Arts & Books

Book review: A true priest amid the chaos of politics

A young man paints a portrait of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero as part of the preparations for the 35th anniversary of Romero's death in San Salvador, El Salvador (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

Oscar Romero: Prophet of Hope
by Roberto Morozzo Della Rocca, DLT, £10

Roberto Morozzo Della Rocca refers to a paradox associated with Blessed Oscar Romero: “Any action by Romero had strong political repercussions but that does not mean he intended to engage in politics.”

Romero was, first and last, a priest even when he saw his country falling into chaos. We should not imagine, Della Rocca stresses, that Romero was anything other than appalled by social injustice or escalating violence. But we should abandon the notion that, at some point in time, he morphed from a compliant, traditionalist cleric into a political activist.

The author fully accepts that Romero’s social conscience evolved through the years especially when, as Bishop of Santiago de Maria and Archbishop of San Salvador, he was confronted by tough pastoral challenges, anti-Catholic outrages and a ludicrously overheated political situation. “His mental horizons broadened” but, for Della Rocca, this was a process of development rather than transformation. The book stresses the consistencies – ethical, social and theological – that defined Romero’s career, all the way from the Roman years (1937-43) to his assassination in 1980.

Della Rocca is very good on Romero’s theological stances. He was no kind of moderniser, but he had no problem with Vatican II, seeing it as a pastoral event rather than a mechanism to question dogma. His devotion to Rome was fierce and he sought to bring a universalist complexion to the Latin American Church. He thought the earthly concerns of Liberation Theology overlooked the fact that a grander form of liberation was the true purpose of faith.

Della Rocca’s analysis is appreciative but candid. Romero did not lack critics and he made mistakes, but all too often he found himself in tortuous situations. The trick, as the author puts it, is to avoid locking “Romero up in the box of the ideological conflicts of his era”.

Even when listing the latest acts of brutality from his Sunday pulpit, Romero was thinking and acting like a priest. This, at any rate, is Della Rocca’s perspective, and he reminds us that the Church, when beatifying Romero, recorded that he was struck down in odium fidei, out of hatred of the faith.

This article first appeared in the January 8 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here