Friday, June 19, 2015

Romero the bishop, yesterday and today


Collage of Romero’s episcopal ordination and the Liceo Salvadoreño today.

This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of the episcopal ordination of Blessed Oscar Romero. On Sunday June 21, 1970 began what we would recognize today as a transformational episcopate that redefined what being a bishop means. That was the opinion of a conference at the University of Notre Dame, which included Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, who referred to Romero as “a bishop for the third millennium.” And Brazilian bishop Pedro Casaldáliga stated that “The history of the Church in Latin America is divided into two parts: before and after Archbishop Romero.” This was said even before his beatification.

If all this seems exaggerated, consider:

  • The fact that Romero, in his three years as archbishop addressed the hot topic in the groundbreaking encyclical «Laudato Si'»—as noted in an earlier post—the link between environmental damage and its impact on the lives of the poor.
  • Cardinal Peter Turkson, who led the drafting of «Laudato Si'», after presenting at the Notre Dame Conference on Romero, said that “drawing near to Archbishop Romero … I feel encouraged in my role as as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and a close-co-worker of the Holy Father ... He has given me much to take back to Rome with me.”
  • Bishop Romero is conjured, without being named, in the minds of the Latin American episcopate when the Aparecida document summarizes the characteristics of the model-bishop, says Cardinal José Luis Lacunza of Panama.

The epic Romero episcopate began with an investiture ceremony in the gymnasium of the Liceo Salvadoreño, a Catholic high school in San Salvador. The ceremony was organized, as is now known, by Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ. Grande and Romero were friends; they both lived in the San Jose de la Montaña Seminary, where Father Rutilio was a teacher with the prospect of becoming rector in his future. Romero picked the date based on his devotion to the Virgin of Peace, whose feast is celebrated on November 21 (Romero commemorated it monthly). The ordination was a crowded affair; from San Miguel they came in bus loads. Church and government dignitaries were present, including the President of the Republic. It was a big production, but no one could have suspected that they were celebrating a bishop for the ages.

Collage of Romero’s episcopal ordination and the Liceo Salvadoreño today.

Reviewing the Romero episcopate, we must recognize that it was a story of overcoming, not a sudden triumph. Not only it did success not come overnight, but failure and disappointment were first to arrive. Despite the great hope and good faith of Bishop Romero at the outset, the new bishop was full of doubts. He doubted his own ability, and those who had elected him had chosen mostly for reasons of efficiency and bureaucracy. His administrative responsibilities sharpened Romero’s exclusion from the rest of the clergy, and his natural inclination to be reclusive and independent, as well as his traditionalist tendencies, kept him at the margin of diocesan life. Those years were marked by disappointments and setbacks, including his role in the failed attempt to take over the management of the major seminary on behalf of the bishops' conference. Lack of funds and operational problems dogged the project and it had to be scrapped.

The real change in the episcopal life of Romero occurs almost exactly halfway, when on June 21, 1975—exactly five years since the day of his investiture as bishop—the Salvadoran army committed a peasant massacre in a town called “Las Tres Calles,” which was under the episcopal jurisdiction of Romero at the time. That’s the other anniversary we observe this weekend. When Romero was appointed to the post in Santiago de María a year before, Archbishop Luis Chavez y Gonzalez, then Archbishop of San Salvador, reassured a cleric in the area, saying: “Rest assured, the bishop you are going to have will be a pastor.” Whereas his priesthood had thrived on his administrative skills, Romero the bishop would succeed as a pastor.

Reacting to the Tres Calles Massacre, Romero wrote a letter to President of the Republic, denouncing the killing and demanding justice. Speaking “also on behalf of the voiceless poor,” the Bishop went on record as feeling in complete empathy with the victims in such circumstances: “It broke my heart to hear the bitter tears of widowed mothers and orphans who, between inconsolable sobs, narrated, without any erudite explanations, the cruel blow even as they lamented the state of orphanage they were left in.”

In October of the same year, Romero signed a joint statement with two other bishops denouncing “the disappearance of students, peasants, workers and leaders of marginalized areas” as well as acts of insurrectional violence. Calling for a root cause solution, Romero and two fellow bishops exhorted: “Before the lust for power and money, let us cultivate a sense of service and solidarity, to feel with the needy and effectively assist in their self-realization in a peaceful society, ordered in justice.”

The episcopal motto of Bishop Romero in 1970 “To Feel with the Church” had become “To Feel with the Needy” by 1975, when Romero crossed the halfway point of the decade of his episcopate, two years before being appointed archbishop. Romero himself had explained his pastoral maturation saying: “I ran into misery in Santiago de María.”

The rest is history. In 1977, Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. According to the biography read by Archbishop Paglia at the beatification ceremony:

The last three years of life Romero spent as Archbishop of San Salvador are the most precious treasure he left us. They were the culmination of his life, even more resembling that of Jesus in his three years of public life.

In his homily for the beatification, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, called him “a wise bishop” and Pope Francis said in his letter to the Salvadoran Church that Romero was “a zealous bishop who ... became an image of Christ the Good Shepherd.”  By this official endorsement, and by the very fact of his beatification, Romero’s success as a bishop is overwhelming. “I would like to distinguish myself,” Fr. Romero had written on the eve of his episcopal ordination “as the bishop of the Heart of Jesus.” Forty-five years later, we have the Apostolic Letter for Beatification calling him a “Shepherd after the heart of Christ.” We could say: mission accomplished!

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