Brockman, Oscar Romero’s biographer, traces the spiritual development of Romero.
James R. Brockman, S.J., is the author of Romero: A Life (Orbis, 1989) and the editor-translator of Oscar Romero’s The Violence of Love (Harper & Row, 1988). This article is based on an address given at a conference at Southern Methodist University in the summer of 1990.
THE people of El Salvador, especially its poor, revere Archbishop Oscar Romero as a saint. Both Salvadorans and visitors from abroad daily approach his tomb in the San Salvador cathedral to gather strength and to plead for his intercession. On the tenth anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom, March 24,1990, his successor announced the appointment of a postulator for the cause of his canonization.
I do not intend this article on Romero’s spiritual development to anticipate the church’s judgment of his saintliness or to supplant the work of the postulator of his cause. I simply wish to present some of the results of my own research into Romero’s life so that others may glimpse what I see as the work of the Holy Spirit in him and take heart from it, as I have done.
The evidence I have seen shows how Romero’s spirituality matured. As he grew in serenity and patience, desiring to do the will of God, he made the increasingly difficult sacrifices that God’s will required of him, accepting even the untimely and violent death that he foresaw would be his.
Oscar Romero was born on August 15, 1917, in a small, remote town in the mountains of eastern El Salvador. The scant evidence from his early years shows no family influences on Romero’s spirituality beyond the facts that his parents had him baptized twenty-two months after his birth’ and that he remembered his father teaching him his early prayers?
We have a little more information about Romero after he entered the seminary at age thirteen. A few seminary writings show him looking forward to the priesthood idealistically, somewhat romantically. Here are some verses that Romero wrote about the priesthood in his teens:
Your word is pardon and gentleness for the penitent,
your word is holy instruction, eternal teaching;
it is light to brighten, advice to hearten;
it is voice of hope, fire that burns,
way, truth, sublime splendor,
life …. eternity….
But not is the temple alone your battlefield;
you range the world with your sword upraised,
the redeeming cross.
And cannon’s roar daunts you not;
nor does clash of steel when
you hear the church’s voice
call to you earnestly with plaintive voice,
for cruel men with cruel blades
have wounded her to the point of death.(3)
“THIS IS YOUR HERITAGE: THE CROSS”
A more mature view of the priesthood appears in some words that Romero wrote when he was a seminarian in Rome and that he published there in the students’ magazine of the Latin American College in March of 1940, when he was twentytwo years old. He writes of the priesthood as a sharing in the cross and resurrection of Christ:
This is your heritage, O, priest: the cross. And this is your mission: to portion out the cross. Bearer of pardon and peace, the priest runs to the bed of the dying, and a cross in his hand is the key that opens the heavens and closes the abyss.
The priesthood, Romero said, means “to be, with Christ, a crucified one who redeems, and to be, with Christ, a risen one who apportions resurrection and life.”(4)
Perhaps more important for understanding Romero’s spiritual development is an entry in his diary ten months after his ordination, while he was working on his doctorate in theology. Significantly, he chose to do his doctorate work in the area of ascetical theology, choosing as his thesis topic the teaching of Luis de la Puente, an ascetical writer of the early seventeenth century. Romero noted in his diary on February 4, 1943:
In recent days the Lord has inspired in me a great desire for holiness, after I had read some of Father La Puente …. I have been thinking of how far a soul can ascend if it lets itself be possessed entirely by God. Its a shame to waste such precious time and such valuable gifts.(5)
Romero was twenty-five years old when he wrote this. All the evidence available indicates that he continued on his quest for holiness until the end of his life. But he also matured in that quest. The words “a great desire for holiness … how far a soul can ascend” suggest a touch of spiritual self-seeking. Words written during his last retreat, shortly before his death, indicate an emptying of self and a mature acceptance of God:
I place under his loving providence all my life, and I accept with faith in him my death, however hard it be … it is sufficient to know with assurance that in him is my life and my death ….(6)
Romero’s ordination in Rome in 1942 came in the midst of World War II. He returned home in 1943, before he finished his doctorate. During the next twenty-three years he lived a busy life as a priest in the city of San Miguel, becoming very popular and widely acclaimed, though resented as severe and overbearing by many of the clergy. I do not have much information on Romero’s spiritual development during this period. But two important events did occur: about 1954 or 1955, he made the complete Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, and from 1962 to 1965 the Second Vatican Council met and began to reform the Catholic Church.
St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, which Romero made when he was about thirty-seven or thirty-eight years old, are a school of religious experience lasting about a month. The one who makes the Exercises spends several hours a day in prayer and meditation, conferring each day with the director, whose task is to help the person recognize the promptings of grace in prayer. The material offered for meditation and prayer is designed to lead to a more generous following of Christ, who invites the person to help extend his reign through service in the church.
“SENTIR CON LA IGLESIA”
Romero made the Exercises under the direction of Father Miguel Elizondo, the novice master for the Jesuits of Central America. Notes that Romero later made during shorter retreats, some of them based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and repeating some of the key exercises, reveal that the Exercises continued to influence his spiritual journey. When he became a bishop, he chose a phrase related to the Spiritual Exercises for his episcopal motto: “Sentir con la Iglesia,” which means “to be of one mind with the church.”
Romero had left home at the age of thirteen to serve the church by preparing to be a priest. The church would be the center of the rest of his life. In the Catholic Church, of course, the pope holds a central place, and throughout his life Romero showed a deep devotion to the papacy. His six years of studies in Rome, moreover, left Romero with a love of the very city of Rome as the center of Catholicism, and the trips he made there in later years inspired and strengthened him.
Romero’s love for the church of Rome made him accept wholeheartedly the general council of bishops called by Pope John XXIII as Vatican Council II. He would study its documents thoroughly in the succeeding years. But he was schooled in the old ways, and so he was slow to accept many of the conclusions that others were drawing from the council’s pronouncements. He would need time and experience to expand his vision. It was especially his experience as archbishop during the last three years of his life, and in particular the dramatic events of his first weeks as archbishop, that enlarged his vision of the church, altered his pastoral ministry, and affected his own spirituality.
“A PROFOUND EXAMINATION OF MY LIFE”
A retreat that Romero made in January of 1966, at the age of forty-eight, while he was still a priest in San Miguel, is the earliest retreat from which we have any notes. I have encountered no information from his earlier retreats, not even from the thirty-day Spiritual Exercises of the mid-1950’s. Romero filled ten pages of a 6″ x 8″ notebook with his thoughts during the five or six days of this retreat. He once again made some of the exercises that he had made in the Spiritual Exercises eleven or twelve years before. The first days of this retreat made him feel that he had been very remiss in his spiritual life, and he proposed a thorough reform. He wrote midway through the week:
The disorder of my piety and my activity and my character had almost made me lose hold of the ascetical fundamentals that I used to be so careful about. A profound examination of my life for my general confession offers me gie pitiful spectacle of ruin after ruin — of time lost (1945-1966).(7)
This is a surprisingly pessimistic self-view of twenty important years in his life, considering that since 1945 he had been a hard-working, apostolic priest and that he had made the thirtyday Spiritual Exercises in the mid-1950’s. On the other hand, he noted that he now felt “a deep joy” as he meditated on God’s mercy. This thought gave him hope, which he said, “should be a basic virtue for me, since I have seen it verified with evident and moving deeds” during the retreat.
Romero does not mention having a director during this retreat in January of 1966, but he does say that he left the retreat house to confess to a priest and to see a psychiatrist (he says simply a physician, but it is evidently a psychiatrist). They seem to be persons already familiar to him.
“THE DOCTOR AND THE SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR”
So it seems that by this point Romero was conferring with a psychiatrist about the stresses he was feeling in his life. Although he was a renowned preacher and had the full confidence of the bishop, who entrusted him with much responsibility, A many of the clergy resented his power. He had the reputation, especially among younger priests, it seems, of being very demanding with both himself and with others. After seeing the doctor during this retreat in 1966, Romero noted that the doctor summed him up as a perfectionist with an obsessive-compulsive personality style.
I have spoken with two Jesuit psychologists 8 who both knew Romero, although he was never their patient; both said they thought the diagnosis was sound. They explained to me that an obsessive-compulsive personality is what in Christian asceticism we have traditionally called “scrupulosity.” Every priest has had to deal with scrupulous persons in confession, persons who imagine they are offending God when they are not and who torture themselves with worry and laden themselves and their consciences with extra burdens. Romero evidenced the malady in the very notes he was writing during his retreat. Immediately after writing down the doctor’s diagnosis of his personality problem, he proceeded to set down a detailed plan for his life that largely illustrated and reinforced his perfectionism. Here is what he wrote:
The doctor and the spiritual director sum up the solution to my problem in these two poles of my reform: strengthening my interior life and seeking protected external surroundings. The doctor sums up my character as obsessive-compulsive perfectionist.
Considering all this, and in view of this genuine re-examination of my life, I propose to reform in the following way:
I. To strengthen my interior life:
a) Sincere return to piety:
- Daily meditation (I will follow the thought of the liturgy or fall back on the eternal truths in time of temptation).
- Examination of conscience. (After siesta, and a brief one before lunch.) I’ll make the particular examination on my problem of protection and the general on this reform.
- Breviary and spiritual reading. Continue as they are.
- Go back to saying the rosary in church. Invite those in the house to the Rosary Association ….
- Go back to making the monthly spiritual retreat ….
- Thanksgiving after Mass.
- Weekly confession. I’ll go see Father Damián, set the day, and prepare it better. Saturday when going or coming back from hearing the confessions of the hospital Sisters, or whatever day Father chooses.)
After thus outlining his “return to piety,” he goes on:
b) Give a characteristic of penance and mortification to my duties.
- Organize better the time for attending to all my duties: parish, diocesan office, printing shop, seminary, other works and associations.
- Order in my accounts. Get them up to date and pay off my debts this year. Especially to the Soler family. [It is not clear if this refers to personal debts or to the finances of his parish or other works.]
- Charity and humility. Not speak ill of anyone, and no self-praise. Not let in the idea of vanity. Love and pray for those who do me or who I think do me wrong. At least observe common charity. Hold out some hope of reconciliation and union.
- Overcome my harsh and grim disposition. Attend with kindness those who come to see me. Especially with priests, seminarians, the poor, the sick. Even a refusal can be given with kindness.
- Custody of the eyes: newspapers, the confessional, the street.
- On Fridays and Saturdays some small fasting or mortification at table in honor of Christ’s passion and of the Blessed Virgin. Abstain from sweets.
- Wear a penitential chain from rising after siesta until after prayer.
- Discipline on Friday nights.
So far, he has outlined his plan to strengthen his interior life. He continues his proposal of reform:
II. Environment of protection.
- Not travel alone to San Salvador — or stay in a dubious lodging.
- Let someone else take care of answering the door.
- Confide my problem to my confessor [presumably, the “problem of protection” mentioned in l,a),2].
- Keep certain persons at a distance.
- Await the circumstances of the future, hoping for the best solution. [I think this refers to the effect a change of bishop in the diocese will have on Romero’s future, a matter he had written about elsewhere in the notes.]
- Avoid solitude.
- Have an outing with companions [compafteros I think he means other priests], seminarians once a week.
Those who are at all familiar with the type of asceticism that prevailed in Catholic religious orders and seminaries before Vatican Council II, especially in Hispanic countries, will recognize the sort of life that Romero was proposing for himself in 1966. It was the daily order and protective atmosphere of his seminary days. He had apparently slipped away somewhat from that standard, as a busy priest would have had to do. In his scrupulosity, he viewed that falling off as a falling away from his duty to seek perfection. And he now resolved to tighten up his observance.
Romero noted his “harsh and grim” disposition, but such a disposition is not surprising in view of the pressure he was putting on himself to conform to the type of asceticism he outlines in this retreat. Note that he was aware both of the disposition that he showed to people and of his doctor’s diagnosis of his personality. Yet he does not seem conscious of their relation to the type of asceticism he was trying to live. After writing out the above plan of life, he goes on to observe the following:
The doctor says that another object can be given to my obsessive-compulsive perfectionist personality. The antithesis could be an excessive sense of chastity. I think it would be nobler to take on an obsession for Christ. Situating it concretely in a postconciliar church. In other words, to be one of those saints that the pope asks for on the model of Charles Borromeo, who want to work together to reflect by their lives and their work the face of Christ in his church. More concretely still, turning my obsession towards improving the holiness of the seminarians, or the worship in the cathedral, or the newspaper, and so forth.
I may be wrong, but I think that the psychiatrist may have suggested to Romero that his obsessive-compulsive perfectionism was shown in an excessive concern about chastity. He says: “The antithesis could be an excessive sense of chastity.”I Some of the phrases in his plan for his daily life suggest a fearful attitude toward the sexual (not travel alone to San Salvador, not stay at a “dubious lodging,” avoid solitude, let someone else answer the door, keep certain persons at a distance, etc.). Such precautions were the type of safeguards instilled by the asceticism of Romero’s seminary days, and in a person like Romero they were likely to instill a fear of normal sexual instincts.
I think the psychiatrist may also have been suggesting to Romero that a way out of his obsessive perfectionism was to let some external cause take hold of him (“another object can be given to my obsessive-compulsive perfectionist personality.”) One of the Jesuit psychologists whom I mentioned above told me that the remedy (if that is the word) for a personality style like Romero’s, beset with obsessive-compulsive features, is to lose oneself in a greater cause. Romero’s reaction to this suggestion was to think of directing his obsession to Christ and the church, specifically the spiritual training of the seminarians (for whom he was responsible as rector of the seminary), the worship in the cathedral (of which he was rector), and the improvement of the diocesan newspaper (of which he was editor).
But his focus was still too much on himself and on the details of his ascetical practices. In November of 1968, he made another retreat and again mapped out a plan of life like that of January of 1966, although somewhat shorter and less detailed. It was only as archbishop, years later, that he would become caught up in the cause of the poor and the defense of justice. Then, his excessive focus on himself would diminish. As it did, he would find his own true self.
“HE CALLS ME AS A LEADER”
Meanwhile, in 1967, Romero celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as a priest. A few months later, he became the secretary-general of the Salvadoran bishops’ conference and moved from San Miguel to San Salvador. He was just fifty years old. The move to San Salvador was a major change in his life, since he was leaving the place where he had become a renowned pastor and preacher to take up an office job in the capital city. As secretary of the bishops’ conference, he worked hard and did well. Within three years he was chosen to be an auxiliary bishop to the archbishop of San Salvador.
It was about 6:00 p.m. on April 21, 1970, when the papal nuncio called Romero with the news of his appointment as auxiliary bishop. He wanted Romero to accept or refuse the appointment on the following day. Romero hastily consulted with the psychiatrist whom he had mentioned seeing in 1966 and with two priests. The psychiatrist and one priest gave him a go-ahead. The other priest seems to have had some doubts though Romero’s jottings are not entirely clear. He accepted the appointment.
In a retreat he made six weeks later, in June, he noted the pressure and uncertainty he had felt about accepting the appointment, but the retreat itself seems to have been a calm preparation for his episcopal ordination. On the first day, he observed:
After several hectic days of work and fatigue, I feel the gentleness and intimacy of Jesus. How I would like to advance in this necessary intimate relationship! I feel that he calls me as a leader, to plan a new phase, to entrust me with a more demanding responsibility. I turn everything over to him.
He once again made out a list of things to do and avoid, as he had done in other retreats. As before also, he seems to judge himself at times with extraordinary harshness-a symptom of scrupulosity. For example, he refers to “my sacrileges,” but all he means is that he should celebrate Mass with greater fervor and better prepare his weekly confessions. It is also interesting that he resolves again, as he had in 1966, to have a set day for his confession, suggesting to me that he had not kept the first resolution very well. This is not surprising, since it is virtually impossible to keep a long list of resolutions. It is significant, too, that Romero in this retreat, about to be ordained a bishop, resolves to try especially to get along with the other bishops and with priests. He notes as his “greatest fear” his relations with the priests, mindful of his past problems with them.
“I MUST BE MORE NATURAL AND SPONTANEOUS IN AFFECTION”
Towards the end of the following year, 1971, Romero went to Mexico for three months of psychoanalysis. He noted down in November of 1971 what he saw as his principle defects: avoiding social relations with others, not getting to know people, concern about being criticized, perfectionism, disorder in his work, lack of austerity, lack of courage in expressing his opinions in meetings with the bishops. In February of 1972, still in Mexico, he made a retreat, consulting a commentary by Karl Rahner on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.(11) The three months of psychoanalysis had given him a deeper understanding of himself. Subconsciously he had been transferring many feelings from his home life to his present relationships, and that explained his timidity and shyness with others, his brusqueness and coldness. He wrote:
I must school myself with the conviction that the parent-child structure is not what should now govern the relationships of equals. I must be more natural and spontaneous in affection. I must overcome myself and express my opinions. Especially, I must defend the faith and the church’s teaching with courage.
His perfectionism, he noted, gave his character a rigid quality. He would get angry when things were not as he wanted them. He needed to mellow, both internally and externally. He wrote:
I must not be so peremptory and irrational in my demands on myself, not so as to neglect my moral principles and my holiness but to fulfill them more humanely and with humbler trust in the forces of the Redemption. Perfectionism makes me lose much human richness in my relationships.
Insecurity was a consequence of his rigidity, he noted, because rigidity made him act with less naturalness and spontaneity, fearful of making a mistake. He needed to be humbler and ready to make mistakes.
In this retreat, he decided he needed to mature and purify the decisions he had made to become a priest and a bishop. He had been ordained to the priesthood at twenty-four years of age, and he now realized he had not been very mature and not sure of his vocation to a life of celibacy. He felt he had also been motivated partly by a fear of leaving the path he had chosen and taking up another career and of what people might say if he did. In becoming a bishop, too, he had felt uncertainty.
He now wrote:
In regard to both circumstances I have applied the rules from the Exercises ….I reject the earthly motives. I beg pardon from God for whatever deficiency there was at those momentous times and I declare that I desire nothing else in my priestly life than God’s glory, the service of the church, and my own salvation.
And precisely to assure and make effective this rectification, I have looked for the means that will make my concrete situation profitable in genuine holiness and apostolic life. I have prayed to the Holy Spirit for great light, so that this retreat may be a new point of departure in the search for means that are suitable for realizing my life concretely as priest and bishop.
“NOT EVERYTHING IS ENCLOSED IN NORMS”
This time he did not make out a list of pious practices to follow, as he had done in earlier retreats, and as he also did in some later retreats. Instead, he adhered to the general directions toward change in himself that he had drawn from his psychoanalysis, adding to them the supernatural motivation that the retreat stirred up in him. He concluded the lengthy notes on the retreat with this:
Jesus in the temple teaches us the true solution to conflicts (see Rahner).(12) The fourth commandment in conflict with a specific wish of God. Not everything is enclosed in what is stated in norms, in institutions. There is room for charisms; the Spirit “blows where it wishes.” But how well things work out when there is faith, humility; and they return to normal without sensationalism or raucousness. The Spirit asks of me Mary’s attitude to defer without understanding, without resentments, only with love for the church and desire to obey God’s freedom.
I think I see a definite step towards greater spiritual maturity in this retreat of Romero’s in February of 1972. “Not everything is enclosed in norms, in institutions;” he says. “There is room for charisms.” He is not afraid to review his own priestly vocation, not to consider abandoning it, but to purify his motives and put it on a more secure foundation.
Romero remained an auxiliary bishop of San Salvador until October of 1974, when he was named bishop of Santiago de Maria, a rural diocese. He remained in Santiago until named archbishop of San Salvador in February of 1977, at the age of fifty-nine. During these five years, his retreat notes show him continuing to work on the problems of getting along with others and trying to organize his life better, as he had in earlier retreats. At least two of the retreats he made were preached by priests of the secular institute Opus Dei, and during these years and perhaps earlier his ordinary confessor and spiritual director was one or another priest of Opus Dei. While he was bishop of r Santiago de Maria, he wrote to Pope Paul VI to appeal for the beatification of the founder of Opus Dei, who had recently died, saying: “Personally, I owe deep gratitude to the priests of [Opus Dei], to whom I have entrusted with great satisfaction the spiritual direction of my life and that of other priests.”(13)
It seems significant to me, perhaps because I am a follower of St. Ignatius Loyola, that the retreats of 1966, of 1970, and of February of 1972, all of which Romero seemingly made by himself, were based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. It suggests to me that the month-long experience of the Exercises in the mid-1950’s had taken root in Romero, so that he returned to it when it was up to him to make his own retreat. It is also in these retreats that Romero writes most extensively about himself.
Later, in early 1979, Romero offered an interviewer his view of how the Spiritual Exercises should be made in our own age. In his remarks, he observed that the phrase derived from the Exercises, “To be of one mind with the church” — which he had taken as his own episcopal motto — should today be expanded to:
To be of one mind with the church incarnated in this people which stands in need of liberation. (14)
“THE CHURCH INCARNATED IN THIS PEOPLE…”
By this time Romero had been archbishop for almost two years. His vision of the church had been enlarged. Vatican II’s basic premise that the church is the people of God had taken life in him. Even the meaning of the motto he had taken as his own in 1970 when he became a bishop now had a somewhat different meaning for him: “To be of one mind with the church incarnated in this people which stands in need of liberation.”
What had happened? When Romero became archbishop early in 1977, the church of the archdiocese was under attack for the pastoral policies that it was following, especially in a few rural parishes that were promoting small faith communities among the peasantry and preaching social justice for the peasants, who lived in inhumane conditions. Several priests had been deported from El Salvador about the time Romero took office, and three weeks after his installation the pastor of one of the rural parishes, Rutilio Grande, was shot to death, along with two parishioners. Romero told me in a brief interview sixteen months later: “It was like a call from God.”
“A DEVELOPMENT OF THE SAME DESIRE…”
Romero reacted vigorously to the murders, and he began three years of prophetic denunciation of the oppression of the poor and the persecution of the church. The next year, trying to explain his change, he wrote while in Rome:
What happened in my priestly life, I have tried to explain to myself as a development of the same desire I have always had to be faithful to what God asks of me. If before I gave the impression of being more “discreet” and “spiritual,” it was because I sincerely believed that thus I responded to the gospel, for the circumstances of my ministry had not shown themselves so demanding of a pastoral fortitude that in truth I believe was asked of me in the circumstances under which I became archbishop.(15)
Here Romero is trying to explain why he had changed as a pastor, but he has to explain also what has happened to him inside. It is a development of the desire he has always had “to be faithful to what God asks.” Changed circumstances required a change of action, even a change of vision. But this was a development of what was already there, the desire to do whatever God asked of him. In this connection, let me add what some friends of Romero”s told me years ago. These are ordinary people without a lot of schooling who knew him as a friend for many years. They told me, “He didn’t change. He was always the same.” I think they may have had a deeper insight into him than others did.
It is not possible here to repeat the story of Romero’s three years as archbishop. (16) Let me merely turn to a retreat that Romero made near the end of his first year as archbishop and then to his last retreat, less than a month before his death.
In the second week of January of 1978, from Monday to Friday, Romero made a retreat preached to a group of priests at the seminary. He noted down afterward:
It has been a very different experience. I wonder if it is the result of my habitual dissipation on account of the special circumstances I have experienced since I became archbishop. I have the feeling I have lost some ability to turn inward. I also attribute this difficulty in turning inward to not having found a place for my retreat different from my work place. [His offices were also in the seminary building.] Although, thank God, I find that when I go at it seriously I am able to concentrate and to rise to prayer. God is good and I find him easily. But I must again do my part, more than I do; I too easily excuse myself from explicit times for prayer. I have neglected my systematic confession. I realize I must be more demanding and more organized. I will see that I withdraw in a more serious and full-time manner to reflect methodically. Although I can’t say that these days have been wasted: there have been very great values, like spending time with a group of young clergy, some of whom are held suspect, but whom I have gotten to know more deeply, with their good will, their concern for priestly identity, and so forth. Also, these same surroundings have taught me that the Spirit does not need our methods, but brings about transformations in one single moment of good will; the group of retreatants seems edifying to me in spite of the appearance of dissipation.
Let me simply point out here some signs of growth in Romero. He still is eager for the contemplative type of prayer he has experienced earlier, and he does still find time for it, although not as much as he thinks he should. But he is also finding God in other ways and seeing God’s action in certain persons whom he regarded as worldly and unspiritual before he became archbishop. His remarks about this retreat in January of 1978 are perfectly in accord with all that is known from other sources about the change in Romero’s viewpoint and behavior after he became archbishop.
“TO BE FAITHFUL TO WHAT GOD ASKS OF ME”
Two years later, Romero made his last retreat with a small group of his priests, during the last week of February of 1980, the first full week of Lent. One of the priests, Father Fabißn Amaya, coordinated the retreat while making it with the others. They discussed together their faults, as well as their hopes and plans as priests and pastors of their people.
Romero began the retreat by looking at his own situation. He was shepherd of the diocese that had greatest responsibility for the whole church of the country, and by now his word was very influential even in the political arena. In this situation, he wrote:
I want to be with Jesus and share in his obedience to God’s saving plan.
I beg pardon of God for the human impediments in my performance as his instrument.
I want this retreat to join me more closely to his will.
I ask him to make his love, his justice, his truth shine through me more easily.
I am afraid of violence to myself.
I have been notified of serious threats for this very week.
I fear because of the weakness of my flesh, but I pray the Lord to give me serenity and perseverance — and also humility, because I also feel tempted to vanity.
During the retreat, Romero’s confessor, Father Segundo Azcue, an elderly Jesuit, came to hear the priests’ confessions. Romero wrote that he confided to Father Azcue his fear that he was neglecting his own spirituality, taking less care than before in making his confessions and in following his daily order of prayer. Father Azcue eased his fear by saying that there might be a tendency to scrupulosity in regard to the confessions and n that the principal matter was his interior disposition. In regard to his exercises of prayer, it was good to have a plan for his spiritual life, but without becoming a slave to it, because the principal matter should be life and spirit as the soul of all his activity.
Romero also confided to him his fear of death. Father Azcue gave him strength by telling him he should want to give his life to God, regardless of how it might end. God had assisted the martyrs and, if need be, Romero would also find him close at hand at the moment of death. More important than the moment of death was giving God all of one’s life.
In the discussions, the other retreatants noted that Romero as archbishop was not accessible enough, that he let himself be overwhelmed with problems, was irascible, was inconsistent in the way he received others; this caused fear in those who did not know him. He could humiliate or hurt others with sharp answers. They attributed all this to his not sharing with others the heavy burdens that he had to bear. Romero thought it was also due to lack of organization in his life, in particular his spiritual life. He observed:
I’ll therefore give priority to my spiritual life, being careful to live in contact with God. My principal concern will be to become more identified with Jesus each day, accepting his gospel more radically. Toward this interior knowledge and following of Jesus I will direct my devotion to the Blessed Virgin and my specific moments of prayer: meditation, mass, breviary, rosary, reading, examination of conscience, spiritual retreat. I will also organize my weekly day off, even though it be just a half day and in the company of priests …. I must also correct my excessive haste in making decisions, which I afterward change.
He was still dealing with the same basic problems that he had written about in his retreat notes in 1966, 1970, 1972, and 1978: perfectionism, rigidity, fear, and overwork But now he showed a greater serenity and acceptance of himself, a greater maturity and inner freedom.
“IN HIM Is MY LIFE AND MY DEATH”
The high point of the retreat was a meditation from the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises on the following of Christ. Romero copied into his notebook the prayer of self-offering to Jesus Christ with which St. Ignatius concludes the meditation. (17) Then Romero added in his own words:
Thus do I express my consecration to the heart of Jesus, who was ever a source of inspiration and joy in my life. Thus also I place under his loving providence all my life, and I accept with faith in him my death, however hard it be. I do not want to express an intention to him, such as that my death be for my country’s peace or our church’s flourishing. Christ’s heart will know how to direct it to the purpose he wishes. For me to be happy and confident, it is sufficient to know with assurance that in him is my life and my death, that in spite of my sins I have placed my trust in him and I shall not be confounded, and others will carry on with greater wisdom and holiness the works of the church and the nation.
Three weeks after Romero thus placed his life in the hands of Jesus, the assassin’s bullet struck him down. His self-offering was accepted; his spiritual journey was completed. Romero, the pilgrim (that is what his name means), had found his way through the darkness and stress of his “harsh and grim disposition,” through his scrupulous perfectionism, to being happy and confident in the assurance that in Jesus was his life and his death.
Does Romero’s life have lessons for us? Perhaps the most important is that God still works wonders with weak and imperfect human beings like us. He brings about his salvation with weak human instruments: David the shepherd boy, Moses the stutterer, Mary the handmaid of Nazareth, Peter the head- strong fisherman, Paul the headstrong Pharisee, and Oscar Romero, the obsessive-compulsive perfectionist, the scrupulous but docile man who only wanted to do what God asked of him.
- Baptismal record, May 11, 1919, in the parish of Ciudad Barrios.
- So he wrote in an unpublished lament at the time of his father’s death in 1937.
- Quoted by Jesús Delgado, Oscar Romero: Biograffa, Ediciones Paulinas, Madrid, 1986, 17.
- Delgado, 22.
- James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y.,1989, 235.
- The quotations from Romero’s retreat notes are taken from unpublished notebooks.
- Luis Achaerandio, S.J., now of the Universidad Rafael Landívar, Guatemala City; and Fermin Sainz, S.J., of the Universidad Centroamericana Jos Simeón Cañas, San Salvador, El Salvador. I am also indebted to John Sheehan, S.J., of the Arrupe House Jesuit community of Chicago, for helpful criticisms while preparing my remarks on Romero’s psychology.
- Mi natural seco y hosco.
- Por antítesis podía ser un excesivo sentido de la castidad.
- The English version is Spiritual Exercises, trans. by Kenneth Baker, S.J., Herder, New York, 1965.
- Rahner, 164-165.
- Letter of July 12, 1975.
- Oscar Romero, “Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises,” The Way, Supplement 55, Spring 1986, 101.
- Memorandum to Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, June 24, 1978.
- I have told the story of Romero’s three years as archbishop in Romero: A Life.
- Eternal Lord of all things, I make my offering with thy favor and help, before thy infinite goodness and before thy glorious mother and all the saints of the heavenly court: I wish and desire and it is my deliberate determination, if only it is for thy greater service and praise, to imitate thee in bearing every injury and insult and all poverty, both actual and spiritual, provided thy Most Holy Majesty chooses me and receives me in such a life and state.