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The Scandal of Redemption: Spiritual Formation Book 9

"I do indeed fear God, and so I try to say only what he wants me to say, even if people don't want me to say what I'm saying."

Oscar Romero was archbishop of San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, at a time when murder and torture were widespread in the country. After his friend and fellow priest Father Grande was killed by the government, Romero took a stand against the violence. Week after week, he used his pulpit and radio broadcasts to report the murders and disappearances; to call for the church to work for peace and justice; and to preach repentance and forgiveness even for the killers. He did this knowing that it would certainly lead to his death. In March 1980 he was shot as he celebrated Mass in the cathedral.

The Scandal of Redemption collects together extracts from Romero's sermons and diaries. The chapter headings are short - The Church, The Call, Redemption, Liberation - and each chapter gives a flavour of Romero's thinking on the topic. A remarkable man emerges from the pages.

What are the main themes of this book?

Right from the beginning, Romero knew what he was doing. In 1977 he preached, "Let us not be afraid! Let us keep walking on this road that will one day lead us to death." His diary entries report funerals for those who have been assassinated, bomb threats, and opposition from other bishops. He does not flinch from calling the government to account, and challenging the church to stand for justice.

And yet what comes through is an overwhelming sense of hope. "In Christ," he says, "is found the zone where those who are most needy and helpless can glimpse the hope offered by a God who still loves us." Romero pictures God walking along the roads to find us, offering redemption without limitations. Although he calls Christians to struggle, he knows that God is the only one who can truly bring change: "not because we humans can create this blessing... but because God is already in the midst of humanity, building a kingdom of justice and love and peace."

What did you like about the book?

At first I wasn't sure I was going to get much out of The Scandal of Redemption, but it definitely grew on me! Romero's calls for social justice were rooted deeply in a beautiful view of Jesus and his church. "Blessed are those who are aware, even in these dark hours of our history, that Christ lives!" he preached. "He lives powerfully as God, and he lives caringly as man." Romero speaks of Jesus who was willing to be regarded as a criminal, to feel "human exhaustion and sweat and anguish"; but also Jesus who is "the one and only liberator, the risen Christ", who has redeemed the world and declares, "Mission accomplished!"

Romero speaks often about the work of the church. That was a new phrase to me - I hadn't exactly thought about the church having a job. "The church must not only denounce what is wrong but must also announce hope," he says, and he talks about the hard work and prayer needed to bring love, peace, and reconciliation to the world.

But the church is not just a job, it is a people drawn together by their trust in Jesus: "The church is communion and life... and her members must confront life in real time... We worship a living God." If the church was a human institution, he says, it would have failed long ago, but because it is a community of people who put their "fragile trust" in the living Christ, it still has power.

What did you find difficult?

I found these three lines most challenging:

The vocation of human beings is to collaborate in the salvation of others. Do I collaborate in salvation and not in harm? How do I do that? Is that my vocation - my reason for being?

Christians must always nourish in their hearts the fullness of joy. This carries weight, coming as it does from a man whose life was in danger. Yet he found joy in knowing Jesus. How do I nourish Jesus' presence in my life? How can I know fullness of joy even in difficulty?

If we are reasonable in our hopes for a world where we will love one another... then we must work to make these qualities a part of our history here and now on earth. To what extent am I hoping God will work everything out one day, and to what extent am I doing anything about it now? How can I make love, peace and justice a part of my history, and my country's history?

Did you learn something new?

I was surprised to find that Oscar Romero commented on structural injustice and the Spirit being at work outside the church. Both of these concepts, I thought, were more recent than that!

Romero says, "Modern-day society is an anonymous society in which nobody accepts blame but everybody is responsible." This certainly sounds just as applicable to 2023 as it does to 1980. The questions of who has caused the problems, who has the power to change them, and who needs to apologise and make reparations, are still very current. Before Jesus, Romero says, we recognise that we are all sinners. We have all contributed our "grain of sand" to society's sinfulness.

Nor is the church exempt. "Often we think that we're the best there is in the world just because we're in the church." That attitude, too, is alive and well today. Romero suggests that there may be more goodness outside the church than there is within. "The Spirit," he says, "is not monopolized by any Christian movement or hierarchy." It's hard to argue with that, when you think about it, but it's remarkably easy to forget that true faith is not only found within the bounds of our own small beliefs.

Will you do something differently?

Archbishop Romero's final sermon was at the funeral of a friend's mother. It was at this Mass that he was shot. A few moments before, he had said these words: "I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters to view these things that are happening in our historical moment with a spirit of hope, generosity, and sacrifice. And let us do what we can. We can all do something and be more understanding."

So often, in our historical moment, it feels like there is nothing we can do. Or it feels like there are so many competing voices calling us to do something that we don't know what to do. I thought the call to view things with hope, generosity, sacrifice, and understanding was helpful. To do what we can, and "above all, pray," as Romero said a sentence or two later. I'm thankful that the state of our country is not quite as bad as El Salvador was then, but there are still many opportunities to announce hope and denounce injustice, if I possibly can.

What is one thing you will remember?

I felt like The Scandal of Redemption gave me a good sense of who Oscar Romero was and what he believed. He was an amazing person. What will stay with me is simply that appreciation that such a man existed. He truly did what he could in his historical moment, trusting in Jesus with peace and joy, and communicating good news to criminals and church alike.


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