The Society of St. Paul has distributed a sermon for this Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time which expounds on the Gospel account of Jesus’ rejection in the Nazareth Synagogue and his own observation that “No prophet is accepted in his own country” (Luke 4:21-30). The sermon notes that “It takes courage to be a prophet and proclaim God’s word in the way God wants us to speak it in today’s world,” and points out that “Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who dared to confront oppressive rulers in his own country, was assassinated while celebrating Mass.” Throughout this year for which we propose «Archbishop Romero for the Year of Faith», we will republish reflections that cite Archbishop Romero as a model of faith. To further expound on the point in the cited sermon, we will examine the way in which Romero has emerged as a “sign of contradiction” in contemporary theological discussion.The phrase “A Sign of Contradiction” gained currency thanks to its use by the Blessed John Paul II as “a distinctive definition of Christ and of his Church.” (Wojtyla, Karol. Sign of Contradiction, St. Paul Publications 1979, p. 8.) Taken from the New Testament (Luke 2:34, Acts 28:22), “a sign of contradiction” is a Gospel phrase, which together with others (like John 15:20, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you”) is intended to show how rejection by a corrupt world is a vital measurement of the authenticity of the Christian message. In the modern world, being an authentic Christian will often result in being accepted by some—true Christians—while being rejected by others, even within the Church. That certainly is the pattern for Archbishop Romero. “Archbishop Romero was the most beloved person and the most hated person in this country,” admits Romero’s confidante Msgr. Ricardo Urioste. (BBC.) Even among Catholics, Archbishop Romero is sometimes regarded with suspicion: “while figures like Mother Teresa and Josemaria Escrivá are comfortable heroes for our time, Romero is not.” (Catholic Herald.) The disparity in these reactions to Romero is often misunderstood as a function of left vs. right and whether the audience in question perceives Romero as attuned to their politics. But, there are deeper dynamics bearing upon Romero’s confounding impact, and we will focus on five that establish his bona fides as a“sign of contradiction.”
“A good man in a bad time.” Imagine a man walking through an amusement park tunnel that spins while people pass through the center. He remains upright, but as the world around him goes topsy-turvy, he appears inverted to those around him. This is a historical model to explain Romero. In 1970s El Salvador, his society was spinning down a spiral of violence and dehumanization towards Civil War and a violent clash of inhumane absolutes. Romero himself invoked this premise when he described Pope Paul VI—his contemporary spiritual hero and ecclesial model—as “a man who understood the present time and never betrayed the eternal Word.” (November 19, 1978 Homily.) The “present time” might be going through convulsions, but the “eternal Word” needs to stay unmoved. The analogy applies to the entire Church through the Vatican II process, as Fr. Enrico Cattaneo has written in his analysis of Pope Benedict’s famous 2005 speech to the Roman curia about the Council. Cattaneo writes that the crucial part of the Pope’s speech concerns “the relationship between the modern world and the Church as Ratzinger turned the situation prospected by the traditionalists upside down.” (Benedict’s own doctrinal censor recently referred to this speech as “the most important discourse” of his pontificate.)
A Hierarch and a Charismatic. The second conceptual handle depends on the theological distinction between “hierarchical” and “charismatic” gifts. The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, «Lumen Gentium», says that the Holy Spirit “equips and directs” the Church “with hierarchical and charismatic gifts.” (L.G. 4.) Romero explained the distinction—again, using Pope Paul VI as his model. He recounted the story of how the Pope went to visit the Virgin of Fatima, and “someone, inspired by this scene, shouted out: this is a meeting between the crown of charisms and the crown of the hierarchy.” (Jan. 20, 1980 Hom.) Romero explained that the Pope represents the hierarchy of the Church: “The hierarchy is composed of the Pope, the bishops, priests and all those who have been entrusted with the mission of the One who said: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’.” (John 20:21.) But, “Charisms are all the gifts that God bestows upon a person so that said person might be able to undertake a distinctive role in the community”—charisms are gifts in the People of God that do not depend on the hierarchy. Id. Mary is the prime example—her authority and authenticity are independent of any approval by the hierarchy; the same is true for certain saints that receive gifts from God directly. Romero had a hierarchical post, but he also had a charism. He was archbishop, but his moral force did not stem from his episcopal authority alone, for there have been many Archbishops of San Salvador, but only one Romero. As Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría famously said of him, “In Archbishop Romero, God walked through El Salvador.”
Radical and orthodox. Another dimension of “contradiction” in Romero breaks down along the radical-orthodox dichotomy. People assume you can only be one and not the other, and therefore, to explain Romero, most analysts adopt what Pope Benedict would call (per his 2005 speech), “a hermeneutic of discontinuity”—that is, they assume that to be radical, one must stop being orthodox. The prominent model to explain Romero is that he underwent a “conversion” from being a conservative bishop to become a radical bishop. Those who truly understand Romero know that’s not quite right, because Romero was radical from his orthodoxy. The Salvadoran Ambassador to Nicaragua Juan José Figueroa Tenas got it about right when he said Romero was “an orthodox man who pointed out in a radical way the causes of the suffering that aggrieved his people.” And the theologian Miguel Cavada, a Romero follower and student who passed away in 2011, said that, “It’s not that Romero is a progressive … but he goes far beyond being a progressive. He leaves them all behind. He is a mixture of the old and the new. That’s what makes him authentic.”
Prophet and martyr. In his poem, “San Romero de América,” Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga writes, “You knew how to drink the double chalice of the Altar and of the People, with a single hand consecrated in service.” Another troublesome pairing among Romero’s traits is his dual claim to have served both his country and his Church. Many people assume you can be one or the other but not both—many rule out the prospect that Romero was a martyr for the faith because, they argue, he was a martyr for politics. “There is no doubt that Romero regarded himself as a man of the church,” writes Kenneth Woodard: “upon becoming Archbishop he chose his motto ‘To Be of One Mind and Heart With the Church.’ There is also no doubt that he assumed the larger role of prophet of the people, with all its attendant risks.” (Woodard, Making Saints, p. 46.) “The beautiful thing that Romero symbolizes,” Woodard quotes Jon Sobrino as having told him, “is that for the first time in five centuries, being a Salvadoran and being a Christian converged.”
“The violence of love.” One last contradiction inherent in Romero was in his message of love, twisted and disfigured by his enemies and turned into a false accusation that he preached violence. “We have never preached violence,” he told the faithful in a phrase that has become iconic: “except the violence of Love.” If we stop there, the phrase is bound to be misunderstood, because it can be mistaken to signify violence that is motivated or justified by some narrow vision of “Love” (i.e. one which tolerates violence). But when Romero says “violence,” he is not talking about a physical assault. He means force, like when we say “the force of reason.” We don’t mean physical force. The violence of love, as Romero explains it, is “the violence that we must each do to ourselves,” because we must break down barriers within ourselves, “to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us.” The violence of love is “the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.” Most importantly, the violence of love is the violence “which left Christ nailed to a Cross” because He was willing to withstand violence for our sakes. It is also the violence Romero was willing to withstand, even when it meant being rejected and misunderstood.
Romero is misunderstood because he is a genuine sign of contradiction in modern times, a trait that proves to be the touchstone of his credential as a modern Christian hero.