In March 2005, I attended the 25th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero at the Jesuit Central American University [UCA] in San Salvador. Brazilian poet and bishop Pedro Casaldáliga was scheduled to attend, but was delayed due to illness. In his stead, he sent an “Open Letter to Brother Romero” to the gathering for the Week of Theological Reflection. It was read there by the famous little bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, Don Samuel Ruiz. Afterwards, I was invited to be on a small team that translated Casaldáliga “open letter” into English. They wanted a poet to help with Casaldáliga’s precise, rich poetic allusions. Below is his letter, with notes following:
OPEN LETTER TO BROTHER ROMERO FROM PEDRO CASADALIGA, IN BRAZIL:
I should be there with you… and I am: with my whole heart. You are very present in the thoughts of all of us in this small church of São Félix de Araguaia, my brother. I can see you in my own room, in the chapel of the patio, in our cathedral, in many communities, in the Sanctuary of the Mártires de la Caminada Latinoamericana. You are even present when a mango falls on my roof and I remember how your heart would lurch when the mangos fell on the tin roof of your little refuge at the Hospitalito.*
In the month of March in 1983, I wrote in my diary: I either can´t understand it at all, or I understand it all too well: the photograph of the martyred Monseñor Romero with Pope John Paul II, on some huge posters for the Pope’s visit was banned by the joint church-government commission in El Salvador. * The image of the martyr was painful. Naturally, it would bother a Government that was persecutor and assassin. It is also natural that it would be painful to a certain sector of the church. Sadly natural.
Well, anyway, once again this month of March, all of us here in this little corner of Mato Grosso, and throughout the Americas as well as around the world, many Christian men and women and also non Christians celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Romero, the good shepherd of Latin America. Your image comforts us; it commits us and unites us, like a deeply felt version of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
And now we are here, millions, celebrating in many ways the Jubilee Year of your definitive testimony, that homily written in blood that no one can silence. You have the power to bring us together, a macro-ecumenical power as saint of Catholics, Protestants and even of atheists. We are there celebrating, rebuilding, accepting your call. You call us to a commitment, like Jesus of Nazareth did, that historic Jesus who so many times is reduced to helenistic dogma and sentimental spiritualism. That Jesus the Poor, in solidarity with the poor, the Crucified one with all the crucified peoples of History.
You were right, and we also want to celebrate this, with Easter joy. You have been reborn in your people, who will no longer be submissive to the empire and the oligarchies. Nor will they allow themselves to be swayed by repentant former revolutionaries or by overly-spiritualized church leaders. You are reborn in the People—we are millions of dreamers, both women and men, who believe that another world is possible and that another Church is possible. Because the way things are now, brother Romero, neither the other world nor the other Church is yet in view. Wars continue, now even preemptive wars; hunger continues, strikes, violence—either by the state or a mob; sham democracies, false progress, false gods that dominate through money and the media, with weapons and politics. And a large part of the church remains silent. We have moved from the doctrine of National Security to that of transnational capital and we’ve gone from military dictatorships to the macro dictatorship of the neoliberal empire.
It’s also been 25 years since Puebla. The faces, Romero–the faces of the “slaughtered”* Jesus–are more numerous and more disfigured today. And those utopian revolutions–beautiful and naive as though in an adolescent stage of history–betrayed by some, tremendously denigrated by others, are missed by many of us here–but we would want them to be different, gentler, more profoundly personal and communitarian. We are here with you, pastor of accompaniment, companion of the poor of the Earth in grief and in blood. How much we need today for you to show the poor how to become one body in solidarity, organization, and stubborn hope!
In you, said teacher and martyr Ellacuria,* “God has walked through El Salvador” and through our entire world. And the ground breaking theologian, José María Vigil has made three bold statements about you that, more than statements of belief, are urgent challenges for us for us take up.
“Romero: preeminent symbol of the option for the poor and of liberation theology;
Romero: preeminent symbol of the conflict between the State and those who make the option for the poor; Romero: preeminent symbol of the conflict between the institutional church and those who make the option for the poor.”
It’s not that you ever stopped being “institutional” and observant in your vocation. I always admired in you the way you married discipline and freedom, traditional piety and Liberation Theology, and the most daring prophecy and the most generous forgiveness.
You were a saint in the making, undergoing a constant process of conversion. It has been repeatedly said to your credit that you were a “converted” bishop. One with God and with the People, without dichotomy. “I have to listen,” you said, “to the Spirit speaking through the People.” This was in your homily of March 23 1980, the day before your ultimate sacrifice, and your homily had the most appropriate title, “The Church at the Service of Personal, Communitarian, Transcendent Liberation.”
Romero, we remember you so often, my exemplary brother, because we need you so much. You encourage us, you continue offering us a homily of wholistic liberation. You continue crying out “stop the repression” to all repressive forces in society, in the churches, in religions. You warn us that “those who commit themselves to the poor will share the same fate as the poor: to be disappeared, tortured, captured, and to reappear as corpses.” And you remind us that when we commit to the cause of the poor we are merely “preaching the subversive witness of the beatitudes, which have turned everything upside-down.”
You trusted us—and we won’t let you down—that “as long as there is injustice, there will be Christians who denounce it and put themselves on the side of the victims.” As you asked for it to be, your blood has truly been a “seed of liberty.”
Our memory of you is not simply nostalgia nor is it a sacramentalized veneration that lingers like incense in the air; we want it to be, we will make it, a militant commitment, a ministry of liberation. Our theologian, the theologian of the martyrs, Jon Sobrino, sums up for us the evangelical and political task that the work of the Kingdom demands of us in fidelity to your memory: to confront reality with truth; to analyze reality and its causes; to work for structural change, to carry out an evangelization that is mature, freeing, critical and self critical; to build the Church as a people of God; to give hope to the People who suffer so much….
This week of your Jubilee, in San Salvador, will end up being a people’s synod, an encounter of aspirations and commitments within the conciliar process we are living. It will be a great Easter Vigil with emphasis on you and so many other faithful witnesses, those known and those anonymous, but all recorded in luminous letters in the Book of Life, followers loyal to the end to that ultimate Faithful Witness.
“We are once again en marche bearing witness,” I said to you in the poem I wrote about you. And it’s true. We are part of the great World Social Forum, with the Gospel and for the Kingdom, making another World possible, and also another Church—a church that is liberating and united. We are making an immense Homeland, Our America* with the Caribbean and with the South and with our indispensable Central America; with another North, finally part of the same family, no longer empire.
They are announcing a fifth Latin American Bishops’ Conference, possibly for 2007, and we hope that it will be held in Latin America. Help in the preparations, brother. All the saints of Our America need to work celestial overtime so that this Conference be another Medellin, but for today.
We will continue to talk, brother Romero. Every day. You are accompanying us, from your place of complete Peace, on this arduous and liberating path of the Gospel. So many times, like the disciples at Emmaus, we feel cheated, directionless, because “we thought that…”
People have said that your last homily was your last words, your last testament. You wrote other last words, even stronger, but not as well known. On April 19th of April in that year of 1980, Bishop Arturo Rivera Damas, apostolic administrator of San Salvador, wrote to me: … we have taken the liberty of including with this letter a letter that our beloved Monseñor Romero had written to you on the very day of his murder and that he would have signed that night. We thank you for your Christian solidarity with him and with our Church and we ask you to always pray that we can continue the work that the Lord and the Church have entrusted to us according to the criteria which Monseñor Romero used…”
Your letter, Romero, which we keep in our archives and treasure as a “relic,” reads like a prayer:
… My dear brother bishop:
With great affection, I thank you for your fraternal message expressing your sorrow about the destruction of our radio transmitter.
Your warm expression of support greatly encourages us in our commitment to our mission to continue to be the expression of the hopes and anguish of the poor, joyfully running the same risks as Jesus, because of our identification with the just cause of the dispossessed.
In the light of faith, feel me closely bound to you in affection, prayer and in the triumph of the Resurrection.
Oscar A. Romero, Archbishop
These last words that you wrote, and signed with your blood, could not have been more Christian.
Beloved Saint Romero of America, brother, pastor, witness: you lived and gave your life because you truly believed in “the triumph of the Resurrection.” Help us to truly believe in this triumph, so that we might live–and give our lives as you did–with the poor of the Earth, following the Crucified Resurrected Jesus.– Pedro Casaldáliga, 24 March 2005
Translated by Yvonne Dilling, Irene Hodgson, and Rose Marie Berger
Notes from the translators:
This letter was sent to the gathering of the Week of Theological Reflection for the 25th aniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero at the Jesuit Central American University [UCA] in San Salvador) and read there by Don Samuel Ruiz, retired bishop of Chiapas, Mexico.
We have left “monseñor” in Spanish when it refers to Romero. “Monseñor” is often used to name Romero without his last name. Translating it as ”bishop” or “archbishop” creates a distance not there in the Spanish.
Pedro Casadáliga is a poet. We have tried to preserve as much of the poetry in this translation as possible and, as much as possible, to leave open to the reader’s interpretation the multiplicity of meanings in certain phrases.
*“Hospitalito” refers to the Divine Providence Hospital for indigent cancer patients where Mons. Romero had a little house.
* There have been two posters made of Pope John Paul II connected with Romero in El Salvadaor: one with the two walking together; another of the Pope kneeling at Romero’s first tomb. It is said that the Vatican was not happy about either one of them.
*The author is making an allusion to a phrase in a sermon by Fr. Rutilio Grande, who first used the word “destazado” to describe how Jesus was killed on the cross. The Spanish word is typically only used to describe the slaughter of animals. Guillermo Cuéllar heard this sermon and popularized this same image from Fr. Grande in “Cordero de Dios” (“Lamb of God”), one of the songs from the Misa Popular Salvadoreña.
*Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., murdered at the Jesuit university November 16, 1989.
*“Our America” and the hopes for a new kind of relationship with the “brother” to the North are reminders to a Latin American audience of essays by Cuban writer and hero of the Independence, José Martí, called the “apostle of the Americas.” What we have translated as “immense homeland” contains language used to describe the “great” regions of Latin America before they were divided into individual countries.
* “Con los pobres de la tierra” is a line from the Versos sencillos de José Martí (above) and used in the popular song “Guantanamera.”