Tag Archives: assassination

Saint Oscar Romero? Here’s why

January 14, 2015

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romero book coverIt will have been only 35 years this March 30 that an assassin’s bullet through the heart ended the life of the archbishop of San Salvador as he celebrated Mass in 1980.

The late-20th-century martyr for Gospel justice shouldn’t be forgotten by 21st-century Catholics, and author Kevin Clarke helps us all to remember that with his brief but powerfully written life of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Clarke’s book, “Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out,” is one of the newest in the series of biographies that Liturgical Press in Collegeville is publishing, “People of God: Remarkable Lives, Heroes of Faith.”

It captures the essence of Romero and the societal sins of upper-class Salvadorans and members of the military who, as Clarke writes, were either complicit  or blindly implicit in the archbishop’s assassination.

A hard-line traditionalist as a priest, Romero was thought by his nation’s wealthy elite and by the bishops of El Salvador to be “one of them” when he was named to the archbishop’s chair by Pope Paul VI.

For Romero, Vatican II had been an earthquake and the liberation theology of the Latin American bishops’ at Medellin an aftershock, in Clarke’s words. His reputation was that of a strict conservative, but before he was appointed to San Salvador he had already begun to turn away from the status quo that made so few rich and left so many in his country’s in desperate poverty.

As bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de Maria, he visited Tres Calles, a village where six men and boys had just been buried. They had been dragged from their beds, tortured and murdered with bullets and machetes by the National Guard.

On the way back, Romero ran into another incident: the body of a boy was found in a roadside ditch. He too had been tortured and murdered.

He told a priest companion, “We have to find a way to evangelize the rich, so that they can change, so that they convert.”

Clarke notes: “What is telling about the Tres Calles moment for Romero is the beginning of his understanding that what was wanted from the wealthy to give to the poor was not mere material charity, but a conversion of the heart that would allow them to understand that what the poor of El Salvador need most was not a crumb from their table, but a seat at it; not charity, but justice.”

Romero protested the massacre to the local Guardia commander, and in what would turn out to be foreshadowing, the officer shrugged and advised the bishop, “Cassocks are not bulletproof.”

Romero saw that the so-called “political” work of the “liberation” clerics he had previously been suspicious of was “a natural, spiritually sound and even required outgrowth of their pastoral work,” and was supported by recent Church teaching.

Then his friend Father Rutilio Grande was murdered in a hail of bullets. Clarke notes:

“The killing of this Jesuit priest was the signal of an abrupt rupture, for the old Romero was cast off completely and a new Romero emerged: empathetic, soulful and courageous.”

Romero took on the powers that be, using the archdiocesan radio station and newspaper to report the repression and violence, news that wasn’t available from the media controlled by the elites. He refused to participate in government ceremonies or official events or to attend events in which he might be photographed socializing with El Salvador’s political or military leaders. He went further, raising money to feed campesinos hiding in the mountains and arranging to hide victims of political violence at the national seminary.

Although he was accused of being a Marxist, he tried to convert both the powerful and those seeing change. He preached to elites, “Do not make idols of your riches; do not preserve them in a way that lets others die of hunger.”

He also met clandestinedly with guerrilla leaders to try to persuade them of the power of Christian nonviolence in the face of oppression.

Clarke explains well the geopolitical situation of the time — the fear of communism spreading in Latin America — that had both the United States and the Vatican supporting the status quo in El Salvador.

When, at the Vatican, Archbishop Romero tried to explain that his country’s revolutionaries were not communists but campesinos “defending their people against sometimes incomprehensible violence and the life-crushing force of economic and social oppression,” he was reprimanded. Clarke writes:

“After being battered by Cardinal Sebasiano Baggio, secretary of the Congregation of Bishops, he endured more admonishments from the secretary of state office, where a curial operative suggested Romero remember the ‘prudence’ with which Jesus Christs conducted his public life.’

“ ‘If he was so prudent, then why was he killed?’ Romero wanted to know.”

Killing Romero demonstrated how far some are willing to go to protect their status and privilege, and an important point Clarke brings out is how the man’s inhumanity to man kept escalating, with government-backing death squads not satisfied merely to kill. The viciousness turned from brutality to depravity, with, for example, a priest’s face being shot off.

In the end, Archbishop Romero’s death led to 12 years of civil war in El Salvador, ending only in 1992. Tens of thousands of Salvadorans were killed, primarily (85 percent) murdered by their own military, according to a UN Truth Comission.

As the slain archbishop’s cause for sainthood moves forward finally, readers of this 137-page biography will understand why, and perhaps be perplexed as to why it has taken 35 years.

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Catholic position on abortion promoted in an outrageous, satirical, off-beat novel?

April 23, 2010

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Checkpoint cover

“Checkpoint,”

by Nicholson Baker

Back in 2004, “Checkpoint” was blasted by reviewers for daring in fiction to have as its subject matter the possibility of killing a sitting United States president. The New York Times reviewer called it “a scummy little book,” and Republicans used it to attack Democrats as crazed liberals even though Democrats had nothing to do with the book being published in that chaotic election year.

But buried in the controversial novel, and buried in the tumult of reviews that condemned even the thought about a novel about someone “thinking” about assassinating a president — not doing it — is a unique literary argument, and a strong one at that, for the ending of legalized abortion.

If only author Nicholson Baker had found a different vehicle to make his powerful points about the immorality of aborting babies in the womb.

Outrageous main subject matter

You can call “Checkpoint” alternative writing, non-traditional, unusual in format and way-out-in-leftfield when it comes to subject matter.

What else would you call a novel that is entirely dialogue between just two characters and involves one guy trying to talk the other guy out of assassinating President George W. Bush?

Jay is the nut-case character who has determined he can no longer take Bush’s war-mongering. He’s adamant that the only way to stop the killing — and stop the President from other sins he’s convinced Bush is responsible for — is to get onto the White House grounds and put an end to Bush.

Ben, a long-time friend, gets a call to come to a Washington hotel because Jay has something important to tell him. When Ben finds out what Jay has in mind, he does all he can to reason with his friend and save him from this mistake.

It’s hilarious writing, as off-beat as it comes, with an off-beat topic pursued through 115 pages of off-beat banter. Jay’s ideas about how to assassinate the president are ludicrous, even stupid, great signals that no killing is going to happen. The dialogue format is amazingly conversational. The counter punching of the argumentation is superbly done, with point and counterpoint being made with comic timing and tangents creeping in to add to the fun.

My personal favorite of these — because it is so true to life — is Jay’s little side trip to bemoan the Wal-Marting of the world.

Jay begins blasting Wal-Mart for buying products from other countries and adding to the demise of American manufacturing. Ben responds that his son loves Wal-Mart, that the last time he shopped there he got a really cheap DVD of the Andy Griffith Show and a pretzel, and “there were friendly chatty women in the crafts and sewing area.”

Jay: What were they chatting about?

Ben: Who was going to go on break first.

Pro-life message ahead

Amid all the silliness, amid the rationale that the President has to die in order to stop the killing of both combatants and non-combatants in Iraq, all of a sudden on Page 81 Jay makes the point that the United States won’t be a righteous nation until legalized abortion is repealed.  Ben tries to fend off his arguments, but Jay scores all the points.

He makes arguments that Catholics have been making since 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision. Jay calls “reproductive rights” a huge inconsistency in the liberal position, calls “pro-choice” a fake term, and soundly condemns the use of the word “fetus.”

Jay: Twenty percent of all pregnancies in this country end up being aborted. That’s hundreds of thousands of infants.

Ben: Fetuses.

Jay. Not fetuses! “Fetus” is a scientific word that’s deliberately chosen to be ugly so that the remorse of killing will not attach to it. Infants.

Jay likewise takes apart the argument that abortion needed to be legal to stop back-alley abortions:

“Because there were evil doctors and incompetent doctors, and people who pretended to be doctors but were really killers, who harmed desperate women, therefore we must continue to permit the killing of the unborn? What kind of an argument is that?”

“Checkpoint” may be the most powerful literary attack on abortion ever.

Killed by the reviews

But you’ve likely never read “Checkpoint.”

It’s not a new work. It was published by Alfred A. Knopf, a publishing company that deserves a pat on the back for printing a strange-but-creative, outlandish novel with a message few other mainstream publishers have the guts to put on paper. And it was soundly condemned before it even hit the bookstores.

Perhaps it is outrageous to write anything — even a fictional political satire — about assassinating a president. Perhaps our national sensitivity to the horror of such an act won’t allow this kind of writing, even writing that seems meant not to provoke such an evil deed but rather to first, entertain, and certainly to make political points about the immorality not just of George W. Bush’s war-making but the failure to act morally by several generations of American leadership.

What’s sad for me is that Baker’s wonderful polemic about the sin of abortion got lost in the wash. He may have been wrong about writing about presidential assassination, but about abortion he was right on. — bz

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