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By Teresa Malcolm, NCR staff writer
It was five years ago this month that I volunteered to run an after-hours errand for NCR -- an errand that changed my life. A local group was hosting a screening of the movie "Romero" to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Salvadoran archbishop's death that March 24, and I was commissioned to distribute on the theater's seats copies of NCR's most recent issue, which had an article about Oscar Romero.
My task once accomplished and the Thursday evening free, I decided to stick around and watch the movie. That choice set the stage: The film itself, as much as it moved me, didn't change my life, but what made the difference was that I walked out saying, "I want to know more."
It was not as though I hadn't heard of Romero before. Working for NCR that would be impossible to avoid, and back in latter half of the 1980s I was certainly aware of him, attending a Jesuit college as I was and involved in human rights work with Amnesty International. I knew him vaguely as "one of the good ones," someone I could point to as a reason to be glad I'm Catholic.
But something in me connected to the person depicted onscreen (helped immeasurably by Raul Julia's subtle yet powerful performance, which was the film's artistic highlight). I wanted to know whether the real Romero was similar, in personality, in the events of his life -- and indeed, what occupied his nearly 60 years before the last three years covered by the movie? I was off on a quest for knowledge.
A pile of books later -- not to mention reading the late Gary MacEoin's reporting from El Salvador for NCR for the 20th anniversary -- what I had found was a friend. Strange to say of this man from another country, whose death passed unnoticed by me when I was at the oblivious age of 12.
The differences between real life and the movie's version of events became not so much important as becoming acquainted with the panorama of this man's life, and finding that beyond admiring Oscar Romero and, in the end, being awed by his knowing sacrifice of his life -- beyond that I discovered that I just liked him.
Most influential for me was the book Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic by María López Vigil (EPICA, 2000), a collection of anecdotes drawn from interviews with relatives, friends and colleagues and arranged in chronological order to create an impressionistic biography. The movie seemed to capture his personality as far as it could, but this book creates a portrait of a full human being, with all the contradictions, over the entire span of his life. While he was a powerful communicator when behind a pulpit or a radio microphone, many noted his shyness and anxiety. Some who lived in community with him when he worked an administrative position for the San Salvador archdiocese in the 1960s said he seemed more comfortable with books and paperwork than with people. His reclusive behavior was seen by some as arrogance -- and I'd find myself defending him: "He was just shy!" Close friends, on the other hand, remembered him as kind, good-humored and remarkably generous -- but also prone to bursts of a sharp temper and impatience.
He was described as deeply spiritual as well, but those who wished the church to take a stand on behalf of the poor and oppressed decried his private approach to faith. In this book, the story of his "conversion," his change from pious but cautious cleric to a prophet who would die from a right-wing assassin's bullet in 1980, emerges as more nuanced than the hagiography would have it.
We learn of his often bitter battles with the progressive elements of the Catholic church from the people who felt targeted by him during his years as auxiliary bishop of San Salvador (1970-74), and their dismay when he was named archbishop in 1977. But we also get a fuller picture of the intervening years when he served as bishop of the desperately poor, rural diocese of Santiago de María. There, one priest puts it, he was "learning from reality." Romero closed down a school for peasants run by priests he considered too radical, but later allowed it to reopen. By the time he left for San Salvador, he and those priests had seemed to reach, if not full agreement, at least understanding and mutual respect.
The assassination of Romero's friend, Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande, at the hands of right-wing death squads is popularly seen as the turning point that transformed the archbishop into a vocal and courageous defender of those suffering under the weight of violent oppression, and this is probably true in some ways. But regarding this change in his outlook, it is telling that those who knew him in Santiago and, especially, his lifelong friends did not seem to share the shock experienced by the hierarchy and the elite who thought he was a safe choice, or by those in San Salvador who saw him as an "inquisitor."
This March 24 marks the 25th anniversary of Monseñor Romero's death. In these past five years, when I say that my life was changed, I can't claim it's been in huge, dramatic ways. I didn't decide to live in voluntary poverty; I still spend too much money on stuff I don't need. I didn't go live in a Catholic Worker house. I didn't give it all up to go off and work in a dangerous, poverty-stricken land.
But staying at NCR is not a bad place to be -- as Romero, a sometime editor, I think would agree. I did step up my involvement in Amnesty International again. I studied Spanish. When a disaster strikes the world's most vulnerable, such as the tsunami that hit Asia in December, Romero's words on the poor are there to provide an extra push to give more than I think I can afford. I started going to Mass regularly, and I chose a Jesuit parish, remembering Fr. Rutilio Grande.
It's possible that I would have done these things regardless of whether I had stayed for that movie five years ago. For some of these things, even probable. But I have to credit the inspiration I have been blessed with.
In the troubled years since Sept. 11, 2001, I've taken comfort in the example of Romero and his fellow Salvadorans who lived through far worse than I've ever had to endure. And as the scandal of hierarchical cover-ups of sex abuse have become more prominent since 2002, it's been good to have Romero still as "one of the good ones" -- only now one I know a whole lot more about, especially his unwavering devotion to the Catholic church, even in the face of persecution by his fellow bishops.
I've been to the commemoration of his martyrdom that's held here annually in March in Kansas City, Mo. But I also like to celebrate his birthday on Aug. 15, because that's what you do for friends. I even brought a cake to work one year -- perhaps I should make it a tradition.
Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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