JUBILEE YEAR for the CENTENNIAL of BLESSED ROMERO, 2016 — 2017
Among ecclesial genres, a “pastoral” is an open letter from a bishop containing teaching or instruction. In art, however, “pastoral” is a genre of paintings (and other art forms) that depicts life in the countryside. Blessed Oscar Romero issued his first pastoral letter in May 1975 (as Bishop of Santiago de Maria), but one can say his first “pastoral” work dates back to a genre most people may not readily associate with Romero—photography.
Throughout his life, Romero was a hobby photographer, and his subjects included tourist attractions from his occasional travels, scenes from ecclesial life, and also depictions of peasant reality, such as the undated photograph reproduced above, of a creek in his native San Miguel. The picture is part of our series on Romero in images for the Romero Jubilee Year declared by the Church for the centenary of the Salvadoran martyr.
“There is a sort of hypothesis that Archbishop Romero undergoes a sort of conversion in the last years of his life, that only then does he have a preferential option for the poor,” says Carlos Henríquez Consalvi, director of a museum in El Salvador which hosted an exhibition on Romero’s photography. “Nevertheless, these photographs show that it is not true, because from very early on he has a very special sensibility for the people that not every priest has.”
In art, pastoral works offer often idealized images of the country, which is represented as an Eden-like setting—a ‘Locus amoenus’ (literally, a “pleasant place”). Sometimes, the setting is intended to evoke nostalgia for a child-like simplicity or a return to pagan values of living in harmony with nature, in contrast to city life. Romero, too, sees the peasant setting as an idyllic place to commune with nature and with God—at least, at first glance.
“What beautiful coffee groves, what fine wheat, sugar cane and cotton fields, what farms, what lands God has given us! Nature is so beautiful!,” Romero marveled in a December 1977 homily. But there is a twist, because we see the life of those who dwell alongside nature “groan under oppression, under wickedness, under injustice, under abuse, and the Church experiences its pain.” But, ever the optimist, Blessed Romero is confident that “God will free nature from sinful human hands, and along with the redeemed it will sing a hymn of joy to God the Liberator.”
Long before he made these lessons explicit in his preaching, Romero captured it with his lens.