation, and her own nervousness for fear that the lamb was going to escape. She also remembers the reaction of Romero behind the curtains, moments before the presentation, when he caught a glimpse Sonia, about nine years old at the time, and the lamb and he realized what was about to happen. “He was laughing and laughing,” as she turned red with embarrassment. “He could not stop laughing.”  Even in the picture, he appears to be laughing, the merriment of the moment forever frozen in time.

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