On March 24, 1980, the sitting archbishop San Salvador, Óscar Romero, was assassinated at the altar in El Salvador. At a funeral mass not long afterward, the great Jesuit theologian Ignacio Ellacuría (himself one the eight people brutally murdered nine years later in 1989 by a group of elite, U.S.-backed Salvadoran soldiers called the Atlácatl Battalion) famously said that “with Monseñor Romero, God passed through El Salvador.” Although Romero was immediately embraced by ordinary people, who discerned him as a Salvadoran Christ and who regarded him as a martyr—often at great risk to themselves—it was not until 2015 when the Catholic Church officially beatified him as a martyr and until 2018 when it canonized him as a saint. He is currently under consideration as a doctor of the church, a designation for those saints whose theological corpus edifies the whole church.
It is a fascinating development, for since Romero’s assassination, scholars, in their efforts to understand this particular passage of God through the world, have tended to focus almost exclusively on Romero’s life (especially his three years as archbishop) rather than his theological corpus. In some ways, this is understandable. Romero assumed the archbishopric at a particularly dramatic time in El Salvador, with a massive rise in killings and disappearances of civilians, attacks upon the church’s visible leadership (like Romero’s friend Rutilio Grande, S.J.), and the country rapidly descending into civil war. Moreover, Romero’s own response was also itself dramatic. In contrast to his more cautious approach prior to becoming archbishop, Romero’s forceful critique of the government, his courageous defense of ordinary Salvadorans, and his leadership in the face of church persecution led many to claim that he had undergone a sudden and powerful conversion, like St. Paul on the Damascus Road.
However, Edgardo Colón-Emeric’s award-winning book,1 Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision: Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor, is at the forefront of a wave of recent scholarship that has definitively shifted the growing field of Romero studies to a focus on Romero’s theological vision and the significance of his theological legacy. As the subtitle indicates, the categories of liberation and transfiguration are central to Colón-Emeric’s argument. In the book, Romero emerges as a liberation theologian of a distinct kind. Following Juan Carlos Scannone, S.J., Colón-Emeric helpfully distinguishes between various streams of that complex and diverse theological movement, and his argument centers upon Romero’s vision of liberation as transfiguration, encapsulated for Colón-Emeric by Romero’s aphoristic reformulation of Irenaeus of Lyon’s Gloria Dei, vivens homo (the glory of God is the living human) to Gloria Dei, vivens pauper (the glory of God is the living poor).
Methodologically, Colón-Emeric’s approach is an exercise in what he calls, echoing Charles Pegúy, ressourcement from the margins. By this phrase, Colón-Emeric means a return to theological sources, but from sites that have traditionally been peripheral to the church’s life (in this case, the land, people, and culture of Romero’s El Salvador) and with different kinds of questions (for instance, poverty and exploitation and the need for liberation) (19). On Colón-Emeric’s account, Romero’s theological vision is a sign of the emergence of Christianity in Latin America from “reflection” church to “source” church, in the language of Henrique de Lima Vaz. In other words, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, the church in Latin America began to find its own voice and consequently to become a source for others, rather than simply reflect the orientations of Europe or elsewhere, as had been the case in previous centuries.
Helping us engage Colón-Emeric’s exposition of Romero’s theological vision and the generativity of Romero’s thought more generally are six panelists. Carlos X. Colorado begins his response by meditating upon Colón-Emeric’s presentation of Romero’s theology of transfiguration, especially in light of Colorado’s own experience growing upon in El Salvador of the celebration of the feast of the Transfiguration August 5/6th. Colorado also critically engages Colón-Emeric’s treatment of one of Romero’s most celebrated formulations. “If I am killed,” Romero is reported to have said, “I shall resurrect in the Salvadoran people.” Whereas Colón-Emeric argues that these words are not representative of Romero’s larger theological vision and casts doubts on whether he actually said them, Colorado contends the opposite.
In her response, Claudia Rivera Navarrete similarly focuses on Colón-Emeric’s presentation of Romero’s theology of transfiguration and transfiguration as San Salvador’s titular feast, but she questions the purported origins of the feast in Pedro de Alvarado’s victory in 1524 over the indigenous inhabitants of the land now called El Salvador. She also powerfully shows how Romero’s friend and fellow martyr, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, helped wrest El Salvador’s imagination of transfiguration away from merely a civic celebration and towards one rooted in Christ and the way of discipleship.
Like Rivera Navarrete, Kevin Coleman also reflects on Christianity’s historical complicity in colonial violence, and Coleman’s particular focus is whether Colón-Emeric thinks that Christianity can in fact be decoupled from it. According to Coleman, Colón-Emeric believes it can, while Coleman himself believes it cannot. Coleman offers an extended analysis of Bishop Juan Antonio Dueñas of San Miguel, El Salvador, who in 1936 wrote the pope in order to offer a pontifical decoration of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. Only four years earlier, General Martínez had perpetrated the infamous Matanza (massacre), brutally repressing an indigenous peasant insurrection, a fact that points to the inextricability of Christianity and the afterlives of colonialism.
Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo asks us to consider the lives of countless women in El Salvador and across the Americas and the globe, who suffer the violence of patriarchy. In light of Romero’s thought, she wonders, if the glory of God is the living poor, where is the glory, and what transfiguration is possible? Can the theological vision and pastoral praxis of San Romero help? While offering a critical feminist analysis of Romero’s theological vision, Gandolfo also shows how his theo-logic of transfiguration can actually help resist the institutional violence of patriarchy.
Stephen Long’s response examines Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision as a profound work of what he, in line with the Methodist/Wesleyan tradition, calls “practical divinity,” which Long defines as “theology that issues forth in good and faithful action. … sett[ing] forth the intellectual substance of the Christian faith in terms of everyday forms such as accessible prose, sermons, hymns, and liturgy.” Both Long and Colón-Emeric are fellow-travelers in this tradition, and Long helpfully situates Colón-Emeric’s previous work on Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley (Wesley, Aquinas & Christian Perfection: An Ecumenical Dialogue), as well as Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision, within it.
Finally, Margaret R. Pfeil’s revisits her own scholarly interest in Romero’s theology of transfiguration, which she wrote about in a seminal 2011 Theological Studies article—an article which Cólon-Emeric explicitly engages inÓscar Romero’s Theological Vision. In her response, Pfeil highlights various aspects of this theology as it is exposited by Colón-Emeric, including its deep engagement with scripture, its ecumenical spirit, and its drawing on a wealth of material related to Central American liturgy and liturgical music. But Pfeil also presses important questions related to the conflicts, ecclesial and otherwise, surrounding Romero and his ministry.
The Catholic Press Association awarded it best book in the “Newly Canonized Saints” category in 2019. Colón-Emeric is the Irene and William McCutchen Associate Professor of Reconciliation and Theology, Director of the Center for Reconciliation, and Senior Strategist of the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. His work examines the estuaries where Catholic and Methodist theological streams, as well as North and Latin American ones, converge.↩