Theologian Jon Sobrino regularly writes these letters to his late colleague Ignacio Ellcacuria about the state of the world, the Church, etc. Here is the latest, dated 10/26/2009, from Adital. English translation by Rebel Girl.
Dear Ellacu: This year marks the twentieth anniversary of your martyrdom and Monsignor Romero's thirtieth is coming soon. We get to speak about you often, with special responsibility, and also with some scruples. You, the Jesuits, are well-known martyrs, but Julia Elba and Celina not so much. And yet they are the symbol of hundreds of millions of men and women who have died and continue to die, innocent and helpless, here, in the Congo, in Palestine, in Afghanistan, and nobody pays them much attention.
Practically, they do not exist either in life or in death for the societies of abundance. Nor does the institutional Church know what to do with so many people who have been killed. If it is difficult for a martyr of justice such as Monsignor Romero to be canonized, how much more so for them to canonize those men and women who have lived and died in poverty and oppression. Yet many times I heard you say that they are "God's favorites."
Thus I should write to you about Julia Elba and Celina, but I know little about them. I know that Julia Elba spent her entire working life in the harvests, in the kitchen. And all this since she was 10 years old. I do not know much more about her. Yes, I have wondered "who is the greater martyr, Ellacuría or Julia Elba" and it would be awful if the Jesuit martyrs made us forget those two women who were killed 50 meters from the rose garden. These days I have written that "Ellacuría did not live or die so that the splendor of his figure would obscure Julia Elba's face." Ellacu, this is the scruple.
But Julia Elba and many Salvadoran women like her will forgive me, maybe even be glad that in this letter I will tell you about our Archbishop, because they are not jealous of a very dear person. And I've titled it: "Monsignor Romero and You". My intention is to help the new generations, who have not had enough Christian and Salvadoran formation. So that they will know that there once was a country and an extraordinary church: that of Monsignor Romero. And you're a valuable mystagogue to introduce us to him. Therefore, I will recall how you two got along.
People know that both of you were eloquent prophets and martyrs. But I like to recall another important similarity about how you began. Both of you were given a Salvadoran and Christian torch, and without any discernment made the fundamental choice to keep it burning. Monsignor received it from Rutilio Grande the night he was killed. And after Monsignor died, you took it up again. It is true that you had already started before that, but after his murder your voice became more powerful and began to sound more like that of Monsignor. I heard a lady say at UCA, "since they killed Monsignor, in the country no one has spoken like Fr. Ellacuría."
What interests me is to remember and emphasize that in El Salvador there was a grand tradition: the commitment and love for the poor, the confrontation with the oppressors, the firmness in the conflict, the hope and the dream that were passed from hand to hand. And in that tradition blazed the Jesus of the Gospel and the mystery of His God. We can not squander that legacy, and we must make it available to young people.
The beginnings of your relationship with Romero were not positive. In the early seventies, you were already known as a dangerous leftist Jesuit because of your defense of agrarian reform, support for the ANDES teachers' strike and analysis of electoral fraud in 1972. But with your 1973 book Teología Política ("Political Theology") you started to touch on more explicitly Christian themes: salvation and history, the messianism of Jesus, the mission of the Church and political violence ... And although the country was not yet talking about liberation theology -- and how dangerous its advocates were -- the bishops were frightened of the theologian Ellacuría who emerged with force. And it fell to Monsignor Romero to write a seven-page review of your book. He did it in a serious and polite tone, unlike the criticism that came from a theologian of the Roman Curia named Garofallo. The first meeting between you was a clash.
Things went forward. You with knowledge and prophecy, and sometimes with humor and irony. In a small journal of the UCA, you wrote a short article with the title "A bishop disguised as a military man and a nuncio disguised as a diplomat" -- those of my generation will know which members of the hierarchy you were referring to. It was not your style, but your conviction.
So came 1976. Monsignor Luis Chavez y Gonzalez, a worthy and good friend, left the responsibility of the archdiocese after 38 years. At ECA, we gathered to write an editorial on this important issue: "Who will be the new archbishop." We supported Monsignor Rivera and critically distanced ourselves from the one who sounded like a possible candidate: Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. The choice, of course, turned bad for the Vatican, and later you would write that "Monsignor Romero was not elected because he would be what he became; he was elected almost for the opposite reason."
Then came Monsignor's conversion and a deep change in your relationship with him. When they killed Rutilio in March 1977, you were in Spain, and from Madrid on April 9th you wrote him a letter that came into my hands by chance many years later. We published it in Carta a las Iglesias ("Letter to the Churches") in March 2006.
"I have to express, in my humble position as a Christian and a priest of your archdiocese, that I am proud of your role as pastor. From this remote exile, I want to show my admiration and respect, because I saw in your action the hand of God. I can not deny that your behavior has exceeded all my expectations and this has given me a deep joy that I want to communicate to you this Holy Saturday. "
Ellacu, this letter is one of your most beautiful texts. You speak to Monsignor in complete truth, and you show unknown facets of yourself to those who have only known you as professor and rector. After the assassination of Rutilio you thanked him for "his evangelical courage and prudence versus clear cowardice and worldly prudence", the wisdom of "listening to everyone, but deciding to do what seemed to cautious eyes to be the most risky." You were referring to the single Mass, the suppression of activities in Catholic schools, Monsignor's promise not to attend any official function... You congratulated him: "You have created the Church and created unity in the Church"; most of the clergy and religious coalesced around Monsignor. And you stated it again at the end: "If you can maintain the unity of your presbyterium in its highest fidelity to the gospel of Jesus, everything is possible."
Gospel and Ignatian dialectics, recurrent in you, appear in the letter: you "have succeeded not through flattery or dissimulation, but by way of the gospel: being faithful to it and being brave with it." "You could not have come in on better footing to create Church." I also wrote that while it seemed that everything was starting badly for Monsignor, all started very well. And you signed: "This member of the Archdiocese, who now finds himself away completely against his will."
When you came back in 1978 you started with dedication and devotion in the service of Monsignor. For YSAX, the radio of the archdiocese, you wrote a long series of commentaries on his third pastoral letter, La Iglesia y las organizaciones políticas populares ("The Church and popular political organizations"). You helped to draft the main part about idolatry in the fourth pastoral letter, La Iglesia en la actual situación del país ("The Church in the present situation of the country"). In his last weeks, you were with him at the press conference after the Sunday homily, and he gave you the floor when asked about the political situation. You were with him the day before his murder, after that unique homily: "In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!" And you were a pallbearer at the funeral. You can be seen in the photo with Walter Guerra, Jesus Delgado and Juan Spain.
What you did for Monsignor was not just another of your many services to the country. Nor did you think of it as strategic service, given the immense influence of Monsignor. Romero became someone very special for you, different from what Rahner or Zubiri had been. He got inside you, touching your deepest fibers. I had that feeling from the beginning. And it stuck with me forever in your homily at the funeral mass that we had in the UCA. You said: "In Monsignor Romero, God visited El Salvador."
I have often quoted these words, Ellacu. They are very much yours for the accuracy of language and the weight of the concept. Knowing you, you were telling the truth. And a theo-logical truth: throughout this El Salvador, massacred and hopeful, cunning and brave, cruel and generous, one felt the footstep of mystery. The footsteps of God. So Romero became for you a reference point of God, and a starting point and foundation of your theology. I'll recall this briefly.
Let's start with ecclesio-logy. The "people of God" was not just any subject, especially when Vatican II was already in decline and hierarchiology was re-emerging. You wrote a systematics article about it in 1983, but earlier, in 1981, you had written El verdadero pueblo de Dios, según Monseñor Romero ("The true people of God, according to Monsignor Romero"). You did not try to analyze the ideas of some important theologian, but to get to the root of the problem from the source that you had at hand and that seemed to you to be the most fruitful.
You mentioned four characteristics of the true people of God: 1. The preferential option for the poor, 2. The historical incarnation of the people's struggles for justice and liberation, 3. The introduction of the Christian leaven in the struggles for justice, 4. Persecution for the sake of the Kingdom of God in the struggle for justice. Not all the new material came from Monsignor, but the newest, so to speak, the last three characteristics, came from him. At least, Monsignor Romero made you delve more deeply into them.
Monsignor put you on the trail of "the Church of the Poor", which was not even successful in the Council, despite the wishes of John XXIII, Cardinal Lercaro and a few bishops. And he certainly inspired you to speak of martyrdom, a foundational reality for the Church, like the cross of Jesus. Several times you quoted the scandalous words of Monsignor Romero: "I rejoice, brothers and sisters, that the church is persecuted. This is the true Church of Christ. How sad it would be, in a country where such horrible murders are being committed, if there were no murdered priests. They are the sign of a church incarnate." Better and more deeply than with many concepts, Monsignor defined the Church from two main relationships: with the destiny of Christ and the destiny of the people. Someone with good intentions once questioned that Romero ran many risks, even with his life. But you answered him: "That's what he has to do." And that's what you did with your life too. Ecclesiology was not a set of pinned down concepts, but emerged from reality.
In Christo-logy you concurred with Monsignor in many things. I will only recall one, for me the most decisive today, certainly in the third world, but also in the first: to see Christ in the crucified people, to think of these as the continuation of the Servant of Yahweh. There are now hundreds and thousands of millions of poor, hungry, oppressed, given violent deaths, massacred, innocent and defenseless, unknown in life and in death. With them I began this letter by remembering Julia Elba and Celina.
In 1978, in preparation for Puebla, you wrote El pueblo crucificado. Ensayo de soteriología histórica ("The crucified people: an essay in historical soteriology"), which analyzed the reality of the poor and victims as the suffering servant of Yahweh. In 1981, in your second exile in Madrid you wrote El pueblo crucificado como ‘el’ signo de los tiempos ("The crucified people as 'the' sign of the times"). In the first text, you emphasized its salvific character. In the second, its character of revelation.
In 1977, Monsignor Romero told the persecuted and assassinated peasants in Aguilares: "You are the Divine One Pierced". And in a 1978 homily he expressed his pleasure that Old Testament scholars could not say if the servant of which Isaiah speaks is "a people" or is "Christ coming to liberate them."
I can not say "who copied whom" or if it happened as with Leibnitz and Newton who discovered the foundations of calculus independently of each other. What seems certain to me is that you had the same amazing intuition to link suffering humanity with the crucified One and the Servant of Yahweh. And from what I know, only the two of you. It doesn't appear in encyclicals or councils. Nor, usually, in theology. And with both of you dead, there does not seem to be the force or rigor to speak like that of a world today that is obviously crucified.
And one more thing. In your second exile, you wrote another short text to which you gave great importance: Por qué muere Jesús y por qué lo matan ("Why Jesus dies and why they kill Him"). The title is more than a show of ingenuity. It is to clarify the transcendent meaning of that death and its historical causes. In theology you can find similar thoughts, but certainly not so radical, in the official texts of the Church. For the former, one has to to keep in mind above all God's plan. For the latter, one must take into account the radical historicity of Jesus' life: defender of those offended by the powerful. For this reason Jesus denounced the powers, came into conflict with them, lost and was crucified. This, which is so evident, is often officially silenced, even in Aparecida, a good document for other chapters.
Romero did not silence it. At the mass funeral of one of the murdered priests, he said concisely: "Whoever gets in the way is killed". And those they were hindering were not demons or transcendent powers, but oligarchs, the military, security forces, death squads. Thus we understand "why they killed Jesus," as you asked.
I conclude with theo-logy, with God and your faith. In the first letter I wrote to you that your faith in God could not be naive. In Madrid in 1969 you spoke of the doubts of faith that Rahner bore elegantly - and I realized that you were saying something similar about yourself. I think that you fought with God like Jacob, in those tough years for faith. And when you were 47, Monsignor Romero "appeared to you" and I use the term "appear", opthe, consciously, to express what was unexpected, unsettling, questioning and blessed in it. One can only speak of this with fear and trembling, but I think that in your contact with Monsignor you had a new experience of ultimate reality, of God. And I think it was noticeable in how you spoke of God.
I have written that for Jesus God is the "Father" in whom He can rest, and that the Father is still "God" who never allows us to rest. In Monsignor Romero, in his compassion for the suffering, his denunciations to defend them, his uncompromising love, you saw the God who is "Father" of the poor. In his conversion, his venture into the unknown and uncontrollable, in his walk without institutional church support, in his firm stance wherever the road would lead you saw the Father who remains "God." And perhaps in Monsignor you also saw that, in spite of everything, commitment is more real than nihilism, joy more real than sadness, hope more real than absurdity. That's how I read his simple words: "With this people, it is not hard to be a good shepherd." Utopia looms in them.
I conclude. It was not the first time you met someone who would significantly influence your life, as Rodolfo Cardenal has analyzed so well. However, meeting with Romero meant something different. And the difference was that you met the prophetic nature, the self-giving, the kindness of Monsignor, but especially his faith, which shapes the whole person. Therefore, you never considered yourself a "colleague" of Monsignor. I never heard you, being of critical spirit, criticize Monsignor. And on your behalf and on behalf of UCA, you said that "Archbishop Romero was ahead of us." And you insisted: "There is no doubt who was master and who was the assistant, who was the shepherd who sets out guidelines and who was the executor, who was the prophet who unraveled the mystery and who was the follower, who was the motivator and who was the motivated, who was the voice and who, the echo." You said it with complete sincerity.
"Monsignor Romero, sent by God to save his people," you wrote. And Monsignor told you about what is "most here and now" in God. But he also told you about what is ineffable in God, about blessed mystery, about what is "beyond" in God. "Neither man nor history is self-sufficient. So [Monsignor] did not fail to call to transcendence. In almost all his sermons this theme comes out: the word of God, God's actions breaking the limits of the human". Monsignor Romero became like the face of God in our world.
Ellacu, I end this letter with the words with which you ended you last work in theology. They are for those who do not know you, for all of us who know you and especially to help the Church get back on its course:
"The prophetic rejection of a Church as the old heaven of a civilization of wealth and empire and the utopian affirmation of a Church as the new heaven of a civilization of poverty is an irrefutable claim of the signs of the times and the soteriological dynamic of the Christian faith historicized in new men and women, who have proclaimed firmly, but still in darkness, an ever greater future, because beyond the successive historical futures the saving God, the liberating God is glimpsed."