The Vision of Oscar Romero: A Look at Economics, Ethnicity, and Ethics in America [Part 5]

oscar-romero-iconLife in the modern world is best interpreted through three primary lenses: economics, ethnicity, and ethics.[1] As Oscar Romero demonstrated in both his ministry and in his pastoral letters, the problems faced by a specific people in a specific time and place hold a primary place in the life of church which practices and proclaims the liberating word of Jesus Christ. Therefore, in order to move toward an articulation of my own vision of ministry, it is imperative to consider the economic, ethnic, and ethical dimensions of life in the modern society of the United States in the beginning of the 21st century.

In his book Journey to the Common Good, Walter Brueggemann names the controlling economic narrative within U.S. society as the “kingdom of scarcity.”[2] The primary characteristics of this kingdom are fear and anxiety, which lead to “entitled consumerism… in which we imagine that something more will make us more comfortable, safer, and happier.”[3] Consumerism, and the energy required to sustain it, leaves no room for working towards the common good; life in community is nearly impossible because everyone is too busy taking care of themselves.[4] When the pressure of consumer debt in America is considered, Brueggemann’s analysis provides a clear, powerful insight into a reigning economic force in the lives of millions of Americans.

The work of leading Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas sheds considerable light on the ethnic dimension of American culture. According to Zizioulas, “there is a pathology built into the very roots of our [modern, Western] existence… and that is the fear of the other.”[5] This fear grows from our culture’s foundation of individualism, which comes to see other individuals as threats.[6] In this environment, “radical otherness is anathema” and “the fear of the other is in fact nothing but the fear of the different.”[7] This fear can only see differences as divisions, which create a society of institutionalized fear as these divisions are codified as laws.[8] Zizioulas’ analysis rings especially true when ethnicity is considered. Even today, fear of the racial other continues to divide American society.

Finally, the work of James K. A. Smith offers considerable insight on the ethical dimension of contemporary American life. Smith defines human beings as “liturgical animals” who are “governed not primarily by what we think but by what we love, what we desire.”[9] Human love is oriented toward particular “visions of the good life” through everyday habits that train human desire.[10] Some of these habits are part of a larger, more powerful practice that attempts to reformulate human desire at its most fundamental level and Smith defines such “thick” practices as liturgies.[11] He reveals three secular liturgies fully operative in American society – the mall, the stadium, and the university – which make “us the kind of people who desire a version of the kingdom that is antithetical to the kingdom of God.”[12] These secular liturgies demand a considerable amount of worship across American society and therefore exert a powerful force on this society’s ethics.

[1] Adetokunbo Adelekan,  Lecture, Truth and Transformation: Ethics of Visionary Leadership THLE624, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, October 25, 2012.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 29.

[3] Ibid., 28-30.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38, no.  4 (1994): 349.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 350.

[8] Ibid.

[9] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 215.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 92, 215.

The Vision of Oscar Romero: His Pastoral Letters [Part 4]

oscar-romero-iconRomero published his first pastoral letter on the occasion of Easter 1977 only a few months after his installment as archbishop in February of that same year. He would go on to write three more pastoral letters; all three would be published on the occasion of the Feast of the Transfiguration celebrated in August 1977, 1978, and 1979. In his first letter, Romero defined the church as “the sacrament of Easter”: “a church that is born of Easter and exists to be a sign and instrument of Easter in the world.”[1] His three subsequent letters would build on this foundation as Romero worked out the consequences of his vision of the church for the suffering, persecuted people of El Salvador.

While his vision of the church was uniquely embodied in his ministry, it did not arise out of a vacuum. In all four letters, Romero reveals his deep regard for the church and his dependence on its teachings; specifically those teachings put forward by the Second Vatican Council and the Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, as well as Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi. In this way, Romero’s visionary leadership was a shining example of what L. Gregory Jones has called “traditioned innovation”: the kind of transformative leadership that preserves the wisdom of tradition and knows how to adapt it to empower the proclamation of God’s reign in a particular time and place.[2] As I examine Romero’s vision of the Easter church set forth in his pastoral letters, four interwoven themes arise as its foundational pillars, which will be explored in further detail: a continual conversion, a pilgrim journey, a liberating evangelism, and a persecuted service.

The Easter church envisioned by Romero lives in the redemptive power of Christ’s “passage from death to resurrection” through the Holy Spirit in a process of conversion whereby the church is transformed by a “paschal tension” which calls it “to destroy whatever is sin and to bring into being ever more powerfully all that is life, renewal, holiness, justice.”[3] Romero suggests that conversion must begin within the church itself, which is driven to inward examination by its encounter with the evil of the world through its ministry to the lowly, poor, and weak.[4] Romero offered this “change of heart that makes a person more human” to all people – rich, poor, and middle class, oppressed and oppressor – as an invitation to the kingdom of Jesus Christ.[5] For Romero, only the church engaged in the continual work of conversion can live out its true identity and therefore make its prime contribution to the life of the world: “to be itself.”[6]

The journey of the Easter church in the world is the journey of a pilgrim, of “a body of men and women who belong to God, but who live in the world.”[7] The process of conversion is essential to this journey because the life of the pilgrim church must be an illuminating presence in the history of darkness wherein God is at work.[8] As a bearer of light in a specific time and place in human history, the church is called to shine into all the dark places of sin – both personal and social – that it encounters in the world.[9] The church’s confrontation with sin, especially in its structural forms, may necessitate and inspire political action.[10] However, the church must be vigilant to navigate a middle-way between its political or socio-economic mission and its spiritual vocation; the church “must link true evangelization and human advancement” as it works out its conversion as the body of Christ in history.[11]

As it travels in history as a pilgrim being continually converted into the image of its final destination, the church’s “paschal origins” in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ place it under obligation to respond to the cries of a needy world with a liberating word “from the only Redeemer who can save them.”[12] Like Jesus, the church is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God at hand, “especially for the great majority who, in worldly terms, have been estranged from it.”[13] The liberating evangelization of the church brings an awareness of true freedom and an empowerment for the work of liberation by involving the whole person, centering on the kingdom of God, proceeding from a scriptural vision of humanity, demanding conversion, and excluding violence.[14] At the same time, the church’s work of evangelization must not be reduced to either its religious, transcendent elements or to its temporal, immanent elements; both must be held in tension.[15]

Finally, as the Easter church proclaims its liberating message of good news to sinful persons and structures, it will face persecution. As the servant is not greater than his master, so the church of Jesus Christ will be persecuted as Jesus was persecuted.[16] The church is persecuted when it is barred from proclaiming the justice, peace, love and truth of God’s kingdom, when the sin of the world cannot be denounced, and when the rights of the people to whom the church is bound are abused.[17] When the church “is faithful to its mission of denouncing the sin that brings misery to many, and if it proclaims its hope for a more just, humane world, then it is persecuted.”[18] However, as the church suffers together in faithfulness to its common mission, it partakes of “the precious fruit” of unity, which is essential for its credibility and effectiveness in service to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ.[19] This life of unity, of Christian love, as the fruit of common suffering, is the ground of Christian hope.[20]

[1] Archbishop Oscar Romero, Jon Sobrino, and Ignacio Martin-Baro, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, trans. by Michael Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 56.

[2] L. Gregory Jones, “Traditioned Innovation | Faith and Leadership,” accessed December 15, 2012,

[3] Romero, Sobrino, Martin-Baro, 57.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] Ibid., 72, 111.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] Ibid., 68.

[10] Ibid., 100.

[11] Ibid., 60.

[12] Ibid., 58, 59.

[13] Ibid., 74.

[14] Ibid., 98, 99.

[15] Ibid., 130.

[16] Ibid., 72, 79.

[17] Ibid., 80.

[18] Ibid., 80.

[19] Ibid., 81.

[20] Ibid., 82.

The Vision of Oscar Romero: His Ministry as Archbishop [Part 3]

oscar-romero-iconThroughout his short ministry as archbishop of El Salvador, Romero embodied a vision of the church that stood in uncompromising solidarity with those who were suffering the most – the campesinos. He expressed this vision succinctly in one of his homilies when he described the relationship between himself and another bishop who had publicly challenged his pastoral ministry by saying, “in what is substantial we are servants of this church, which does not want to betray either the gospel or the people [emphasis added].”[1] Romero’s allegiance was never divided between the gospel and the people; for Romero, there was no gospel apart from the good news proclaimed to a specific people in need of liberation.

On several occasions as archbishop, Romero refused to betray the suffering people of El Salvador. After the murder of Father Grande along with two church members, he called a meeting of the clergy to vote on a proposal to close the schools for three days and hold a single national Mass at the cathedral as a sign of church unity and protest against the persecution of the church in response to its ministry among the neglected campesinos. The vote passed and Romero followed through with this unprecedented display of protest even in the face of stark opposition from El Salvador’s nuncio, the powerful diplomatic ambassador of the pope who was well connected to the government and the military.[2] A few months later he vetoed the nuncio’s plans for a religious ceremony, which would be attended by government officials who continually refused Romero’s pleas for justice and meaningful dialogue, because it would be “an expression lacking in solidarity with the sufferings of this church and people.”[3] He cited the same concerns for solidarity when he refused the same nuncio’s invitation to a church-government papal “coronation” ceremony in honor John Paul I, which prompted the nuncio to begin working with the cardinal and the president for Romero’s removal.[4] In all of these instances, Romero boldly displayed his unwillingness jeopardize his pastoral relationship with the campesinos, in spite of extreme criticism from the government, the media, and members of the church hierarchy.

In addition to these somewhat private refusals to betray his people, Romero regularly voiced his unflinching solidarity with the suffering, persecuted clergy and campesinos through his weekly homilies, which were broadcast nationally over the radio. As the government and its paramilitary forces continued their practice of kidnapping and murdering anyone they suspected of “communist” activity, Romero shared in the grief of his people by announcing the names of those killed and “disappeared” in his homilies.[5] In addition to this, Romero called in lawyers to investigate every report of human rights abuse and transformed his office into an open house for the people to gather and share their reports of murder and kidnapping, as well to receive advice from Romero over a cup of tea.[6]

Romero’s courageous unmasking of lies and his prophetic denouncement of violence and injustice grew directly from his ministry among the people as their pastor.[7] Even while the conflict raged, Romero’s time was mostly consumed with pastoral work concerning the ministry of catechesis, word, and sacraments in his archdiocese.[8] This pastoral dedication was a consistent feature throughout Romero’s ministry; one that would transform him from a pious, conservative friend of the powerful into an unabashed voice for justice and peace on behalf of the suffering. In order to fulfill his overwhelming desire as a pastor “to be faithful to what God asks,” Romero was willing to adapt his vision of the church in order to become a source of hope to his suffering flock.[9] The conviction with which Romero practiced solidarity with the poor and oppressed is an essential aspect of his vision. With every decision he made as a church leader, he carefully guarded his ability to minister faithfully as a pastor among a suffering people and always let their voices speak louder than his own.

[1] James R. Brockman, S. J., Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 96.

[2] Brockman, Romero, 12-13, 16.

[3] Ibid., 102.

[4] Ibid., 144.

[5] Ibid., 91,92.

[6] Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero, directed by Ann Carrigan and Juliet Weber (2011; Notre Dame, IN: Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame, First Run Features, 2011), DVD.

[7] Brian J. Pierce, “Romero, Resistance, and Resurrection,” Living Pulpit 14, no. 2 (April 1, 2005): 15.

[8] Brockman, Romero, 149-150.

[9] Brockman, “The Spiritual Journey of Oscar Romero,” 312.

The Vision of Oscar Romero: A Brief Biography [Part 2]

oscar-romero-iconOscar Romero was born on August 15, 1917, in the remote town of Ciudad Barrios. His father worked as a postmaster and telegraph operator, while farming cocoa and coffee on a small piece of personal property. His family’s life in Ciudad Barrios was modest; they did not live in abject poverty but neither did they have much to spare. While his father wanted him to learn a trade and had him apprenticed as a carpenter, Romero, at age thirteen, told the vicar general of his diocese of his desire to attend seminary and become a priest. He left to attend minor seminary that same year in the city of San Miguel until he went to study theology at the Jesuits’ national seminary in San Salvador at age twenty.[1]

After his father’s death in 1937, Romero left El Salvador to complete his theology degree at the Gregorian University in Rome. He was described by his classmates as a very pious, observant man, who was wholly dedicated to his training as a priest. He received his degree in 1941 at age 24 and was ordained as a priest a few months later. In 1944, he was called by his bishop to return to El Salvador and serve as a parish priest in the city of San Miguel. Those he served described him as a caring, hard-working, and devout pastor who befriended the rich and the poor. While he was charitable to the poor, many criticized him for ignoring the structural issues giving rise to poverty and oppression.[2]

In his twenty years of pastoral ministry in San Miguel, Romero became well-known for his uncompromising attitudes and his traditional ways. While he was very aware of the changes to church’s teaching from the Second Vatican Council, he did not seem willing to accept the fullness of renewal these teachings implied. In 1967, he was called to be the Secretary-General of the Salvadoran Bishops’ Conference and began preparing documentation for the upcoming Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin. However, Romero did not approve of all the changes he was seeing in the church, especially not those that would come as a result of the Medellin conference. He continued to advance in the church hierarchy and was named auxiliary bishop in 1970 with notable disapproval by many who saw him as too bound to the past and out of step with the new direction of the church set forth in Medellin.

Romero began publicly expressing his disapproval of this new direction when tensions within the country increased considerably in 1969-1970; he blamed the teaching of the Jesuits for causing many of these tensions. He continued his ascent of the church hierarchy in 1974 when he was named bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de Maria. He interpreted this new appointment as a vindication of the stand he was making against the church reforms. While his actions as bishop revealed a cautious, conservative approach to pastoral ministry, he still showed compassion to the poor and some concern for justice; he even wrote a letter denouncing the poor treatment of farmworkers in his diocese. This concern for justice, especially for the campesinos, would continue to grow as Romero came face to face with the harsh realities of their lives through his pastoral ministry.[3]

When the archbishop of El Salvador was preparing to step down, the clergy were in favor of Arturo River y Damas as his successor, while Rome, the oligarchy, the government and the military preferred Romero. Ultimately, Romero was chosen as the new archbishop and installed in February of 1977, even though he had already begun a change of heart towards the vision of the church defined by the Medellin conference and the Second Vatican Council. Priests in rural parishes who were already practicing this new vision were being persecuted by the government.[4] The murder of one of these priests, Rutilio Grande, who was Romero’s close friend, came as a clear call from God to take up the cause of justice which he accomplished through “three years of prophetic denunciation of the oppression of the poor and the persecution of the church.”[5] Romero’s life ended tragically when he was assassinated by the military on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Eucharist at the hospital where he lived. Gustavo Gutierrez, the well-known liberation theologian, expressed the immensity of Romero’s death by saying “his death divides the recent history of the Latin American church into a before and after.”[6]

[1] Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 6-11.

[2] Wright, 12-17.

[3] Wright, 23-35.

[4] Wright, 42-45.

[5] James R. Brockman, S. J., “The Spiritual Journey of Oscar Romero,” Spirituality Today 42, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 312.

[6] Gustavo Gutierrez, Carta a las Iglesias, no. 206 in Wright, 3.

The Vision of Oscar Romero: Introduction and a History of Conflict in El Salvador [Part 1]

oscar-romero-iconOscar Arnulfo Romero was a visionary leader of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador during a time of extreme violence and oppression. Ultimately, Romero laid down his own life as a martyred shepherd of El Salvador’s suffering people. In addition to martyr, he was also a prophet who was “the greatest source of hope for millions of impoverished and oppressed Salvadorans, and… the greatest threat to the greed and arrogance of the oligarchy… that ruled El Salvador” throughout the twentieth century.[1] Romero’s example of leadership and his vision of the church is most worthy of study and replication in the world today. In this paper, I will explore Oscar Romero’s vision as it was witnessed in both his ministry as the archbishop of El Salvador and in the four pastoral letters he published as archbishop. A history of El Salvador focused on the roots of its will be offered first along with a brief biography of Romero. After exploring Romero’s vision, I tell my own story and present an ethological analysis of twenty first century American society. Finally, I conclude this paper by considering the implications of Romero’s vision on my own vision for ministry in light of my story and ethological analysis.

A History of Conflict in El Salvador

The history of El Salvador is primarily a story about its land. Sadly, this story has been one of violence and conflict because land in El Salvador – the smallest of the seven Central American republics – is a scarce, and valuable, commodity.[2] As a Spanish colony, El Salvador’s economy was designed to function as an agricultural machine for high-priced goods like cocoa and indigo.[3] Control of the land was transferred to Salvadorans of Spanish descent when independence from Spain was declared, even though 95% of the population was indigenous or mestizo people.[4] This tiny, landowning minority held all the political and economic power in the country, which functioned as a virtual oligarchy.[5] For a short period of time after independence, indigenous peoples were allowed to live on their communal lands, but these rights were removed in the late 1800s to make way for economic development via the coffee trade.[6] With no land, the majority of the indigenous and mestizo population was reduced to working as day laborers with very low wages on large coffee plantations. The coffee trade boomed throughout the first decades of the twentieth century and dominated the Salvadoran economy by the start of the 1930s.[7] By this time, the political and economic power of the landed oligarchy was secure while large portions of the population suffered in rural poverty. This situation of extreme inequality created an enormous potential for class conflict.[8] When global coffee prices crashed after the Great Depression, many workers lost their jobs or had their wages reduced.[9] The nation had become a tinderbox; the slightest spark would engulf the nation in a firestorm of ethnically-charged class struggle.

In 1932, the inferno erupted when the national military took control of the government in order to brutally suppress a massive peasant revolt led in part by the Salvadoran Communist Party.[10] Nearly 30,000 people, mostly indigenous, were killed by the military in what came to be known as “la matanza” – the slaughter.[11] After this event, the oligarchy and the military were united in their determination to stamp out “communist agitation,” and political power was ceded to the military with the expectation that the economic and political interests of the oligarchy would be secure.[12] However, the military often tried to take a more liberal, reformist approach towards the demands of the peasants instead of the direct repression preferred by the oligarchy.[13] Since these efforts never amounted to any significant structural changes, such as agrarian reform, the oligarchy’s power was never threatened.[14] On the whole, the military-controlled government responded with “arbitrary violence and repression” against any moderately-left-leaning political organization that confronted its authority.[15] These groups were immediately branded as “Communists,” while also being condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, who gave their blessing and support to the status quo.[16]

By the 1960s and into the 1970s, paramilitary organizations had formed on both sides of conflict and began to “engage in a deadly spiral of political violence.”[17] The mid 1970s saw an increase in human rights abuses and public protests in addition to the formation of mass popular front groups and labor unions which took up the work of social justice through strikes, demonstrations and parades.[18] As the government used increasingly brutal tactics of repression against the rural poor, also known as campesinos, discontent with the church’s complicity in these crimes grew louder within the ranks of the clergy.[19] Upon encountering the families of five slain campesinos in his diocese in 1974, “the seeds of conversion” were implanted in the heart of one particularly conservative clergyman, Oscar Romero, a well-respected bishop among the government and church hierarchy whom God would soon call to be the cry for justice on behalf of these oppressed, silenced people.[20]

[1] Robert S. Pelton, Monsignor Romero: A Bishop for the Third Millenium, ed. Robert S. Pelton (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 4.

[2] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s.v. “El Salvador,” accessed December 15, 2012,

[3] The Center for Justice and Accountability, “Background on El Salvador,” accessed December 15, 2012,

[4] “Background on El Salvador.”

[5] Cynthia Arnson, El Salvador: A Revolution Confronts the United States (Washington, DC: Institute for Policy Studies, 1982), 7.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Arnson, 12-13.

[8] William M. LeoGrande and Carla Anne Robbins, “Oligarchs and Officers: The Crisis in El Salvador,” Foreign Affairs 58, no. 5 (Summer 1980): 1085.

[9] Arnson, 13.

[10] LeoGrande and Robbins, 1085.

[11] “Background on El Salvador.”

[12] Arnson, 15.

[13] LeoGrande and Robbins, 1086.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Arnson,18.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Background on El Salvador.”

[18] Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 34, 35.