Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend a screening of a new documentary about Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador. Monseñor: The Last Journey of Óscar Romero will be formally released by First Run Features this week, marking the 32nd anniversary of the Archbishop’s assassination on March 24, 1980. Professor Michael Lee of Fordham’s Theology Department organized the event, which included introductory comments and a Q & A session with Rev. Robert Pelton, CSC, the project’s originator, and Juliet Weber, one of its co-directors. Fr. Pelton was a peritus (theological advisor) to Cardinal Suenens of Belgium at Vatican II, worked for years in Chile, and is now director emeritus of the Latin American/North American Church Concerns at the University of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies. In this last capacity he began organizing the annual Romero Lectures, out of which grew the inspiration to produce a documentary.
Monseñor focuses on the tumultuous three years between Romero’s appointment as the local ordinary of San Salvador in 1977 and his death in 1980. The documentary is a treasure of archival video footage and audio materials, including Romero’s cassette-recorded diary, homilies, visits to local parishes, and reception of Salvadorans into the archdiocesan center. Ms. Weber remarked that for her the sound of Romero’s voice carries the story; it was striking also for me to hear its weariness some nights as he recounted numbers of disappeared, tortured, and murdered, and then its powerful conviction in denouncing injustice and proclaiming the Gospel at the altar on Sunday mornings. In addition, the project emphasizes Romero’s role as pastor and his deep commitment to – and learning from – the people of El Salvador. To that end the film includes extensive and equally moving recent interviews with campesinos – some local church leaders, some former FMLN guerrillas, some both – as well as legal advisors, fellow priests, and several military and government officials who reflect on Romero and their own context.
Just a day prior I had occasion to view part of another documentary about El Salvador, this one focusing on the life and struggle of the revolutionary groups tucked away in the mountains. It is called In the Name of the People: El Salvador’s Civil War and was shot in 1985. I’ve yet to watch the rest of it, but plan to do so soon since it turns out the entire film is available online.
By way of background: this semester I’m taking a course on liberation theology with particular attention on El Salvador. I’ve tried to be intentional and present to reading that is often graphic in its depiction of the human toll of oppression, on a massive scale yet irreducibly particular. The experiential register of film may often exceed the impact of the printed page, at least it did for me. As I think about returning to sounds and images that are, unsurprisingly, horrifically violent and highly disturbing even as they envisage moments of hope, I’m acutely aware that the rule for commentary ought to be the fewer words the better. The force of these documentaries as an overwhelming communication of the wrong and right we do to and with one another can surely stand on its own.
Still I’d like to share one phrase that has lodged itself in my mind over the past few days: “the asceticism of truth.” I’m recalling a short reflection found in America magazine at the start of Lent, where John F. Kavanaugh commended this spiritual discipline as a practice we might “take up” during the liturgical season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Kavanagh suggests that we situate ourselves in places of discomfort in order to encounter deep truths about ourselves as fragile, sinful creatures that we tend to avoid. He focuses on solitude, interpersonal relationships, and facing marginal others. I think his comments on the “world of wounded persons” could certainly be expanded into a more explicitly socio-political horizon, such as that which framed the life of Oscar Romero and the Salvadoran revolution, including of course the involvement of the United States government. Kavanagh’s phrase is, to be honest, one about which I have some reservations, especially given the disposition of some in Catholic circles to weaponize “Truth” against ambiguity, ambivalence, and dissent. Nevertheless, in considering the experience of watching these documentaries I’ve found it to be a meaningful expression of the ineradicable demand suffering imposes on those who see themselves as, perhaps haltingly and hopefully critically, seeking after truth.
Understanding such a confrontation with reality (via the medium of film) as the site of spiritual discipline implies, first, a patient and probably pained attentiveness to images that would be easier to let go. In the midst of schooling in constant nuance (whose value I do not at all deny) it also suggests a check on equivocation. Such an asceticism ought not to eschew the complexity of responding to injustice, but it faces the simple fact of suffering that should not be; as in Edward Schillebeeckx’s notion of the “negative experience of contrast” a protest arises: “this cannot go on!” and in this resistance lies the revelation of God’s desire for human flourishing. Romero and so many Salvadorans lived this resistance and this revelation with total commitment. For a viewer, especially one in the privileged position of encountering these documentaries in an institution of higher education, one struggle may be to forestall a romanticized solidarity, a wave of sentiment whose resolve dries up as quickly as tears. Surely the goal must be a lasting re-orientation of prayer and effective action; guest blogger Sofia Barbato’s post on Dean Brackley, SJ after his passing several months ago is instructive here. I don’t know fully what it means to “try the asceticism of truth” but I wonder if watching these documentaries in such a spirit could be one illuminative though certainly partial example. If not as a Lenten practice or if not in these terms, then in any case I would highly recommend In the Name of the People and Monseñor.