A Review of
Oscar Romero: A Man for Our Times
Reviewed by Noemi Ortiz
Julio Torres’s Oscar Romero: A Man for Our Times presents a fascinating study into the life of the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador. The book is unique in that the author delves into the complex labyrinth of Romero’s persona. The author undertakes this task through the method of psychohistory, where one gets a psychoanalysis of a person which goes beyond strictly religious or political inclinations. With psychohistory, one gains a new level of understanding through emotional motivations that might have precipitated actions, as well as changes in courses of action. This approach works to remove the priestly vestments, so to speak, just enough so that one gets a sense of the humanity of Romero. Consequently, the book gives us a more intimate and genuine encounter with the person of Oscar Romero.
The author begins by giving an overview of the different approaches other biographers have used in their composition of Romero, as the author brings a unique perspective to the mix. What helps to further elucidate Romero’s life is that the author was personally connected to Romero; one can sense the connection in the pages. This proximity to the subject helps the author reach sources and places that might otherwise not be possible. The author not only focuses on the middle and late stages of Romero’s life, but examines Romero’s childhood and youth, taking a look at the relationship between his parents and siblings. The author conducts personal interviews with those who had first-hand contact with Romero, including family members, colleagues, and friends. As they recount particular moments in time and snippets of conversations, one begins to visualize a clearer portrait of Romero. One notable familial effect is Romero’s closeness to his mother which had an influence on his life and work.
To further understand Romero, we need to place him in his own context, in a heavily charged political and religious landscape. The author provides a descriptive setting, and Romero moving within those contexts. Before Romero took on the role that would lead to his sainthood, he underwent his priestly formation in Rome where he entered seminary. Even as a child, Romero had been attracted to the priesthood and the church. As Romero dutifully serves in each prescribed role by the church, one gets a good sense of Romero’s conservative tendencies. However, Romero’s position shifted from being a somewhat detached figure going along with the status quo to one who became a sort of prophetic figure.
One cannot fail to consider the area of liberation theology, especially as it is inextricably linked to Oscar Romero. In his own land of San Salvador, civil and human injustices had occurred from his childhood. Romero was connected to his homeland but also deeply connected to the church. In a way, he stood between the church and the people. Amidst the suffering of the exploited and the poor, liberation theology arises as it seeks to fight injustice. Liberation theology not only hears but listens to the desperate cries of the marginalized. There is a call to action. This is at the crux of where Romero stood as he listened to the call and moved forward with purpose of action. Here we find an interesting spot for theological reflection: the application of theology in the sense of the individual versus the collective group. The author opens up the question about whether liberation theology or traditional theology more closely approximates the ideal set forth by Jesus Christ. However, it was more than opposing theological ideas for Romero—it was personal.
As Torres shows, Romero’s path in life was anything but a smooth journey. There are experiences that shaped Romero: in his youth, in his own service, and in his relationships. Romero also suffered from deeply psychological issues that hovered in the background. He not only faced conflict with outside religious and political forces but also faced personal inner conflict. Romero was not a religious figure who sought out mystical experiences. Rather, he lived his life with both feet planted on the ground. He faced earthly temptations and struggles like other human beings. He even sought help as needed, but his negative tendencies continued to follow him throughout his life. Deeply affected by his own humanity, Romero was not a static symbol but rather a man moved by what he experienced around him, causing him to evolve into a new role almost by necessity.
Despite these challenges, Romero was resolute in his newfound purpose as he underwent a transforming conversion. Romero was willing to depart from the status quo and speak to the issues around him. He spoke for those who could not speak for themselves, against the violence and oppression that deeply affected the poor and marginalized. Romero served as a beacon of hope amongst the poor; people looked forward to his messages and sought comfort in his presence. Romero possessed an exterior calmness which added to his saintly persona. The people knew that he identified with them, that he was not an aloof religious figure, but one who walked alongside them. Romero became known as a champion for the marginalized and a willing martyr.
The book serves as a great introduction of this saint within Catholicism. But it also serves to challenge the church and the individual to reflect on how to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ to a hurting world. This is no easy task for even the strongest of Christians. Romero serves as an exemplar of courage and compassion, a man who could not be silent any longer and paid the ultimate price. His elevation to sainthood shows how deeply he affected the people of San Salvador, and his beautification brought joy to many. The life and ministry of Oscar Romero sought to work for justice on earth, and not simply wait for justice to be accomplished at the second coming. Romero realized that there is plenty of work to be done in our day and time, as Jesus himself stated in the gospels, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.”