G.K. Chesterton once said that classics are books everyone knows but no one has read.
Perhaps the same might be said of saints like the now-canonized St. Oscar Romero.
Everyone thinks they know him—the appointed icon of liberation theology, the tireless advocate for the poor, the archbishop whose jeremiads against the political establishment led to his assassination. And so the canonization of Romero fits nicely into a media narrative that Pope Francis—who has moved his cause for sainthood forward—is a ‘liberal’ pope.
Romero has long been associated with liberation theology—but unfairly so, as he never actually embraced the theology, let alone even read the books about it that were sent to him.
Nonetheless, prior to his canonization this weekend, Romero had already been canonized by the Left as a sort of secular saint.
The problem with this is that secular saints are easy to dismiss. They do what’s expected of them: they oppose injustices, advocate for the poor, and they fight for a better society. To be sure, all this is commendable and praiseworthy—even heroic in worldly terms. But there is more to a true saint than this.
True saints turn the world on its head, upend our expectations, and leave us scratching our own heads in wonder. They confuse us and make us feel uncomfortable. They challenge our beliefs. They are, to borrow the words of St. Paul, ‘stumbling blocks’ and ‘foolishness’ to the wisdom of the world.
And this Romero certainly is.
Consider what this supposed liberation theologian says about true freedom:
There can be no freedom as long as there is sin in the heart. What’s the use of changing structures? What’s the use of violence and armed force if the motivation is hatred and the purpose is to buttress those in power or else to overthrow them and then create new tyrannies? What we seek in Christ is true freedom, the freedom that transforms the heart, the freedom the risen Christ announces to us today, “Seek what is above” (Col. 3:1). Don’t view earthly freedom and the oppression of this unjust system in El Salvador just by looking down from the rooftops. Look on high!
The above, which is excerpted from his homilies, is the last thing one would expect a liberation theologian to say. Romero does not urge his flock to rise up and fight for their freedom. He does not say they should change the structures of their society. He doesn’t call for a political revolution.
Of course, in the same homily, Romero is quick to add that, “That doesn’t mean accepting the situation, because Christians also know how to struggle.” But Romero immediately returns to the theological heights: “This liberation is incomprehensible without the risen Christ,” he says.
Romero takes the same spiritual approach to the question of peace in the same homily:
My dear sisters and brothers of Perulapán, my hope is that all of you without distinction fall on your knees before Christ, who alone gives peace. Peace does not come from military operations with the collaboration of ORDEN, nor does peace come from the revenge carried out by some popular organization. Peace comes only from Christ. Only by believing in Christ and in one another can we ever experience true peace. (Click here to read the full original homily.)
What makes this message all the more radical is its context. It might not seem so counter-intuitive coming from the pulpit of an Italian parish in the late 1970s. But Romero is surrounded by death, destruction, and despair. Amid ‘disappearances,’ assassinations, and torture of his fellow citizens, Romero calls on his flock not to rise up in some kind of modern crusade or holy war but to find freedom and peace within. This is not the way of the radicals and revolutionaries of this world.
Romero personally witnessed much violence in his war-torn country, eventually losing his life to it. This fact adds to the strangeness of one of his most commonly cited comments on violence:
We have never preached violence, except the violence of love which left Christ nailed to a cross. We have never preached violence except the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that chooses to beat weapons into sickles for work.
Something doesn’t seem quite right in this quotation. Romero begins by condemning violence—and this is something that meets our expectations. We head into the sentence expecting to read that Christ’s suffering is the Christian answer to violence: we do not return violence for violence.
But then he immediately turns the tables on us.
Romero doesn’t renounce violence—instead he embraces it in a most unexpected way: he speaks of the ‘violence of love’ shown by Christ ‘nailed to the cross.’ And then he goes beyond this to add: “We have never preached violence except the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us.”
What is strange and surprising about this comment is the radical way in which Romero appropriates the word ‘violence.’ In normal parlance, violence and hatred come hand in hand, but the relationship is completely inverted in Christianity. In Christianity, love takes violence upon itself. Christian love is a ‘violent love’—violent not in the way that it takes but in the way that it receives. In other words, it is a violence that surrenders rather than seizes. Violence is thus transformed into something redemptive.
In a way, this is to replay the whole drama of the Incarnation, in which God assumed our fallen humanity—the source of our damnation—and turned it into a cause for our salvation. Likewise, in the spirituality of Romero, the violence that had brought so much evil to the people of El Salvador is remade into an instrument of good.
Romero fully understood the radicalism of the kind of love he preached. In the first homily cited above he says this of Christ’s love for us: “In all of history no one has ever encountered a love that was so—how to say it?—so crazy, so exaggerated: giving to the point of being crucified on a cross.”
Truly it is the craziness of the cross that comes alive to us through the words and deeds of Romero. This underscores why the secular portrait of Romero fails. The problem is not that it makes him out to be some sort of radical. It’s that it does not make him radical enough.