BEATIFICATION OF ARCHBISHOP ROMERO, MAY 23, 2015
Rather than to write a lot of words of praise for Romero: A Life, by James R. Brockman, S.J. (Orbis, 2005), perhaps the highest praise I have given it is to make it the most often cited biography of Blessed Oscar Romero on this Oscar Romero blog. As the first international biography about Archbishop Romero (the original was published in 1982, just two years after Romero’s death), this book has a “present at creation” quality that lends it added authenticity. Fr. Brockman’s “just the facts” approach makes him an honest broker who generally lets Romero speak for himself. Finally, this detached approach notwithstanding, Fr. Brockman is a friend of Romero who becomes a friend of the reader who wishes to be Romero’s friend.
This month, we have examined various books about Romero and I wanted to leave the best for last. Fr. James Brockman (1926-1999) met Romero in 1978, and he moved quickly to put together his Romero biography, originally called The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero, soon after Romero was killed. The book was updated on various occasions, including in 1989 when it was significantly expanded and retitled, in part to comport to the title of the movie “Romero,” for which it had been a principal source. The book shares the movie’s focus on Romero’s years as Archbishop of San Salvador and, also like the film, it presents a profound change in Romero after the assassination of his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande.
As the original title suggests, the book always had a special focus on Romero’s preaching, perhaps because Romero’s sermons had been transcribed and published locally by the archdiocese and served as one of Fr. Brockman’s most complete documentary resources in researching his book. This was a happy coincidence, as Romero had attained great renown as a captivating preacher, who made his mark almost entirely through his sermons. By providing an overview with a broad sampling of memorable passages from Romero’s sermons in translation, Brockman brought Romero’s message and voice to a wide international audience. In addition, by moving to write his book so quickly, Brockman was able to interview Romero’s collaborators and friends and document their recollections of Romero while their memories were very fresh.
In addition to allowing Romero to speak through his homilies, diaries, letters and other papers, Brockman himself largely steps aside. He does not include theological analyses, or interpretative theories into which he weaves the facts. He just lays out the events and mostly lets the readers draw their own conclusions without blatantly imposing his own agenda or spin. Instead, Brockman makes his views known by the things he chooses to present and the order in which he presents them. One of the more notable organizational devices in Brockman’s book is that it begins at the moment Romero becomes archbishop, then goes into a flashback recapping all of Romero’s 60 year life before becoming archbishop in a single chapter, before resuming the book with the rest of Romero’s three years as archbishop. Obviously, that sequencing speaks volumes about what Fr. Brockman thinks is important in Romero’s life.
Finally, Fr. Brockman is a friend of anyone who wishes to befriend Archbishop Romero. I can say that based on personal experience. I was a teenager at the time Fr. Brockman’s book was released. I had moved from El Salvador to New York by then, and I used to make a trip to a distant public library that stocked Fr. Brockman’s book every Saturday to commune with Brockman and Romero; I had to take two buses to get there. Soon, I would strike up a pen-pal correspondence with the author of the first book I found about my childhood hero and I found him to be very generous with his time and indulgent with a naïve Salvadoran kid who dared to think that Romero was a saint. (Brockman told me he agreed but he tried to let me down gently about any possibility that Romero would ever be formally recognized as such.) Fr. Brockman left his Romero papers to DePaul University, where serious researchers might commune with Brockman and Romero today.
For its diligent documentation of Romero’s life begun just months after his assassination, its objective approach that let Romero and the facts do the talking, and his personal devotion to the cause, Fr. James Brockman’s word remains an authoritative voice on Blessed Oscar Romero.