This painting of Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero is located in the lower level of the Cathedral of San Salvador. CNS photo/Octavio Duran

Romero biography suffers through identity crisis

By  Sarah Hanna, Catholic Register Special
  • February 28, 2015

Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out by Kevin Clarke (Novalis, 164 pages, softcover, $14.95).

The life and death of Archbishop Oscar Romero raises questions as relevant to Catholics today as they were when Romero’s native El Salvador was struggling through years of violence and injustice. How and when should Church officials take sides in the political affairs of nations? What brings a person of privilege to a radical change of heart? How can such a person come to be in solidarity with the poor?

Unfortunately, Love Must Win Out presents a story of Romero’s life that does little to respond to these questions.

I can respect a biographer who works hard to present a heroic subject as a real human being, with flaws and complexity.

Kevin Clarke certainly does that. He seems uncomfortable with the story of Romero as an out-of-touch leader who receives a sudden, profound wake-up call to devote himself to his suffering people.

Clarke wonders if it is possible, given Romero’s poor upbringing, that he could have spent years in ignorance of or indifference to the plight of the poor around him. Perhaps it is only cynicism on my part to think Clarke underestimates our human capacity to ignore the suffering of others.

Or perhaps it’s Romero’s response to the killing of as many as 100 protesters by the Salvadoran government just after he was elevated to archbishop. At this critical moment, he convened a meeting of his priests to discuss not the reality of military oppression but the threat presented by Protestant missionaries.

I don’t point this out to demonize Romero, but to say that his story could be one of hope. His life illustrates the depth of conversion that is possible. To see Romero’s sacrificial love for the marginalized people of El Salvador as a foregone conclusion, as the destiny of a great man who was always and already great, is to do a disservice to those still unable to hear the cry of the poor.

The murder of Romero’s friend, Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, is a tipping point for Romero, the power of which Clarke hesitates to acknowledge. In the wake of that tragedy an agrarian reform expert recalls, “the man wanted to learn.” If we read this as a moment of conversion, we are forced to ask ourselves, “Do I want to learn?” If Romero was always special, always tied to the poor, we are forced to ask ourselves nothing at all.

Love Must Win Out does not leave out unflattering details. We read about the early years of Romero’s priesthood, when he worked himself to exhaustion and developed a reputation as a scold among fellow clerics. But the book falls down when it tries to make the case that this was merely an expression of the dedication with which he would come to champion the cause of his people.

Clarke is not immune to the temptation to embrace heroic aspects of Romero’s biography, either. He begins with his death.

This choice is not without its merits — it’s certainly what he is most famous for, and it could hardly have been a more dramatic moment. But Clarke adds a lengthy paragraph in which death is personified, ending with the phrase, “there were so many others on death lists in El Salvador in those days on whom death could slake its thirst.” Surely the image of a beloved figure shot down at the altar is poignant enough to speak for itself.

Clarke treats his subject with respect, not shying away from uncomfortable facts, but paying tribute to the love and reverence in which he is held by those Romero inspired. But the book suffers from an identity crisis. Sometimes it is a detailed chronology of a man’s life. At others, it jumps around in search of a broader point. Sometimes it’s the tale of Romero’s conversion. At others, it rejects the conversion story entirely.

There is much to learn from Oscar Romero’s life, and I was inspired to read about some of his less well-known experiences and remarks, but I came away feeling the need for more insight than this volume had to offer.

(Hanna is a freelance writer in Regina.)

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