Óscar Romero's Theological Vision

Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor

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Edgardo Colón-Emeric
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , October
     418 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


At the heart of Edgardo Colón-Emeric’s book is the historical and theological event of the transfiguration and the ways that Oscar Romero became a witness to this manifestation of the human-divine relationship. With the transfiguration as a prism, Óscar Romero's Theological Vision: Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor begins to develop a theology arising from Romero’s writings that is at once in dialogue with patristic sources as well as with the socio-historical reality of El Salvador. The result is a unique encounter between Irenaeus and Romero, between the early church and the contemporary margins of the church, and between traditional sources for theology and the theological source that is Latin America. This work is a clear example of why some theologians advocate for Oscar Romero as a doctor of the church.

The book begins with a scandal—the scandal of poverty and of the incarnation, or to use Romero’s words, the scandal that “the poor are the incarnation of Christ” (1). To this is added the further scandal of the transfiguration that reveals the divine presence in the human person, and more specifically, to quote Romero and echo Irenaeus, “that the glory of God is the living poor” (20). This theocentric vision of the poor becomes the foundation for analyzing Romero’s understanding of scripture and preaching (chap. 2), soteriology (chap. 3), christology (chap. 4), ecclesiology (chap. 5), and eschatology (chap.  6).

As a pastor, Romero was above all a preacher whose homilies are a pastoral source for theological reflection. In chapter 2 Colón-Emeric examines Romero’s criteria for authentic preaching through an analysis of Romero as a microphone of Christ—a voice of the Word of God, who brings together the eternal Word with the silenced voices of a suffering humanity. The chapter takes a nuanced approach to the contentious notion of Romero as a “voice of the voiceless” by addressing both the danger and responsibility that comes with speaking for others, or what may be called the ethics of representation. If Romero was a microphone who amplified the Word and the voice of the poor, such amplification was only possible because he remained close to both sources of truth about that reality.

In chapter 3 Latin America’s history of violence and bloodshed leads to a consideration of salvation as a people’s ongoing collective transfiguration from a pedagogy of death to a pedagogy of life. Building upon insights from Latin American liberation theologians, the pastoral letters of the current archbishop of El Salvador, and an analysis of Romero’s homilies for the feast of the transfiguration, Colón-Emeric argues for salvation as a process of humanization and the construction of a civilization of love that reveals the God of life.

In the next chapter the author shifts from an analysis of salvation to an analysis of the savior as revealed in Romero’s engagement with the spirituality and popular piety of Salvadorans. Particularly, chapter 4 offers a tapestry of Christological glimpses, especially of a kenotic Christ, based on cultural rituals, songs, and images drawn from Romero’s homilies for the feast of the Divino Salvador—the divine savior—a Christological title that is also the name of the nation of El Salvador.

Christ’s kenosis necessitates a church willing to follow the same self-emptying journey to the cross as it accompanies and resists the ongoing crucifixion of the poor, which is the ecclesiological focus of chapter 5. A church that lives Romero’s episcopal motto of Sentir con la iglesia (“to feel/think with the church”) is a church that undergoes a transfiguration whose persecution and suffering also reveal hope and resurrection. It is in this chapter that the author deals most directly with key theological topics that have marked liberation theology and that marked Romero’s theological vision of the church, for example, that the poor are a locus theologicus. One element in this key chapter that could have been more unambiguously expressed, especially when affirming the church’s vocation to be a church of the poor, is the theological status of real poverty as evil, for it kills. Such an affirmation though, requires a clearer distinction between real poverty, spiritual poverty, and poverty as commitment, to echo the words of Gustavo Gutiérrez.

In the last chapter Colón-Emeric returns most strongly to Romero’s theology in relation to the theology of Irenaeus, and analyzes their common affirmation of the goodness of life in the flesh. The second part of Irenaeus’ iconic dictum—that the glory of God is the living person—becomes concretized in Romero by the life of the poor. In other words, the glory of God is manifest where the poor not merely survive but enjoy the fullness of life. This is an eschatological vision that begins in the here and now of history, as manifested by the event that was and is the transfiguration.

Perhaps Colón-Emeric’s greatest contribution in this book is that of establishing profound channels of communication between the ancient sources of theology and contemporary sources that in many ways are still at the margins of theology. Tapping into these ancient veins of theology is not for the sake of lending legitimacy to these contemporary sources, or, to correct the ancient sources. Rather, it is to demonstrate the common struggle of Irenaeus and Romero against forces that deny the goodness of creation. As the author writes, “The fight against heresies is no longer being waged against second-century Gnostics but against twentieth-century idolaters of capital” (234). Colón-Emeric thoroughly shows that Oscar Romero’s theology finds its fullest expression in a vision of divinized humanity that no longer worships idols of death but the God of life made manifest in the transfigured One who invites us to follow.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Leo Guardado is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
October 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edgardo Colón-Emeric is Director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.


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