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.