Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Secret Life of Óscar Romero

A few months before he was felled by an assassin’s bullet, Msgr. Óscar Arnulfo Romero entrusted his friend Mrs. Santos Delmi Campos de Cabrera a veritable treasure: a box containing some 400 slides of photographs of and by Archbishop Romero throughout his life. Thirty years later, the Museum of the Word and Image of San Salvador (MUPI, for its Spanish initials) has mounted an exhibit featuring fifty of the photographs. (Super Martyrio will occasionally run photographs from the collection if they are appropriate to the topic of a particular post but will not, out of respect for the exhibit, post them en masse. You may find selected galleries of the pictures here and here and here.) The images provide a glimpse into the hitherto unknown life of Óscar Romero and already seem bound to shatter many of the misconceptions and over-simplifications about Romero. Basically, they reveal that he wasn’t a square, nor was he cold hearted, as legend has it, only awakening to the plight of his country’s peasants during the last three years of his life.

There is a sort of hypothesis,” says Carlos Henríquez Consalvi, “that Monseñor 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.” Henríquez Consalvi is the director of MUPI. “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 is going to have.” (Eric Lemus, En fotos: Monseñor Romero inédito [In Photos: The Unpublished Archbishop Romero], BBC World, March 29, 2011.) Istead, the MUPI photos taken by Romero show a peasant woman bathing a naked baby using a recycled tin can. Another picture shows a toddler in blue overalls standing off center against a glossy, newly painted, red wall. A peasant woman riding a mare is shot from a moving car. Boys playing ball are frozen in time—one of them, flying through the air.

Surprisingly, Romero had an eye for photography. “In Romero the photographer, I notice something very important,” says Henríquez Consalvi: “no picture is poorly taken. If you go through them, you see that the framing is perfect; the light is perfect; no shot is wasted,” he argues. (Lemus, Id.) “He would turn the camera when the image was vertical. And he always looked for the human touch: the smile of the children, the faces of the patients in the hospitals.” (Id.) This was, after all, the priest who had written in his notes as a seminarian: “The poor are the incarnation of Christ. Through their tattered clothing, their dark gazes, their festering sores, the laughter of the mentally ill ... the charitable soul discovers and venerates Christ.” (J. Delgado, Romero, Un joven aspirante a la santidad [Romero, a young aspirant to saintliness], ORIENTACIÓN, Vol. LV Nº 5463, March 25, 2007.) These photographs teach the sermon that Romero would later preach to us using words: They show the “faces of landless peasants mistreated and killed by the forces of power, faces of laborers arbitrarily dismissed and without a living wage for their families, faces of the elderly, faces of outcasts, faces of slum dwellers, faces of poor children who from infancy begin to feel the cruel sting of social injustice.” (March 2, 1980 Homily.)

Apart from the fact that Romero turned his camera on children, on the sick, and on the inmates of the prisons he visited, he also took pictures of everyday events such as the construction of the San Salvador Cathedral (that he would later lord over) and the arrival of the San Salvador zoo’s elephant (which finally died last year). The pictures of Romero are equally revealing. One sometimes gets the impression from Romero biographies that Father Romero was not comfortable in his own skin. He is depicted as aloof, and bookish. He is described as a perfectionist who was hard on himself and on others. He sought counseling to cope with stress and was poor at making friends, alienating the rest of the clergy while he was in San Salvador. But, the pictures reveal a priest who appears happy and who is usually surrounded by friends and parishioners. The strict cleric is seen in civilian clothing (suit and tie, though). We meet Romero the tourist: at the Vatican, at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, at the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, and on a ship sailing toward the sunset. These photos help us to celebrate the life of Óscar Romero, even as we always remember and revere his martyrdom. The images give life to Romero’s words after assuming the archbishopric in 1977: “my life does not belong to me, but rather belongs to you.” (August 21, 1977 Homily.)
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