Friday, June 12, 2015

Gustavo Gutierrez: "Romero chose a way of proclaiming the gospel that led him to pay with his life"

By Roberto Valencia (English translation by Rebel Girl)
El Faro
June 4, 2015

Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez returned for four days to El Salvador for the beatification of Oscar Arnulfo Romero. True to himself, he stayed away as much as he could from flash bulbs, skullcaps and decked out churches, staying in central San Salvador in a humble room in the annex to El Rosario church, run by the Dominicans, the order he belongs to.

Gutierrez was born on June 8, 1928, and he's going on 87 but he didn't want to miss the historic opportunity to be in San Salvador the day the upper hierarchy of the Catholic Church corrected a complicit silence that had lasted decades, and raised to the rank of blessed the greatest of its 20th century martyrs. "His martyrdom will shed light on many things that have happened in Latin America," he says.

Founder and chief spokesman for liberation theology, a concept that still raises hackles in certain ecclesiastical and political circles, Gutierrez surprises in this interview with words at the opposite pole of confrontation, with an explicit call to look to the future without dwelling on the wounds of the past -- "It is best to look forward. Romero is now blessed. What's going to happen from now on?"

Did you think your eyes would ever see Romero beatified?

Well...there have been many moments of skepticism, seeing so many people opposed to the process, but there were also moments of hope.

When did you begin to see it clearly?

With Francis. Since he took charge, one felt a gospel freshness and knew the beatification would go forward. Francis is someone who goes to the sources and, from there, proclaims, preaches, and naturally you have to recognize that, being someone from the same continent, he had more knowledge of Romero than any other pope could have.

Were you on the stand on May 23rd?

No, no, no...I don't have those kinds of connections, although I don't think I would have gone on the stand if they had invited me either.

In March 2008, Leonardo Boff said Benedict XVI would beatify Romero, but would do so because it was advantageous.

The thing to understand is that the beatification was very advantageous, of course it was, but advantageous in the sense of healthy. It's healthy for the Church to recognize Romero's martyr status.

Wasn't it healthy 10 or 20 years ago?

But it's irrelevant to go into that. What I do see is that this recognition of martyrdom will shed light on many things that have happened in Latin America because there have been more martyrs.

Don't you fear the opposite -- that the figure of Romero will be sugar-coated?

It's very hard to make predictions. I try not to think like that. What can happen in the future? I hope that when Romero's witness is used, his struggle for justice, against the oppressors, against inequality, isn't left aside. I'm going to use his witness in that sense. How will we be in 10 years? How will the figure of Romero have been used? Well, in 10 years we'll see.

Do you feel that, with the beatification, the "preferential option for the poor" has been vindicated somehow?

Yes, but I don't care for the word 'vindication'. I think we've entered a stage where what preferential option for the poor is is better understood, and where we are reviewing all the mistakes that might have been committed too, with the idea of always looking forward. Romero's witness has already marked us in the past in the whole continent, Romero has already helped many people understand things, and that is what I hope will be spurred by the beatification.

Can you share with us your views on what Romero meant in life for the continent?

Romero is a martyr; he gave his life for proclaiming the gospel. Romero was afraid they would kill him, he knew that could happen, but he was clear that he couldn't leave his people. That's the basic witness. Moreover, a saint -- because martyrdom is a way to attain sainthood -- is a model whom the Church identifies to show the Christian people what a person who followed Jesus is like. That's why this witness is so important for the Church in Latin America, and those to come, like Enrique Angelelli, like Gerardi...

Father Rutilio Grande.

Yes, but I was mentioning bishops because of the impact of assassinating a bishop. There are tons of Rutilios in Latin America. And I'm not trivializing him. What I mean to say is that there are many people who have given their lives, one way or another, and the greatest scandal is that all this has occurred on a Christian and mostly Catholic continent.

To whom would you attribute the main credit for the beatification?

First, the person himself. Romero had various options for proclaiming the gospel and he chose one that led him to pay with his life. But people live in community, and of course the courage of the Salvadoran people and Romero's love for those people contributed to the decisions he made in his life, and therefore to his beatification. Then, as a Christian, I also believe that there is intervention by the Holy Spirit. It's a set of things, but the starting point is him.

Can you help us draw a profile of Monseñor Romero in life? What did he stand for exactly?

El Salvador was beginning to resound across the continent because of its political situation, and Romero was the main reference point. His sermons were heard on the radio in several countries, and even circulated in print. The bombs they put on the archdiocesan radio had a lot of impact abroad.

Did you know him personally?

My first contact with him was in August 1972 during a theology course for Central American bishops that CELAM (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano) organized in Antigua, Guatemala. It was four weeks, if I remember right. The facilitators were Boaventura Kloppenburg, Segundo Galilea... and they assigned me a week to talk to them about liberation theology.

Your book had just been published.

Yes, in 1971, but the publication date is somewhat symbolic, because we had been working on liberation theology for years. That's where I met Romero.

Was there a chance to interact? They say he was very reserved.

Of course. We were a small group, all gathered in the same building; we would meet to eat, to have supper.

In 1972 he was auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, still a deeply conservative Romero.

I wouldn't say conservative. I think he was a traditional man, but in the good sense of the word. I think there's a difference. He was trained in Rome, with certain values...

It's not just a question of values. In those years he clashed constantly with the progressive sectors of the Salvadoran Church.

Yes, but I think the only people able to change are honest people. Romero changed, yes, but he was always honest, before and after coming to the archdiocese.

And after that meeting in Antigua?

We crossed paths occasionally. I remember we saw each other in Puebla in 1979. I also came to his funeral ... a terrible day! I was to say a prayer at the Mass, but couldn't even do it because of what happened in the plaza.

What happened that day? Tell us your version.

I was on the steps of the cathedral, and the people, in the square. We were in the middle of the homily and huge noises were heard, like explosions, and people started running and were crushed between each other. It was terrible.

How did you react? Did you go into the cathedral?

I didn't have the chance to think about it; they put us there. After the explosions, there were people who jumped the fences. I was pushed into the cathedral, and like me, a whole scared crowd. That plaza, I'll never forget it, was filled with clothing, shoes, blouses...with a breeze that lifted the things up. Spectacular, that.

How long did you stay in the cathedral?

The whole morning, because we foreign delegations declined to leave before the Salvadorans, as those from the government were demanding. We thought that if we left first, something might happen to the people who had taken refuge, and so everything was delayed, and we even had time to bury Romero once only a few people remained. Then we went out three by three with our hands on the back of our necks; I got to leave with Sergio Méndez Arceo and Samuel Ruiz, two Mexican bishops. We went out and now I don't even remember how I got to UCA, where I was staying.

Let's come back to the present. Why do you think Romero's beatification took 35 years and Escrivá de Balaguer's 17?

Those kinds of comparisons don't matter to me, but undoubtedly in Romero's case one influence was that there were so many people speaking against him, so many Salvadoran bishops and lay people who were asking that he not be beatified, people who were weighty. Clarifying all that rejection took time.

Don't you think that the Catholic Church as an institution took too long? The Anglican Church has exalted him for 15 years...

That doesn't matter now.

Even the United Nations...

Doesn't matter now.

Are you sure it doesn't matter?

I am a sectarian anti-nostalgist and this "and if I" or "if I had" doesn't move me. Let's work now, ok? We believe in the future.

The day of the beatification, I read this sign at the event: "The oligarchy ordered him killed and now they're coming to worship him."

Could be, but locking oneself in this is also believing that people are immobile, that no one has been able to change in 35 years. Why not? That way of keeping people fixed must be changed -- and I'm not saying that everyone has changed, because I'm convinced that some might be cozying up to Romero now for convenience, but you can't generalize that way either.

Did you like the "Martyr for Love" slogan chosen by the Salvadoran Church?

I know there's been controversy about this. They could have chosen another slogan, but love is the center of everything and of course it includes justice. But I don't think it's appropriate to go back, but that it's best to look forward. Romero is now blessed. What's going to happen from now on?

The guest stand was elitist, nothing to do with the spirit of Romero's homilies. Doesn't that raise doubts for you?

Yes, but it's done. If anyone doesn't agree, it's okay to say it, but I think you have to put a period on it and move on. Nothing is gained by scratching around there.

You're being very diplomatic, Father.

No, no, it's isn't being diplomatic but having hope and wanting to move forward. What you've raised deserves to be criticized and you, as a journalist, may disagree with how the beatification unfolded but you shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Romero has been beatified. That's what's most important: Building.

Romero's homicide remains absolutely unpunished. How do you build when the truth is still being denied?

And there's no peace without justice, no love without justice. The day of the funeral, I remember that a nun from a private school was crying because many of her students, influenced by their parents, didn't care about the archbishop's death, and were even rejoicing at his death. That happened. And I hope the guilty are judged, but this shouldn't keep us from seeing that, from a Christian perspective, all us human beings can change.

You're such an optimist.

I'm concerned about the idea of forging things. What is having hope? Well, creating hope factors. You can't have hope when you stay locked up in your house. We must denounce and correct the past, the truth about the murder must be known, just like the real causes of poverty in the country, but you also have to propose and build alternatives.

How can Salvadoran society benefit from Romero's beatification?

The situation in El Salvador isn't going to change in a week -- this is nothing magic -- but Romero is a man who gave his life for his people. That is, that it is possible to do so. He is a witness to love, but a love, as we've already said, that includes peace and includes justice. I think commitment like the kind he had to his people is an example to follow.

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