The Scandal of Redemption: When God Liberates the Poor, Saves Sinners, and Heals Nations
by Oscar Romero, ed. Carolyn Kurtz; foreword by Michael Lapsley
Plough Publishing House, 2018
$8.00, 132 pp.
At the 2015 Vatican press conference announcing the beatification of now-Saint Oscar Romero, who was killed in 1980 while celebrating Mass in a San Salvador hospital, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, postulator for Romero’s cause for canonization, declared that Romero’s killing was motivated “by hatred for a faith that, imbued with charity, would not be silent in the face of the injustices that relentlessly and cruelly slaughtered the poor and their defenders.” Not by accident, Paglia’s phrasing invoked the classical criterion of odium fidei—hatred of the faith—by which a person is recognized as a martyr by the Catholic Church.
Questions about whether and how this criterion applies to Romero and his death have circled around his cause for years. For the Magisterium, these questions have been resolved through careful study of various witnesses as well as Romero’s own words; following the recognition of his martyrdom and the confirmation of a miracle attributed to his intercession, Romero was formally canonized in October of last year. For lay Catholics and other Christians who want to understand the meaning of this modern saint’s witness but aren’t sure where to begin, The Scandal of Redemption, Plough Publishing’s recent addition to its Spiritual Guides series, makes for an edifying introduction to Romero’s thought, life, and ministry.
As with other books in this series, The Scandal of Redemption is a thematically arranged compilation of excerpts from Romero’s homilies, radio addresses, and diary entries. The faith by which he lived and ultimately died shines through these readings continuously, reflecting a strong Catholic orthodoxy deeply intertwined with orthopraxy, and pointing to the sacrifice of his life to which this lived faith led. The diary entries, set apart between chapters and typeset to resemble handwritten notes, add a pastoral touch, juxtaposed to emphasize the contrast between these more personal reflections and the comparatively higher register of his speeches and homilies. His more formal speech, however, is no less readable. The organization of brief excerpts by subject makes it an easy yet compelling read.
At the same time, in addition to the explicitly thematic categories that give cohesion to each of the book’s nine chapters, there are several notable themes that recur throughout, giving the sense of certain threads that ran through Romero’s thought and experience. The Kingdom of God, for example, is a frequent subject of Romero’s preaching, even beyond the chapter dedicated to it, in ways that reflect its paradoxically dual reality in earth and heaven: not merely temporal or material—not liberating people to “have more” but to “be more”—the Kingdom is also decidedly not spiritualized away into a vague otherworldly ideal, but grounded in justice and realized in the love of God’s children for their neighbors.
Contrary to suspicions that Romero harbored Communist sympathies, this Kingdom paradox proves important to his direct refutation of the Marxist characterization of religion as mere opiate, consoling the faithful into passive acceptance of unjust and inhumane conditions. Not only injustice but outright violence was rife throughout the three years Romero served as Archbishop of San Salvador, and the Christian response, he taught, was neither passive acceptance nor the return of violent revolt for violent repression. Rather, he says, “Christianity proves to be better than Communism when people work like Communists and hope in God like Christians.” This “twofold development,” in which earthly work and transcendent hope are inseparable, is the true response to violence and injustice for the redeemed community, which in turn is realized in the radically equalizing power of catholicity: to call God our Father is to be “no longer a privileged people and a marginalized people,” but “coheirs in the mystery of Christ.” Notably, this same theme is developed at the beginning of the same passage cited above, suggesting a direct thematic connection. The citations (appended as endnotes, providing easy reference without visual clutter) indicate that these passages are from homilies preached about half a year apart.
The disproof of Communism’s complaints against Christian faith, for Romero, is directly linked to a broad view of salvation as God’s desire not merely for isolated individuals but for “a people.” At the same time, like his Kingdom theology, the meaning of salvation is not an either/or. In fact, in a homily given the day before his death, he located the root of social sin “in the heart of every human person,” and thus too salvation, which “begins with the human person, with human dignity, with freeing every individual from sin.” Here, then, is another striking paradox: Romero’s recognition of the social dimensions of sin and salvation is fundamentally a call to conversion for every person.
More strikingly still, this call explicitly and repeatedly included the very perpetrators of the violence Romero preached so passionately against. This is why salvation in both its personal dimension and social implications was so vital to Romero’s theology and ministry: not reducible to an individualized relationship with God having nothing to do with one’s neighbors, it nevertheless connected deeply with the redemptive personalism he consistently expressed in impassioned pleas to those who were persecuting his flock, knowing that they too were human beings deeply in need of conversion.
Indeed, the same penultimate homily includes what may be his best-known appeal to the consciences of members of the military (quoted by editor Carolyn Kurtz in her introduction), addressing them as “brothers” and reminding them of a higher moral authority that outweighs the order to kill. Such passionate appeals appear as a recurring feature of Romero’s preaching throughout his ministry as Archbishop. Already in 1977, the year he was appointed, he was pleading, “Who knows if I’m being heard by those who have killed and tortured and done so much evil? Listen, there in your criminal hideouts! Perhaps you are already repentant. You too are called to forgiveness!”, condemning injustice and torture while always holding out “hope that a little contact with God will change these dungeons of hell, that a little light will shine on them and make those running them understand what God desires of them.”
It is perhaps this hope—the hope that dares to call even “those who have … done so much evil” to seek the Kingdom in which those who had been divided between privileged and marginalized, oppressors and victims, recognize their coequal dignity as children of one Father—that makes redemption scandalous.