Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: Archbishop Romero’s Legacy Lives On, Says Liberation Theology

Adrián Reyes

MEXICO CITY, Apr 4 2005 (IPS) - Latin America’s indigenous communities and downtrodden poor are a vivid reminder for the Roman Catholic Church that Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero’s steadfast commitment to the poor must be kept alive, said Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders of Liberation Theology.

The 77-year-old Gutiérrez, who was interviewed by IPS by telephone from El Salvador, also said the process of beatification and canonisation of Romero should continue to move ahead, regardless of Pope John Paul’s death.

Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, the capital of the Central American country of El Salvador, was cut down by a sniper’s bullet while celebrating mass on Mar. 24, 1980.

A champion of the poor, the archbishop regularly spoke out against the growing violence and violations of human rights perpetrated by the armed forces and paramilitary death squads in his country.

The day before he was killed, he directly addressed the country’s soldiers in his weekly homily, pleading, “In the name of God, in the name of these suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression.”

Twenty-five years on, those who planned and carried out his assassination remain unpunished.

Romero, who was formally proposed by the Salvadoran Church for sainthood in 1994, became one of the leading symbols of progressive catholicism.

Church leaders in the Vatican recently announced that they had begun the process of beatification for Romero, the last step before sainthood.

But Salvadoran President Antonio Saca once again repeated that there is no chance of reopening the investigation into Romero’s murder, which occurred less than a year before the start of a 12-year civil war, which claimed around 80,000 – mainly civilian – lives.

Gutiérrez took part in “Theology Week” at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University last week in San Salvador, which was held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Romero’s death.

The theologian said that “Here in El Salvador, I have found a lot of optimism that the (beatification) process will be completed soon.”

“I attended Romero’s funeral 25 years ago. It was a very tense time. The estimate we made that Sunday afternoon was that 40 people were killed” during the funeral, when soldiers opened fire on the crowd. “For me, being here 25 years later is very significant and moving,” he added.

Gutiérrez is the author of “A Theology of Liberation”, the 1971 book that provided a name for the progressive movement that became influential in the Latin American Catholic Church in the 1960s and 1970s.

Liberation Theology, or the “preferential option for the poor”, calls for particular attention to be paid to the poor, in the understanding that the liberation preached in the message of Christ does not only apply to spirituality, but to physical and social conditions as well.

“The Power of the Poor in History” (1983) and “We Drink from Our Own Wells” (1984) are other key works by Gutiérrez, a John Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and a former professor at the Catholic University in Lima, Peru. In 2003, he received Spain’s prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for Communications and Humanities in recognition of his work on behalf of the poor.

The following is a synthesis of the interview.

IPS: What was Monsignor Romero’s contribution to the Catholic Church in Latin America?

GUSTAVO GUTIÉRREZ: Romero was an extremely committed man, his homilies are the most important legacy we have from him, his theological reflections. He reminded us that we have to keep Christianity in historical perspective.

By speaking of the day-to-day life of the Salvadoran people, he felt that (Jesus’s message) was reflected in the God who is present in one’s neighbour, and, especially, in the poor. There we have a very concrete approach, presented in difficult, dramatic conditions, because seeing the Gospel embodied in history was what cost him his life.

IPS: How did the Church in the region absorb that legacy?

GG: In Latin America there is a wide range of approaches. I am concerned about a series of steps that have been taken towards the past, about resistance to many things that were done in earlier years. But this must not make us forget, because it would be wrong and unfair, that there are many Christian communities and people who have adopted the option more in favour of the region’s poor.

IPS: What view do you think the Latin American clergy takes towards the political changes in the region, and in the world?

GG: It varies widely. There are certain Christian, including lay, sectors, that are very conservative and react against certain things. In the Church there are also people who are highly active in what is referred to as “altermundismo” (the anti-globalisation or “alter-globalisation” movement), which is opposed to the political and religious fundamentalism that the United States attempts to impose.

I believe that in the Latin American Church there is a lot of life, but that it has received many blows as well. Nevertheless, we’re still here.

IPS: If Romero were alive, what kind of relationship do you think he would have with the Vatican?

GG: When he was alive, many people did not understand Romero. However, he had contacts in which he was able to express the situation in El Salvador which was not easy to comprehend, naturally, in a world made up of dominant blocs.

But if you read Romero’s homilies, he said on several occasions that he returned from Rome very comforted.

These questions go beyond the physical life of Monsignor Romero. The Pope visited the year after Romero’s death, and went to pray at his tomb.

Fifteen years after Romero was first proposed for beatification and canonisation, I’ve just been informed that a lot of progress has been made, all of Romero’s work has been studied…and it looks like things are moving along smoothly.

IPS: Is there a progressive Church in Latin America today?

GG: That current emerged in the mid-1960s, after the Second Vatican Council, and was taken up by (Latin American bishops conferences like the one in) Medellín (in 1968).

The Church must take, and has taken in many – but not enough – sectors, the path of solidarity with the poorest of the poor. The question of poverty, which I focused on heavily in the 1960s, was not as present then as it is today. I’m not only referring to the Church, but to the issue’s presence in international agencies; I’m thinking about the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations.

The U.N. focus on human development is extremely important, and many factors have contributed to that, not only the Church. But it is true that the progressive Church has played a very strong role in putting on the agenda the situation of the poor as something unjust and going against the will of God. That’s not sufficient, but it’s a foundation from which to start.

IPS: Do you share the opinion that in his last years, Romero became more and more radical?

GG: Yes. He became increasingly radical…He went to the roots of the Christian message. There was no doubt that Romero experienced great growth and maturity and a deepening sense of what the Gospels meant.

I am not afraid to say he was radicalised, but that happened to him because he was able to recognise that social justice is a fundamental aspect of the good news that Jesus brought us.

The Gospels tell us to seek “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all things will be added unto” us. Romero’s life was an intense, relentless, joyful but also painful search for God’s kingdom and righteousness.

IPS: Do you believe that a repeat of the violence experienced in the region during those years is possible?

GG: Unfortunately we can’t say it isn’t. The world is going through a period marked by violence, different kinds of fundamentalisms and arrogant power, also here in Latin America. We don’t decide the direction history will take, but if we don’t make an effort to follow the path that Romero showed us, I believe such scenarios could occur again. Who can predict what lies ahead?

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