Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Book Review: When the Saints Come Marching In


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Continuing our look at books that help us understand Blessed Oscar Romero, his ministry and his recent beatification, we consider Scott Wright’s 2010 offering, Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints: A Biography (available as a paperback and as an e-book) (Orbis Books, New York, January 15, 2010; featuring photographs of Octavio Durán).  A while back, I wrote a blogpost I called “Romero 101” or “Romero For Dummies,” which sought to break down major themes into discrete modules.  Scott Wright does that in book-length, telling Romero’s story in bite-sized morsels that are easy to digest, with lots of pictures (over a hundred photos permeate the 154-page book), making light reading out of a dense subject matter.
Apart from the appeal of an easy read, Wright’s book is remarkable because it seeks to establish, as its title suggests, a theological framework for understanding Romero.  Wright was a pastoral worker in El Salvador during the 1980s and he has since been a director and spiritual guide to a number of activist organizations like the Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean (EPICA) and the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico (RTFCAM).  It was in that capacity that I met him in March 2000, when I had the opportunity to engage with him and travel with him through El Salvador, visiting the now well-known Romero sites, as well as other places of pilgrimage from the Salvadoran conflict, including the site of the 1989 Jesuit massacre and El Mozote, where a thousand peasants were killed by the army in 1981.  I particularly remember one late-night conversation with Wright, where he expounded at some length his view that Blessed Romero’s life exceeded the mere realm of human action and was imbued with a sense of the divine.  Wright seems to make his own the Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría’s observation that, “Through Archbishop Romero, God walked through El Salvador.”
In his book, Wright notes the facial similarities between the story of Blessed Romero and the life of Christ: both “were born into conditions of poverty, in the province of a small and insignificant country.”  Both Christ and Blessed Romero “lived a life of profound intimacy with God and prayed by night.”  Both “learned the trade of a carpenter.”  Both had a forerunner who foreshadowed the coming of a greater prophet—Jesus was preceded by John the Baptist and Romero by Rutilio Grande.  Both maintained a public three year ministry, “proclaiming the goodness of God and announcing the coming of the kingdom of God as a new order of love among all people.”  Wright quotes an anonymous Salvadoran peasant refugee who states: “Monseñor Romero was like a Salvadoran Jesus Christ … When they killed him, we were very sad because we thought that everything had ended.  But later we saw that his spirit gave us strength to resist oppression.  For that reason we also believe more now in Jesus Christ.”
Wright has picked up his insights in the field, living in the communities where Blessed Romero lives on and rubbing shoulders with the peasants that Wright often quotes, as well as from established Romero scholars.  Not surprisingly, given its provenance in Wright’s immersion among the poor communities, the book often has the feel of a travel guide, providing the reader a guided whirlwind tour which covers a significant expanse of territory.  The generous helping of photographs—most of them taken by Romero’s photographer, Br. Octavio Durán—help the material come alive with stunningly candid insights into Romero’s everyday life.  Durán was a seminarian who became Romero’s de facto photographer through an internship with the diocesan paper, and he started accompanying Romero during his pastoral visits, capturing some of the most memorable images of Blessed Romero available today.  In the book, Durán’s photographs and Wright’s insights complement and complete one another to provide a collaborative illustration of Blessed Oscar Romero’s ministry.
Wright (center) captured in the crowd at the recent beatification of Archbishop Romero.
For its user-friendly format and spiritual approach, Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints is my recommended “beginner’s guide” to Blessed Oscar Romero and his work.

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