by Colin Brady
from Signs of the Times No. 66 - Jul 2017

With the centenary of the birth of Oscar Romero approaching in August, and expectations that he will be canonized fairly soon, it is no great surprise that there are publishers looking for original material on the martyred archbishop. What could be better than new material from Romero’s letters?

Work towards Romero’s canonisation grinds on, and provides the first and most obvious of many peculiarities about this unfortunate and ill-fated little book.

As an introduction, the publishers provide a piece by Cardinal Angelo Amato about the nature of Romero’s martyrdom. Over 19 pages, a big chunk of a book that runs to only 132 pages, he argues that Romero was indeed a martyr for Christ. It’s a text obviously meant as evidence for Romero’s sainthood and is written with flourish and care but adds nothing that will be of interest to the ordinary reader.

The introduction is followed by 208 short extracts that may or may not be from 208 letters. Reading is not helped by the strange decision to group them out of chronological order and with the names of recipients shortened for anonymity. Letters to colonels must be responding to arguments that he should end his criticism of their regime, but some extracts from correspondence with priests are just too short to give us a sense of whether these are exchanges with old friends or pastoral missives. One section is on married life and the lack of context begs far too many questions, in particular about Romero’s insight into violence within relationships. The extract from a letter to a woman who must have written to complain that her husband wanted to have sex during Lent will seem very peculiar to most readers.

An article exploring the same issues as Cardinal Amato’s introduction, the question about whether or not Romero can be considered a martyr, comes as an afterword and is the most satisfactory part of the book. Originally published in 1990, it is by a priest, the late Ricardo Urioste, who knew Romero and is an insight into Romero’s spiritual life.

Is that afterword worth a book? The extracts from the letters, strangely ordered and lacking context, might have made an interesting page on a website but as a book? Compare this to The Violence of Love, published in 1988, which provides extracts from Romero’s homilies from the same period, 1977-1980. Chronological ordering gives this its own narrative force ending with that final homily.

What went wrong to result in this unfortunate book? The truth is that everything went wrong and the problem lies not so much in the concept as with revelations about the life of the original editor. For this book was originally published in Italian in 2015, edited by the man who as a young priest was Romero’s secretary and then biographer. It has a completely different introduction and it reads like a resource for personal devotion rather than attempted scholarship. The problem is that the editor was Jesus Delgado who was accused in 2015 of having sexually abused a girl in the 1980s and removed from the priesthood in 2016.

We can imagine the conversation in the offices of Orbis Books when it came to producing the English edition. They should have commissioned something completely different rather than give us this disappointing little book.

Colin Brady works for the Diocese of Salisbury on social justice issues.