Monday, April 13, 2015

The Council of Antigua

A document issued by an assembly of Central American bishops attended by Archbishop Óscar A. Romero held in Antigua Guatemala in 1970 could prove to be one of the doctrinal constitutions for Romero’s theology a decade later. In the initial analysis, the document seems to confirm that the “radicalization” of Archbishop Romero was, at least in part, a recourse to a pastoral line authorized by the Central American bishops 10 years earlier.

In June 1970 Romero participated in the 15th Assembly of the Council of Bishops of Central America (CEDAC) in Antigua Guatemala. Romero had participated previously as a priest, as he was the secretary of CEDAC, but this would be his first as bishop with plenary participation in the episcopal body. The inspiration for this meeting, Romero wrote, would be “the spirit of the Council of Medellín” in 1968. That is, the Central American bishops sought to apply the doctrine of Vatican II to the reality of Central America under the same guidelines that guided CELAM in Medellin, the episcopal conference which proclaimed “the preferential option for the poor” and was a milestone in the emergence of “liberation theology.”

While it is true that Romero was not an active author of the Antigua text, and he never cited it in his preaching, it is clear that it is a conceptual bridge between the Second Vatican Council, Medellin, and the eventual pastoral line that Romero adopted. In fact, Romero makes the text and ideas his own, transmitting them to his countrymen in a series of newspaper columns in 1970, but warning that the “hard” part of the message should not be confused with the “demagogic spirit in which other false prophets sow hatred and violence.” Romero, “Una voz de alerta,” La Prensa Gráfica, June 16, 1970.

The bishops’ message cited by Romero contains a clear denunciation of social injustice, evidenced by “hunger and misery, endemic disease and infant mortality, illiteracy and marginalization, deep income inequalities and tensions between social classes, outbreaks of violence and meager participation of the population in managing the common good.”  The Central American bishops, including Romero, are not shy about attributing responsibility for such conditions, reproaching “the growing manifestation of selfishness in the economically satisfied sectors” who “in their desire to maintain their privileges, take repressive measures and hinder promotion and development.”

Among the most important passages are those relating to repression used to impose unfair conditions, “hiding behind ideological characterizations of others, and justifying their actions on the preservation of order, even appealing to force and violence to maintain the present order which works out quite favorably for them.” This complaint does not remain in the air as a theoretical prospect, but is substantiated with details: “It is publicly known that many citizens have been subjected to physical and mental torture. With horror and sorrow we receive, almost daily, news of the discovery of hideously disfigured and mutilated corpses.” It is striking to compare these words with the specific denunciations made by Romero during his archbishopric, ten years later (as they are very similar).

In his newspaper column, Romero cites the clauses of the Antigua document lamenting the denial to “workers and especially the peasants of the freedom of association that the papal magisterium has been calling for since 1891” and also that “communications media ... do not fulfill their mission or lack objective information or selfishly deform that which they provide.” The bishops cite biblical phrases that disallow violence and the lack of solidarity, such as the words of Christ to Peter (Mt. 26:52) and God’s questioning of Cain (Gen. 4:10). To these, Romero adds the address of Blessed Paul VI closing the Council, in which he defends the ability of the Church to provide input to civilian governments on matters outside its traditional competence: “the situation of a Church which, amidst a world which has forgotten God and the true greatness of man, has the audacity to opine about the rights of God and man.”  Romero, “La voz de la Iglesia de Centroamérica,” La Prensa Gráfica, June 15, 1970.

The bishops’ document concludes with individualized calls to the various sectors of Central American society — to the state and government sectors, to the armed forces and security authorities, to employers and the forces of production, to educators, to youth, and to subversive groups — in a manner reminiscent of similar calls included in Romero’s penultimate Sunday homily of March 16, 1980. Romero relates this part of the document of the bishops in a column he titles “God wills it! “(La Prensa Gráfica, August 4, 1970.) That very phrase — “God wills it” — figures among the closing words of Romero’s March 16, 1980 homily, which concludes: “God wills it, we must be reconciled, and so let us be reconciled and make El Salvador a land of sisters and brothers, all children of one Father who waits for us with outstretched arms.” The correspondence between the two messages Romero taught ten years apart is uncanny.

Finally, it is hard to overstate the significance of the fact that this pastoral document was promulgated in the city of Antigua Guatemala, the old capital of the Federal Republic of Central America (1824-1839), which included El Salvador. More important than the political and historical importance of the city is the spiritual stature it attained, as the location of CEDAC and site of a retreat in which Romero participated in 1972 with Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, his great mentor and friend. Finally, the position that Antigua occupies as a traditional pilgrimage destination for Holy Week makes it a sort of Central American prototype of Jerusalem, justifying the application of the Antigua message to the “crucified people” of El Salvador.

Archbishop Romero, who described his Church as The Church of Easter in his first pastoral letter, would consider the City of the Way of the Cross a fitting model. “History must enable people who have lived the way of the cross,” Romero preached one month before his martyrdom, “to rise to freedom — to a freedom that can be enjoyed on this earth but that same freedom will not be definitive until we enjoy it in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.”

In his People, Archbishop Romero recognized the Via Crucis, for which Antigua served as Via Lucis.
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