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 fa