Tuesday, April 03, 2018

“Romero Days” conference a bridge to the future

Sean O'Brien speaks about "Torture and Eucharist."  Kellogg Institute photo.
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The international “Romero Days” conference, dedicated to the study of the legacy of the Salvadoran martyr, Blessed Oscar Romero, at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, had a decidedly youthful outlook this year (March 22 to 24), with presentations highlighting the theological “bridge” between Romero and Pope Francis, on the eve of the canonization of one man by the other.
For the first time in the thirty plus years of recurrence of this conference, I had the opportunity to witness the proceedings, and to bring my little contribution to the seminars in a couple of executive sessions. The presentations over several days can be classified as: (1) historical reviews of Romero’s legacy; (2) glances into novel developments that can take on greater importance in the future history of the now Blessed (soon to be Saint); and (3) meetings on administrative and planning issues.
The organizational nucleus of the sessions was a presentation by Fr. Robert “Bob” Pelton, the founder of the conference, in which he reviewed the history of the “bridge theology” of Pope Francis, from the first meetings of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), through towering figures such as Archbishop Marcos G. McGrath (seminary classmate of Fr. Bob) and the “Pact of the Catacombs” by the Latin American bishops during the Second Vatican Council. In fact, the Pelton presentation forms a “bridge” between Archbishop Romero and Pope Francis, as well as between approaches focused on history, and those with a more theoretical or speculative bent.
In the first category of approaches, some of the talks dealt with the historical legacy of Romero and his Church. Todd Walatka, of Notre Dame, spoke on Romero’s pastoral letters, emphasizing the third letter, and its development of the theology on violence, which opened a debate on whether Romero, had he lived, would have developed that line of thought towards a more explicit expression. Matthew Phillip Whelan, from Baylor University, analyzed Romero’s thinking on agrarian reform, proposing that, based on a “fundamentally theological” approach, Romero presumes “a law of the land more primordial than that enshrined in positive law.”
Walatka and Whelan are young theologians, and they belong to a generation that is interpreting Romero’s legacy anew, looking beyond the liberationist gloss with which Romero was interpreted at the outset. Walatka’s session was attended by university students and his interactive presentation had the feel of a college lecture.  Whelan’s talk was moderated by David Lantigua, a young theology professor from the Notre Dame faculty, sustaining the youthful appearance of the panel. During a break in the presentations, Fr. Bob gave a contented look at his assembly and said with satisfaction, “We’ve got the right team this year.”
Thomas O’Rourke, of Clarion University of Pennsylvania, presented about his new book on the social thought of Pope Francis, whose essential contribution would be that, to understand the Pope, it is necessary to keep three keys in mind: (1) the legacy of the Jesuit missions, (2) the ‘Theology of the People,’ and (3) Latin American philosophy as represented by exponents such as Alberto Methol Ferré (1929-2009). Marian Mollin, from Virginia Tech, spoke about Ita Ford, one of the U.S. churchwomen murdered in El Salvador in 1980, focusing especially on her life before her brief stay in El Salvador.
A couple of presentations looked towards the future. One of the most unconventional talks was that of Ruben Rosario Rodriguez, scholar and author from the University of St. Louis, who compared Romero’s Church of Martyrs with the spirituality of Black Lives Matter, the ensemble of African-American activists who protest against the excesses of the police against ethnic minorities in the United States. William T. Cavenaugh, from Depaul University, reflected on the twenty years since the publication of his book “Torture and Eucharist,” which emphasizes that the oppressive practice serves to “atomize” the human body, while the sacrament seeks to integrate it.
Finally, some meetings had a routine but no less necessary cast. There was the obligatory commemorative mass, celebrated by the Auxiliary Bishop of Washington, the Colombian Msgr. Mario Dorsonville-Rodriguez. His homily focused on the eschatological aspect of Archbishop Romero’s social denunciation.
Extending a “bridge” between last year’s conference and future ones, one session focused on the project to propose Blessed Romero as a “Pastoral Doctor of the Universal Church” after he is canonized. Fr. Steven Payne, who has written about the case of St. Therese of Lisieux, gave his valuable contributions on what needs to happen.
Dr. Peter Caserella, director of LANACC (Latin America and North American Church Concerns), the host program of the conference, moderated a planning panel for next year’s conference, which will address the issue of gangs; and, finally, Steven Little, from Notre Dame Press, discussed possible publications on Romero in the future (the void that needs to be filled, according to the consensus of the participants, is a “Romero reader” that collects the essential extracts from his writings and homilies).
In general, the 2018 session of “Romero Days” had a transitional flavor, perhaps due to the switch-over from Father Pelton to Dr. Casarella organizing the event; perhaps because it was held on the eve of Romero’s canonization. There was no stellar attraction, as in 2002, when Cardinal Oscar Andres Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga called Romero “a bishop for the third millennium.” Other standout presenters in past conferences have included Samuel Ruiz, the legendary bishop of Chiapas, in 2003; Romero collaborators Gregorio Rosa Chavez and Ricardo Urioste in 2005; and the production and presentation of the documentary “Monseñor: the Last Journey of Óscar Romero” in 2010. If this edition did not feature the stellar attraction of other years, it left the impression that the torch is being passed to a new generation of academics and theologians who will ensure that Romero will continue to be studiedpossibly as a future “doctor of the Church.”
With Fr. Bob (left).
Additional coverage:
Romero Days conference honors legacy of Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero (Notre Dame Observer)
Romero Days 2018 wraps up (News Release)

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