Almost 35 years after his death at the hands of right-wing forces in El Salvador, Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, offers important lessons for Catholics in living a spiritual life. A common understanding of spirituality tends to imagine individuals meditating or praying in a room alone. The modern human is less likely to speak of spirituality in common day-to-day experiences. For Oscar Romero, however, his spiritual life was of profound importance and informed his actions and his ethical views. There was no separation for Oscar Romero between his spiritual connection to God and his visceral connection to his people. This understanding of lived ethics is not simply how Romero lived, though. He saw it as the way any Catholic should live in the world. Oscar Romero believed that all of his intellectual learning throughout his life ought to be for something other than his own use. During his time as an archbishop and up until his death, Romero stood for an ethical theology that not only called us to action, but also called us to live changed lives with changed hearts.
To some in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, Romero is a controversial individual because he is seen as having integrated much of Marxist thought and Liberation Theology into his own life. While this might be true, it is not fair to Romero to discount all of his ethical life and teachings. It is important to look at Romero’s spirituality and ethics. Romero’s spiritual life called him from his individualistic attitudes to a life of lived ethics. His ethics can be broken down into three basic parts that represent a model for the informed Catholic conscience. The parts include scriptural understanding, Catholic teaching (or tradition), and lived praxis (living in history). Romero is a symbol of hope and the re-invigoration of an ethical structure where Christ is central in the lives of the poor. Looking at Romero’s life as an example of Catholic tradition, Liberation Theology, and Ignatian Spirituality, I will argue that the Catholic Church can see Romero’s ethical teachings as a fruitful attempt to bring forth the Kingdom of God. Through Romero’s conscious effort to integrate Scripture, Church teaching, and historical context, the Catholic Church can learn how “Salvation History” continuously exists in the lives of all people, and, in particular, its manifestation in the lives of the people of El Salvador.
It is clear that spiritual experiences can take a variety of forms, involving different kinds of connections with God. Analyzing Oscar Romero’s spirituality requires first recognizing what spiritual experiences. Dorothee Soelle, a German theologian and political activist, states, “There is a directness of experience in which people can say: ‘God came to see me,’ or ‘I saw the light at the end of the tunnel,’ or ‘this thing happened to me at such and such time’(1). Soelle goes on in her book The Silent Cry to identify what a mystic is and the way God interacts with humans in common reality. To an extent, spirituality can be understood in connection with Soelle’s concept of mysticism. Spirituality is not a disembodied experience that happens outside of humans. Spirituality is the direct interaction between God and a human, whether or not the human is knowingly or actively involved.
How does all of this defining apply to Oscar Romero? It applies because Romero’s connection with God followed this pattern, happening not on lofty, pious thrones, but in common reality.
To begin the discussion of spirituality, let us recognize the prophetic reality of any spiritual individual. The Catholic Church recognizes that all individuals, “laity” and ordained, are sharing in the office of Christ: all these faithful who are incorporated into Christ and the people of God are sharing in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly life of Christ (2). Each of us has our own part to play in the Christian mission. Therefore it is important to recognize how one’s spirituality can be a prophetic message to the Church and to the world.
Soelle puts the prophetic message in the language of resistance. Some will see spirituality as removed from the world, a flight from reality, and introversion into the salvation of one’s own soul (3). On the contrary, spirituality, when practiced in the Catholic faith, is inherently outward looking. In addition to the communal aspect of the spiritual life, the prophetic reality of resistance stands firm in the recognition of the “other” as also a part of the “self.” Soelle writes, “The broadest notion of resistance assumed here arises from the distance established from what is regarded as the normal world, a world founded on power, possession, and violence (4).” The spiritual Catholic will begin not by making God the crutch on which we put our burdens and responsibilities but by making God an ally of the exploited (5). The prophetic nature of the Catholic calls all individuals of the faith to always refocus themselves and their communities on the message of God (6).
Now that we have established that a spiritual individual (and all Catholics in general) and mystics are prophetic by definition and nature, we can analyze Romero’s form of spirituality that led him to his prophetic words and actions. Romero was a son of the Catholic Church and related very closely to Ignatian Spirituality. Romero was formed by the Jesuit order, but not a member. As one student of Romero’s spirituality explained,
Apparently, he practiced the meditations that Ignatius of Loyola created. Father David Fleming, S.J., wrote in his book What is Ignatian Spirituality? that “Ignatius sees God as present, not remote or detached. He is involved in the details of our life. Our daily lives in this world matter (8).” Knowing this, we can recognize that Romero’s own spirituality must have been one that was connected to his daily life. Thus his prayer life could not have been detached from his environment. In addition to this focus on God in our lives, Ignatian Spirituality calls individuals to enter into work with Christ our King. “Christ is not a remote ruler commanding his forces through a hierarchy of princes, earls, dukes, lords, and knights. He is ‘in the trenches.’ He is doing the work of evangelizing and healing himself (9)."
A hallmark of Ignatian Spirituality is imaginative prayer. Ignatius of Loyola believed that there was a spiritual force behind his feelings. Whether the force behind one of his emotions was the “good” or the “evil” spirit was something Ignatius sought to distinguish (10). From there, Ignatius began to use his imaginative tool to discern how God was moving him in his life. Father Fleming also states, in his compact explanation of Ignatian Spirituality, that one method of imaginative prayer is to immerse ourselves in the Gospels and experience Christ in the Gospels. The method calls us to know Jesus in an imaginative way. Through this imaginative prayer and through our dedication to Christ in our daily lives, Ignatian Spirituality calls us to a new focus, something different in our lives.
Change of Heart
One of the cornerstones of Ignatian Spirituality is change of heart. For Ignatius of Loyola, God was revealed to him not in philosophical concepts or intellectual understanding but through his heart. “God as Love was no longer just a scriptural statement. Ignatius experienced God as an intensely personal, active, generous God, a God as Love loving (11).” Later in his book, Father Fleming explains an ancient understanding of the heart that was used by the biblical authors: when we say “my heart goes out to you,” we mean more than a feeling of concern; we are also sending forth a message of solidarity. Ignatian Spirituality recognizes this (12). Truly, when considering human relations, our interactions are not something we can solely intellectualize or understand. There is some sort of heartfelt relation that goes into it. Here is where Ignatian Spirituality makes the human connection with the divine. While one’s religious practices and intellectual understanding deepens, it is not the mind that is changed, but rather the heart that is transformed (13).
Lived Spiritual Life
As far as we can tell, Romero would have practiced Ignatian meditation, imagination, and the spiritual exercises throughout his life. Were his words and deeds evidence of his spiritual life? To some, outward actions and words can all be mere facade and disingenuous, and because our knowledge of Romero’s mind comes only from his homilies and his diary, we cannot know for sure what he believed. Some authors believe that Romero’s prophetic theology was completely separated from his spirituality. In Oscar Romero: Reflections on his Life and Writings, the authors write, “Romero’s prophetic theology, which sought to defend the poor, was strong, clear and uncompromising, but his ‘personal’ spirituality was fastened to a more conservative tradition, discipline, and language (14).”
To some extent these individuals are correct that one’s theology is not always connected to one’s spirituality. Knowing Romero’s own spiritual background, however, his “conservative” spirituality is actually simply a traditional view of the poor that has been lost in a modern society. In one of his homilies on November 26, 1978, Romero said: “Each time we look upon the poor, on the farmworkers who harvest the coffee, the sugarcane, or the cotton, or the farmer who joins the caravan of workers looking to earn their savings for the year…remember, there is the face of Christ (15).” Arguably, this is a window into understanding Romero’s own spirituality. He imagined the face of Christ in the faces of the poor. Therefore, in his own prophetic theology, he is simply harkening back to a spirituality that has been lost in the Church and the individualistic culture of our day. Romero’s Ignatian exercises led him to find Christ in the poor of Salvador, and thus when he saw Christ in the poor, he could respond with nothing short of action. This led him to the prophetic words and deeds we know of today. “Over years of prayerful reflection and spiritual direction of others, [he] developed many ways to listen to the language of the heart (16).”
Romero’s Lived Ethics and the Catholic Conscience
In the Catholic tradition, we are called to analyze our decisions using Scripture, experiential understanding, and Catholic teaching. Individually, the Scripture might lead us to different conclusions, but all individuals’ decisions should encompass all three elements of an informed conscience. Arguably, an ill-informed conscience will choose to deny one of the parts of the triangle in order to justify a conclusion. Most people have a disposition towards one part of the three-part conscience, and this can lead one to ignore the other sections of the Catholic conscience. To understand Romero’s ethics, we must analyze how all three elements provided his reasons for standing with the poor and choosing a liberating theology.
To begin, with Romero’s own dedication to Scripture. He was a priest and thus very well-versed in Scripture, reading them and praying them on a daily basis. Beyond that, though, he always advocated dedication to the Gospels in his own homilies and teachings. In one press conference, on February 9, 1979, he called all individuals to conversion to the Gospel. He said that those in the diplomatic and military worlds who are Catholic should be true to the Gospel message (17). Romero’s own preaching was not fettered with quotes from Scripture, but he was most definitely conscious of the message of the Gospels.
Romero approached the Gospels as a challenge to live like Christ with the Spirit of God that changes hearts. He also focused on the scriptural message of the cross and resurrection. When Romero calls for definitive liberation, he applies the logic of the cross and resurrection. “It is precisely by incarnating our lives in the historical and conflictual struggles of our time – and especially those of the poor – that we discover God’s plan and promise of salvation,” he said (18). This is all in reference to the paschal mystery of the Gospels. Romero is referring to Romans 6:3-11 and Paul’s take on the death and resurrection: “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (19).” Romero believed in a divine aspect of liberation and preached it based on his knowledge of Scripture. In his diary, Romero wrote, “Through his Paschal Mystery, Christ redeems us from sin, from death, from hell and from every kind of slavery. I pointed out that Christian liberation is more complete and deeper than any other liberation that is merely political, social, or economic (20).”
The experience Romero had of the Salvadoran people came mostly after his appointment as archbishop of San Salvador. Prior to his appointment, Romero was mostly a quiet man who took to his studies and didn’t speak out on social matters. The government was actually pleased to hear Romero was appointed because he was considered a conservative member of the Catholic Church. Many liberation theologians were concerned that his reputation would negatively affect
the Church’s commitment to the poor in El Salvador (21).
After Romero became the archbishop, there was a defining moment when he recognized the importance of the community he lived in, and he entered into a new aspect of his moral development. When many of his friends were assassinated, including Father Rutilio Grande, S.J., Romero was profoundly affected and changed by the reality of the Salvadoran oppression of the poor (22). As Romero became more involved in his community, immersion into the life of the poor and hurting in Salvador became his focus. In one of his homilies, on March 14, 1977, he spoke out about the violence against the people and clearly stated his resentment of such violence. Even if that violence was allowed or committed by the Church, he was clear that it was not acceptable. Romero said, “As long as one does not live a conversion in one’s heart, a teaching enlightened by faith to organize life according to the heart of God, all will be feeble, revolutionary, passing, violent. None of these is Christian (23).”
What Romero became through his time as archbishop was something no one saw coming. He learned to inform his actions not just from his intellect or his theology, but allowed for the people and history to speak to him, as God working in reality. He allowed his people to choose the fate of the Church. This way of leadership dramatically diverged from the hierarchical method the Catholic Church had held (24). For Romero, there was a dramatic shift from obeying the teachings of the Church to actually applying the teachings to the history he lived in.
Liberation theology was seen as a dangerous method of applying Christ’s teachings to Marxist thought. At the time when Romero began his stand for the Salvadoran people, many conservative bishops and leaders of the Church were worried about the focus of Romero and the liberation theologians. Romero was conscious of what his brothers and sisters in Christ were speaking of him. As some commentators on Romero’s life and work note,
It is true that Romero focused on the historical aspect of salvation, but many would argue that focusing solely on the transcendent fails to recognize the true Christian message. Ignacio Ellacuria, a professor at a Jesuit University in El Salvador and a contemporary of Romero’s, summarized the foundation of Romero’s spirituality and ethics beautifully: Romero based his hope on two pillars: a historical focus that included the knowledge of his people and the desire to find solutions to their hardships and a transcendent focus that informed his understanding that ultimately God wanted us to live, not to die (26). Interestingly enough, this foundation is not entirely foreign to the Catholic faith. In Living Justice, Father Thomas Massaro, S.J., speaks of Catholic Social Teaching in action. Father Massaro writes, “Any responsible theology must consider, with the utmost seriousness, both aspects of our reality. To truly respect people is to demonstrate concern for their earthly well-being as well as their heavenly destiny (27).” Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the leading proponents of liberation theology, speaks on a similar topic, arguing that there is more to Christ’s message than spiritual well-being. Gutierrez brings to mind the individualization of Jesus’ message that happens often in the Church (28). To some, only the transcendent aspect of Christ is important, and in that way we lose the importance of Christ’s temporal reality. He existed in history, and when we focus on only his transcendent reality, it robs the scriptures of their historical nature and disregards the objective realities in which “individuals and peoples live and die, struggle and assert their faith (29).”
Romero was aware that he was being criticized and thus spoke out in his homilies to explain himself. “Let us be clear: when the church preaches social justice, equality, and the dignity of people, defending those who suffer and those who are assaulted, this is not subversion; this is not Marxism. This is the authentic teaching of the church (30).” In his diary, he also stated clearly that Catholics must always clarify the position of the Church and never identify themselves as a political party (31). In his diary, he speaks of times when he struggled with his own theology. He met with many of his brothers and sisters in his archdiocese and asked them for counsel:
When Romero found steadiness of heart in his convictions to stand with the people, he began to understand more and more how God works among the people. He began to understand what Gutierrez speaks about in his Theology of Liberation. Romero wrote, “God saves the people through their own history. And God needs the people themselves to save the world: communities that, like John the Baptist, are not identified with any political movement, but which shed light on all of them (33).” Later in his diary, he considers that the encounter of God in the world is not the only element to liberation and evangelization. There also needs to be catechesis and the study of religion (34). He began to speak like the liberation theologians but also infused his knowledge of traditional Catholic teachings into his comments.
Romero’s Prophetic Voice
When analyzing Romero’s ethics as informed by Scripture, praxis, and the teachings of the Church, it seems that he counters the traditions of the Church. Arguably, Romero is true to the Catholic faith and stands firm in the Gospel messages. He fairly applies Scripture to his understanding of transcendence, while also entering into the historical context of the Salvadoran people. To some, however, his theology is counter to Church teachings because it calls for social change and can lead to class warfare. While that is a fair argument against Romero, he addresses such an issue in one of his own homilies. “Let us be firm in defending our rights, but with great love in our hearts, because to defend our rights in this way we are also seeking the conversion of sinners. This is the vengeance of the Christian (35).” Romero was clear that liberation was valuable for the poor, but first and foremost, Christ was the liberator: “Let us not put our trust in earthly liberation movements. Yes, they are providential, but only if they do not forget that all the liberating force in the world comes from Christ (36).”
What, then, is Romero, if he is not counter to tradition in the Catholic Church? Arguably, Romero is a prophetic voice of the 20th century. He stands as an individual who leans on his spirituality to change his heart and thus to act in an ethical manner. Romero’s choice to stand by his conscience (utilizing all his knowledge of Scripture, Catholic tradition, and his own experience) is not only critically important but also valuable for others to follow. I would argue that Romero is a prophetic voice because he is calling us to refocus ourselves on Christ. This call comes in his message to see the face of Christ in the poor, to live spiritually transcendent lives, to find Christ in historical instances, and to love our brothers and sisters, both the sinners and the victim. Romero himself said in one of his homilies, on July 8, 1979:
Romero was a son of the Church but also an honest, spiritual man who saw God in the faces of the poor. He chose to defend the rights of the Salvadoran people, not to cause violence against the rich but to bring life to the poor. He challenged and still challenges the hierarchy, lay people, and all humanity to be conscious of injustice and to not make our lives individualistic.
Romero’s example calls us to stand with the poor in our cultures. We must live in solidarity and not focus on our own piety but be willing to have the heart of Christ change us. We must allow for the historical example of God working in the world to be a force in our lives. Romero once said, “Unfortunately, brothers and sisters, we are a product of a spiritualized, individualistic education. We are taught: try to save your soul and don’t worry about the rest. We told those who suffered: be patient, heaven will follow, hang on. No, that’s not right, that’s not salvation! (38)”
Catholic Social Teaching tells us to “speak forcefully about the sacredness of life, universal solidarity, and the common good,” and Romero is not separate from this tradition (39). He calls us to liberate our brothers and sisters not in death but in life. This teaching is grounded in the Paschal Mystery of Christ, the spiritual lessons of Ignatius of Loyola, the teachings of the Catholic Church and most definitely the history we live in. Romero calls us to “sentir con la Iglesia” or to feel at one mind with the Church. The Church always needs someone to refocus its lenses towards Christ, and in the 20th century, Romero was a prophetic voice for the South American Church and the world.
1. Dorothee Soelle, Martin Rumscheidt, and Barbara Rumscheidt, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 18.
2. Catechism of Catholic Church 897.
3. Soelle, The Silent Cry, 196.
4. Ibid., 198.
5. Ibid., 202.
6. Catechism of Catholic Church 436.
7. James R. Brockman, S. J, “The Spiritual Journey of Oscar Romero,” speech given at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX, July 1990.
8. David L. Fleming, What Is Ignatian Spirituality? (Chicago: Loyola, 2008), 3.
9. Fleming, What is Ignatian Spirituality?, 4.
10. Ibid., 56.
11. Ibid., 8.
12. Fleming, What is Ignatian Spirituality?, 14.
13. Ibid., 15.
14. Marie Dennis, Renny Golden, and Scott Wright, Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 34.
15. Monsenor Oscar A. Romero: Su pensamiento, November 26, 1978 homily, volume 5, 327. Marie, Golden, and Wright, Oscar Romero: Reflections, 35.
16. Fleming, What is Ignatian Spirituality?, 15.
17. Óscar A. Romero and James R. Brockman, The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 147.
18. Romero and Brockman, The Violence of Love, 102.
19. Romans 6:8.
20. Óscar A. Romero and Irene B. Hodgson, Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Shepherd’s Diary (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger, 1993), 32.
21. Marie, Golden, and Wright, Oscar Romero: Reflections, 10-21.
22. Ibid., 27.