Saturday, October 10, 2009

Romero (1989)

In college, I was baptized in a Paulist parish in Austin, Texas. It was a terrific parish near the state capitol and the University of Texas campus. Both famous politicians and some of the city’s homeless residents were parishioners of record.

The Paulists are a wonderful order. Their mission statement is dedicated to reconciliation, ecumenicalism and evangelization. When I was in college I did not perceive them as being particularly “liberal”--they were mainline Catholics when it came to church doctrine on abortion and homosexuality, for example. But the “L” word is sometimes used to describe the Paulists by particularly conservative Catholics, who tend not to be very fond of them. At the retreat just prior to my baptism, I do remember the presiding priest touting Martin Sheen as an example of a “good Catholic,” which is probably something that one would not have uttered in a more conservative context.

The next year, our parish welcomed a new Paulist brother just out of seminary, who took his vows at our church. At that mass, he lay prostrate on the ground as the congregation sang a beautiful “Litany of Saints” to ask for the prayers of saints the young Paulist admired. Within the Litany, he had included the names of Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero—neither of whom had been canonized. I was not really familiar with Oscar Romero at the time, but there was an independent film about his life that had come out a few years before. It happened to have been produced by Paulist Productions.

Raul Julia, a Puerto Rican actor better known for his work in Kiss of the Spider Woman and the Addams Family movies, played the title role in Romero. Sadly, just a few years after Romero, Julia was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and died of a stroke at the premature age of 54.

When Romero was released, it received lukewarm praise. But again, I’m not a film critic and thought it was beautiful. The movie tells the story of Oscar Romero, a quiet, bookish, aristocratic Salvadoran priest with a reputation for conservatism. In 1977, he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador, a move that was welcomed by the government. By contrast, his appointment disappointed local priests dedicated to the plight of the poor, who aligned themselves with Liberation Theology and/or Marxism.

Soon after Romero’s appointment, Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit friend who had been ministering to and organizing the poor, was assassinated. This proved to be a pivotal event in the archbishop’s life. He subsequently became vocal on issues of social justice, speaking out against poverty, torture and assassination of political opponents. He brought attention to the persecution of the church in El Salvador including the torture and murder of priests, nuns and lay people. As Romero sought and received international attention in highlighting these issues, he became more and more of a thorn in the side of the government. Nonetheless, in the film, he is depicted as also unequivocally rebuking priests who embraced violent means. He consistently spoke out for biblical values such as nonviolence. Romero knew the danger he was in due to his vocal opposition of the government’s abuses, but he did not waiver in speaking out. In 1980, he was assassinated dramatically and publicly while celebrating mass. That assassination is dramatized in the climactic moment of the film.

John 15:9-10, 12-13 (New International Version)

"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

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