Thursday, June 04, 2015

Book Review: ‘A Prophetic Bishop Speaks to His People’


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In an effort to promote knowledge about the Blessed Óscar Romero following his beatification, this blog will feature a  series of book reviews in the month of June, which highlight some aspect of the Blessed’s ministry or work.  We begin this series with an urgent new book, A Prophetic Bishop Speaks to His People: The Complete Homilies of Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Volume 1 (Cycle C - 14 March to 25 November 1977), a new set of English translations of Blessed Romero’s homilies by Fr. Joseph V. Owens, SJ, edited by Rafael Luciani, Felix Palazzi, and Julian Filochowski.  Convivium Press; 1st edition (April 24, 2015).  Paperback, 495 pages (including indices).
Volume 1 is available now from Amazon and also directly from the publisher.  Volumes 2 & 3 should be available in July and volumes 4-6 in the latter part of the year.  Volume 1 covers the preaching at the beginning of Blessed Romero’s ministry as Archbishop of San Salvador in March-November 1977 (46 homilies, whose selection corresponds to the “C” liturgical cycle of mass readings).  This set of Romero homilies is crucial to understanding the import of Romero’s ministry and of his recent beatification.  As Cardinal Amato preached during the beatification homily, “A change in his life from gentle and almost shy pastor came with the murder of Fr. Rutilio Grande,” at the very beginning of Romero’s time as archbishop—during the period covered by this book. 
Since that day,” Card. Amato explained, Romero’s “language became more explicit in defending his oppressed people and persecuted priests, without worrying about the threats he received on a daily basis.”  Volume 1 takes up this drama in medias res, with those events already in motion, as the first sermon captures for posterity Romero’s funeral mass for Grande in Aguilares, followed by the historic “Single Mass” Romero preached in the Cathedral as the dramatic entrée to his San Salvador ministry.  In short order, another priest was assassinated and a rightwing death squad “ordered” all Jesuits to leave the country on pain of death, leaving flyers with the ominous message “Be a patriot, killed a priest.”  In the subsequent 45 sermons after Grande’s death, Romero calibrated his message and established the pastoral line that he would follow through his short, but brilliant, three year ministry as Archbishop of San Salvador.
Through this new set of translations, English language readers will be able to encounter Romero the way ordinary Salvadorans did—through his sermons, which are brought to a startling new level of clarity and precision in Fr. Owens’ translations.  There is a new freshness here, which aims to strike a balance between a reference set suitable for every seminary and college library, and one that preserves the nuisances and eccentricities of Romero’s personal style, given that we are dealing with sermons that were preached extemporaneously without a “script.” Romero preached loosely based on notes, but he often departed from his outline, abandoned sentences midstream, and otherwise took creative license with language that made his sermons thrilling to hear live (as his famously captive national radio audiences would attest to), but challenging to translate accurately.
Oftentimes, the qualitative improvements Fr. Owens makes over previously existing English translations are very subtle, but appreciable nonetheless.  Consider and compare the improvements in the translation of this famous phrase from a September 25, 1977 sermon, which some of us heard at the beatification.
Spanish Original
Me glorío de estar en medio de mi pueblo y sentir el cariño de toda esa gente que mira en la Iglesia, a través de su Obispo, la esperanza.
Modified Google Translation (i.e., the Literal Translation)
I glory in being in the midst of my people and feeling the affection of all those people who see in the Church through its bishop, hope.
Former Translation from the Romero Trust
I am glad to be in the midst of my people and feel the kindness of all these people who see the Church, through their bishop, as a sign of hope.
New Owens Translation (which was also sponsored in part by the Romero Trust)
I delight to be in the midst of my people and to feel the kindness of all these folks who through their bishop see the church as a sign of hope.
Fr. Owens has meticulously captured subtle aspects of Romero’s expression that make his translation a refreshing improvement.  For example, the expression “to glory” in, which Romero uses, means to “take great pride or pleasure in” something, and Fr. Owens’ translation captures the intensity of the sentiment better than the other ones, and better than the literal translation, which is not a typical English expression.  Additionally, Romero uses “pueblo” and “gente,” which both may be translated as “people,” but Fr. Owens does the phrasing justice by differentiating the terms.  A similar attention to detail pervades every line of all 46 sermons brought to life by Fr. Owens’ dynamic translations.  Also, if I may say, Fr. Owens’ translations are simply more elegant and mellifluous.
One final consideration which commends this collection is its organizational style: for example, Volume 1 encompasses all the 1977 sermons preached by Romero which fall under the “C” cycle of liturgical readings.  Blessed Romero said he wished the faithful to relate his preaching to the liturgical cycles: “I ask you to center your attention on the main focus of my preaching,” he said on April 23, 1978.  I want my preaching to echo the Liturgical Year,” the life of Christ—reflecting on the national reality so that the reality would be illuminated by the life of Christ, but never shifting the focus from Christ.  In this regard, the new collection of translations has several useful tools, including helpful footnotes (for example, footnote 1 sets forth the circumstances of Fr. Grande’s assassination for the first sermon), a subject matter index, an index of names, and—most significant for the aforementioned liturgical consideration—an index of Biblical citations.  Thus, a homilist looking for a Romero blurb on a particular Biblical passage would be able to easily find one here.
In short, this new set of translations is a reference set that no Romero student can do without.

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