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Oscar Romero: God’s Glory in the Poor – and In the 36 New Men at Casa Juan Diego

Oscar Romero’s Theological Vision: Liberation and Transfiguration of the Poor, by Edgardo Colón-Emeric. Notre Dame University Press, 2018.

 Reviewed by Louise Zwick

Feeding the Hungry
By Angel Valdez

As we recently received thirty-six Central American men as guests in our house in one day,not only paying for their travel to get here, feeding them, acquiring extra mattresses, providing hospitality bags, answering a myriad of questions, helping them make travel arrangements to relatives in other cities, etc., we couldn’t help but reflect on why people are leaving their homelands in such great numbers in Central America. We noticed that in spite of their anxiety for the future, all the men were courteous, kind, and respectful. An eighteen-year-old shared that while he was here he spoke with his mother by telephone. She wept to know that he was being well taken care of in Casa Juan Diego.

On that particular day we received men, but the numbers of women and children trying to escape conditions in which they cannot live are escalating alarmingly. Not in a fearful way, as some have taken advantage of the situation to say, but in a crisis for the humanity of countless families who cannot live under the conditions in their countries.

On the day the thirty-six new guests arrived at Casa Juan Diego, all human beings with the face of Christ, we were reading Oscar Romero’s Theological Vision: Liberation and Transfiguration of the Poor from the University of Notre Dame Press.

Already declared a martyr for the faith, Archbishop Romero is being considered by many to merit being declared a Doctor of the Church. In this book, author Edgardo Colón-Emeric goes far beyond the idea that Romero is not an academic, but a potential “pastoral” Doctor of the Church. He is presented here as a Father of the Latin American Church, as other giants in theology and spirituality are remembered as the early Fathers of the Church.

Romero’s theology was liturgical. It was developed and presented through his homilies to the people of El Salvador, rather than through writing books in the language of the academy. As Colón-Emeric states, “In life, most people encountered Romero through his homilies.”

This was true for the overflowing crowds who attended his Sunday liturgies, but also for the countless people who listened to his homilies on the radio. It was true for the Zwick family during our time in El Salvador. As Mark and I and our children, Jennifer and Joachim, walked through the streets in San Salvador, all the radios were tuned to the Catholic station, replaying Monseñor Romero’s homilies.

Colón-Emeric points out that Romero’s liturgical theology is steeped in Scripture and papal documents, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and the reflections from the gatherings of Latin American bishops beginning with the one in Medellin – but also reflects the horrendous situation faced daily by the Salvadoran people.  The fruit of Romero’s  studies for each Sunday homily, which he also discussed on Saturdays with his priests, was presented in the context of what was happening in the country.

One cannot overstate the situation the Archbishop faced as death squads of the rich and powerful and the government roamed at will, capturing and disappearing lay people and priests, and guerrillas organized in a desperate response to that situation. The people struggled each day to survive.

Colón-Emeric notes that at Medellin the bishops were seeking to implement Vatican II in a Latin America where the vast majority of the people suffered from poverty and oppression. As they read the signs of the times, the bishops reflected that unlike in Europe where the concern facing the Council Fathers included currents of thought about the death of God, “the chief problem confronting the church in Latin America was not the death of God but the death of the people of God.”

As we looked on the faces of our new guests who again are fleeing from their homes in Central America, as Salvadorans did during the late 1970’s and the 1980’s, we thought of Colón-Emeric’s quote from one of Romero’s homilies: “The church too needs to learn to see again. It needs to learn to see Christ’s glory in the faces of campesinos without land…the faces of workers fired without cause, without enough wages to maintain their homes; the faces of the elderly; the faces of the marginalized; the faces of people dwelling in slums; the face of children who are poor and who from their childhood begin to feel the cruel bite of social injustice.’”

The Scandal of the Incarnation

The meaning of the Incarnation of El Salvador, the Divine Savior, is that the Lord Jesus, the Son of God. entered history as the Word made Flesh. Colón-Emeric compares and contrasts Romero’s insights regarding the Incarnation with those of Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the Fathers of the Church. Irenaeus defended the reality of and wrote of the scandal of the Incarnation, the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. And, states Colón-Emeric, he defended the Incarnation against “those who believed in the hierarchical categorization of humanity and condemned life in the flesh as not worth saving.” As Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote a book on Irenaeus and The Scandal of the Incarnation, said, “The flesh and blood which Gnosticism so despised has been assumed by God in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and glorified in the Resurrection and the Eucharist.”

One of Ireneus’ famous sayings was “Gloria Dei vivens homo…,” or “The glory of God is the living human.” Romero, reflecting on the Incarnation from the midst of the poverty and injustice in his country, where 90 percent of the Salvadoran people lacked the means for daily sustenance, declared, Gloria Dei, vivens pauper, “The glory of God is the living poor.”

The Scandal of the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration was a central theme in Romero’s theology, associated with the Passion of Christ, and the Paschal Mystery.

The story of the Transfiguration is recounted in the three Synoptic Gospels. Here is the text from Matthew’s Gospel:

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tentshere, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

“As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, ‘Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ Then the disciples asked him, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’He said in reply,‘Elijah will indeed come and restore all things;but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”

The Feast of the Transfiguration is the national feast of El Salvador, ever since Pedro de Alvarado conquered the indigenous of the area on that very Feast and named the country El Salvador, The Savior. For several centuries there has been a great national celebration on that feast day in El Salvador with parades beginning with a float with a statue of Christ dressed in purple robes of the Passion, then later an unveiling, with the Lord dressed in the dazzling white of the Transfiguration.

Colón-Emeric notes that “throughout most of its history, this celebration was patriotic. It became a scandal only when Romero translated it from the world of the poor. It became a stumbling block for the oligarchs who condemned the life of the poor as not worth living, and for all who were invested in the opaque and disfigured status quo.”

It was through the teaching and homilies of Archbishop Romero, facing the terrible reality in his country, that the feast came to be considered a vision for the transfiguration of the people of El Salvador. One might say that he brought to light for his time and ours the scandal of the Transfiguration.

Colón-Emeric credits Margaret Pfeil’s work as his starting point for developing this theme on the Transfiguration as central to Monseñor Romero’s theology, calling it the most conspicuous and significant exception to the lack of attention to the Transfiguration in other studies on Romero’s theology and Christology. Margaret is not only a professor at the University of Notre Dame, but a co-founder and current member of the Catholic Worker in South Bend, Indiana.

Oscar Romero

Oscar Romero’s Theological Vision traces the evolution in Romero’s homilies each year on the Feast of the Transfiguration. The homilies gradually transitioned from a traditional interpretation to one which related the transfiguration of Christ to his Passion, to his transfigured body in history and an insistence that faith and life could not be separated, especially in regard to the poor. As Colón-Emeric phrased Monseñor’s insights, “The light of the transfigured Christ has the power to transform the flesh of the poor into an icon of glory and to open the eyes of the blind to behold this glory and be changed.”

Our Responsibility as the Poor, the Image of Christ Today, Arrive on Our Doorsteps

United States policies over the past decades have contributed much to the devastation of the lands and the life of the poor (the vast majority) in the Northern Triangle of Central America. Our government’s response as the crisis for the people deepens each day is simply to build more prisons, more detention centers for desperate people and privatize them so that stockbrokers make money from their misfortune. And to try to build a wall across the whole border.

We have a responsibility now to assist the countries – and their refugee people. Catholics (with the blessing and encouragement of their bishops) in cities along on the U.S. side of the border are helping from 20 to 80 to sometimes hundreds of people daily as they are released from ICE custody to appear at a later date in court. Catholic Bishops on the border appear to reflect some of the theological understanding of Saint Oscar Romero shared in this book.

We need to learn to see again. We need to learn to see Christ’s glory in the families refused entrance to the United States to apply for asylum after a long, terrible journey, in the faces of children separated from their parents, in the suffering parents trying to reclaim their children, in the poor children held in cages, in the children abused in immigration custody in privatized detention centers, in those who are deported to a bleak future in their own countries. And beyond, for example, in the thousands of children dying of hunger in countries like Yemen in a war in which the United States supplies the weapons.

The 36 men arrived at Casa Juan Diego at around the same time that the news came out about JP Morgan announcing (under pressure) that they would no longer provide funds for privatized prisons and detention centers. There are glimmers of hope when people work toward the  Transfiguration of the world in Christ.

Edgardo Colon-Emeric’s book demonstrates how Romero’s theology and legacy resound well beyond the Catholic Church among other Christians. Colón-Emeric, a Methodist minister and professor of theology at Duke University, but well versed in Catholic theology, states that “the legacy of Romero is so rich that it overflows the Catholic Church itself.”

May the profound theology of Saint Oscar Romero, molded in the furnace of El Salvador, bring light to our dark times.


Houston Catholic Worker, April-June, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2.