In these times of “fake news” that obscures treason and a gaslighting Commander-in-Chief, many burn for truth that cracks like thunder, I have been grateful to turn to a wonderful revised 2016 volume from Orbis Press, Jon Sobrino’s Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections. In Chapter 7, Sobrino reflects on Romero’s praxis by holding in tension two descriptions of Romero’s public life. The first is from a peasant who said:
“Monseñor Romero spoke the truth. He stood for us, the poor. That is why they killed him.”
The second description comes from a man who would not before long become his brother in martyrdom, Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., who said:
“God came through El Salvador in Monseñor Romero.”
Then, at the time of his martyrdom 37 years ago today, Romero spoke out against his own government and foreign powers who actively sought or colluded in the repression of the poor of El Salvador. For that praxis of prophetic witness, Romero was assassinated by a paramilitary snipe trained at the United States Army’s School of the Americas (SOA), now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). At present, in the United States, we face different but not fully dissimilar circumstances as we the people, especially the most vulnerable, find ourselves victimized at the hands of our own strong government headed by a weak leader aided by a weak foreign power led by a much stronger head.
How can we Americans today share in the prophetic praxis of Romero? How can we make our collective life one by which God comes through the United States? I have some thoughts in answer to those questions which are porbably best saved for another post, but for right now, I think it the best starting point is in understanding the ways in which Romero spoke the truth in defense of the poor. Sobrino demystifies what it means when we say “Romero spoke the truth.” The entire chapter, and the whole book, are worth reading; here I highlight only a few points, letting Sobrino’s words speak for themselves.
“Monseñor spoke the truth, he was possessed by it, and he spoke it with pathos. When the true reality was good news for the poor, Monseñor was an enthusiastic evangelizer. When the true reality was falsehood and lies, he was an eloquent accuser. When the true reality was cruelty and death, especially for the poor, he was an unrelenting, horror-stricken prophet.
To think of Monseñor as a speaker of truth may seem too abstract, but it is important to remember in order to understand both the man and the terrible state into which the truth had fallen, in our country, and in the wider world. In the communications media, there are silences, cover-ups, distortions, trivializations, and lies. The political and economic discourse is full of falsehoods and self-serving ideologies. In the religious and ecclesaistical discourse as well–although Pope Francis is working to overcome it–we are surrounded by the falsehood of antimodernism (integrismo), silence, and sugary, infantilizing devotionalism. We might say that our freedom of expression has increased, but our will to truth has not.
As a speaker of truth, Monseñor Romero pronounce human and Christian judgment on reality, on all reality. He let reality speak for itself (Karl Rahner); he treated reality with honor.
Monseñor Romero spoke the truth publicly, vigorously, at length, tirelessly, repeatedly, and responsibly.”
Beyond this, Sobrino notes that “Romero spoke the people’s truth, very precisely” lifting up the reality of the “suffering, hope-fiilled ‘people'” above all others. He “respected and valued the people’s intelligence,” not only talking with the people but noting that “he argued with them; he was convinced that the people we call ‘simple people’ were intelligent human beings…. He did not want the church, through its religious discourse and spiritualistic fantasies, to be an instrument of infantilization.” Romero “spoke the truth about the victims, scrupulously, accurately, and passionately,” cultivating a historical memory that remembers good people and things, the martyrs for justice, the hope and trust in God he encountered in his fellow citizens throughout the country. He remembered the perpetrators of violence, “in order to call them to conversion. Once the truth is established, we must offer them forgiveness, practicing justice and resisting impunity. We must remember Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, seeking reconciliation as a pearl of great price, never shrinking from its embrace.” Most importantly, Romero spoke with authority–not an authority rooted in his birthplace, formal education or rank–derived from his authenticity and conviction, “from his honesty toward reality; and from the coherence between his words and actions.”
Two weeks before his assassination, Romero told a Guatemalan reporter,
“If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.”
Now recognized as Blessed Óscar Romero, his cause for canonization moves forward this week, with the diocesan phase of the process closing and moving on to Rome and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Mons. José Luis Escobar Alas, the current archbishop of El Salvador has invited Pope Francis to come to El Salvador for the canonization, which they suggested might take place on August 15th, the centenary of Romero’s birth. It would be a tremendous event on Latin American continent to have the first Latin American Roman Catholic pontiff canonize the man who (even in his own lifetime) many called San Romero de América. Yet, even now, those of us in North America can look to Romero’s prophetic praxis of truth-telling in defense of the oppressed and find room for hope in following his example.