Revolutionary Saint

The Theological Legacy of Oscar Romero

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Michael E. Lee
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , February
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Revolutionary Saint: The Theological Legacy of Óscar Romero, Michael E. Lee of Fordham University takes a different tack than much of the existing scholarship on the Salvadoran archbishop who was gunned down by a sniper as he celebrated mass in 1980. Unlike the numerous biographies and other scholarly works on Óscar Romero, Lee’s book is a sustained and careful assessment of Romero’s theological legacy, especially the preferential option for the poor, which, as Lee argues, is its center. 

Lee has previously done pioneering work on the monumental but underappreciated Jesuit philosopher, theologian, and fellow Salvadoran martyr, Ignacio Ellacuría (see especially Lee’s 2008 Bearing the Weight of Salvation: The Soteriology of Ignacio Ellacuría and 2013 Ignacio Ellacuría: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation). In Revolutionary Saint, Lee brings his extensive knowledge of Salvadoran theology, history, and politics—as well as his considerable scholarly acumen—to bear on El Salvador’s better-known son, Óscar Romero. 

Why this particular approach to Romero, which focuses at such length on his theological legacy? Is not this legacy already well-known? As Lee himself explains: “To do Romero justice, to get to the depths of his legacy, is to recognize the context and path that Romero’s faith followed. It is to allow the very particularity of Romero’s story—his faith and how he lived it—to ground his universal appeal, and this is why a theological assessment of his legacy is necessary” (xx). Over the course of the book, Lee does just that: assessing Romero’s theological legacy through close attention to his life, writings, and preaching. Indeed, what becomes strikingly apparent in the process is how little of that legacy has been conveyed in scholarship on Romero in English. This scholarship is either biographical, focused on Romero’s (and the Church’s) role from a historical and social-scientific perspective (in helpful but sometimes theologically-reductive ways), or proceeds, like the Salvadoran Jesuit Jon Sobrino’s work, as a constructive theological response to Romero rather than a theological account ofRomero himself. The latter is what Lee undertakes here. In so approaching Romero, Revolutionary Saint, along with Edgardo Colon-Emeric’s forthcoming Óscar Romero’s Theological Legacy: Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor, represents a new wave of scholarship on Romero, the theological significance of his witness, and its ongoing meaning for us today.

Revolutionary Saint is organized into five main chapters. After an examination of Romero’s formation and the theological influences upon him prior to becoming archbishop (chapter 1), Lee turns his attention to the three primary foci he thinks have been especially impacted by Romero’s life and legacy: conversion (chapter 2); discipleship, especially in terms of the proper relationship between faith and politics (chapter 3); and martyrdom (chapter 4). The fifth and final chapter looks at the cause for canonizing Romero as a saint, and Romero’s relationship to liberation theology.

Lee’s presentation illuminates many aspects of Romero’s theological legacy. Let me mention just one: his treatment of Romero’s “conversion” in chapter 2 (44-85), which is the story most known about him, and which is often depicted as just as sudden and dramatic as St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus. Resisting various caricatures of the changes Romero underwent upon becoming archbishop (from retrograde cleric to progressive fighter for social justice, from feeble and confused churchman to a puppet of Marxist elements in the Church), Lee suggestively describes this transformation as a process of “seeing anew,” in which Romero becomes increasingly sensitive to the structural and institutional features of sin, the damage it continues to do in the world, and the cost of struggling against it and on behalf of the poor who most feel its brunt (70-72).

My own view of Romero’s conversion differs, and I discern more continuities than Lee does in Romero’s thought before and after becoming an archbishop. But Lee sets the standard for future discussion on this issue in English, both in his attention to detail and in his depth of theological insight in describing the change in Romero not as a simplistic movement from blindness to sight, but rather as a deepening of sight, a movement toward God by way of his movement toward the poor who bear Christ’s suffering face in the world (see especially 70-85). 

The title speaks to the revolutionary character of Romero’s sainthood, which points to yet another important feature of this book. For what Lee labors to help us see is that, in his struggles both with the right and with the left in his own day, Romero occupied no straightforward middle position between them. As Lee writes, “[N]o assessment of his legacy can content itself as framing him politically in relation to the government and/or the guerrillas. The situation was much more complex than that” (130). Indeed, it is more complex, which is precisely why the kind of theological assessment of Romero’s legacy Lee offers is so necessary. It helps us see that the revolution to which Romero bears witness is the same one described by Mary at the outset of Luke’s Gospel: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (1:52).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Philipp Whelan is St. Andrew's Postdoctoral Fellow in Theolgy & Science at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael E. Lee is associate professor of theology at Fordham University. He is the editor of Ignacio Ellacuría: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation (Orbis 2013), and author of Bearing the Weight of Salvation: The Soteriology of Ignacio Ellacuría (Crossroad).


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