A Prophet in Progress

The Human Story of Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic

In Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic, editor Mar?a L?pez Vigil paints a collective portrait of the beloved prophet, pastor, consoler, and martyr of El Salvador.

Some 200 ordinary campesinos, priests, laity and even some wealthy people tell their personal stories and recollections of Msgr. Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador in the late 1970s. Most of the vignettes are less than a page long. Many tell fascinating and riveting stories of people’s work with the archbishop and show how El Salvador’s economic and political crisis was marching its people towards civil war.

The 423 page book published by EPICA is skillfully translated from Spanish into English by Kathy Ogle.

The scoop on his conversion
What I love about the book is getting the inside story on how a 60-year-old man?known for his close ties to the wealthy and not much interested in Catholic social teaching?could be open to the personal transformation he underwent. One of many stories details his conversion:

“The teaching you do is too participatory.”
That’s what Monse?or Romero would say most often when we would talk about the work at the Los Naranjos Center?But still, he was learning. Learning from reality?

Santiago de Mar?a is a thousand meters above sea level. The harvest months are cold, and at night it’s really freezing. His first year, he didn’t notice. But during the second year, he started realizing that the campesinos who arrive to work the coffee harvest on the plantations were sleeping on the sidewalks, scattered around the plaza, shivering with cold.

“What can be done?” he asked one day.

“Monse?or, you can solve the problem. Look at the big old house where the school used to be. Open it up!”

He opened it. Three hundred people could fit inside?.And that’s how he started giving shelter to a lot of people. “And serve them something hot at night?a glass of hot corn atol or milk.” He gave that order to the people that worked in C?ritas.

While the campesinos were having their drink and getting warmed up, Romero would go around and talk with them. He spent a lot of time listening. That’s how he began to understand that the problems we’d told him about so often were not stories that we’d made up?
— Juan Macho (p. 71)

“The coast is clear, Don Foncho. Let’s hear another one!” said Msgr. Romero. And my father would let loose with another spicy joke. Spicy or mild, we would always laugh. And that’s how we spent our time, in good company with good food.
— Elvira Chac?n (p. 302)

Romero with his people
Msgr. Romero had the ability to connect with people in very human ways. He loved good cooking and enjoyed the times he could eat with friends. One woman recalls how the archbishop ate dinner with her family, laughed with her father, and forgot his troubles. One time her mother scolded her father for telling an off-color joke while the archbishop was present. Then she went into the kitchen for more food.

Through his listening, arguing, questioning, and laughing, ordinary people chronicle how Msgr. Romero became committed to loving and defending the poor.

And in the end?
By 1978 some 75 percent of the people in the countryside and at least half in San Salvador listened to his homilies on the radio every Sunday. He would denounce military repression and beseech the government to offer people economic and political justice.

By 1980 everyone knew Msgr. Romero’s life was in danger. And each personal story leading up to his martyrdom is a window into the experiences of the crucified Salvadoran people and more broadly into the suffering of impoverished Latin Americans in the last century.