PITTSFORD — Archbishop √ìscar Romero — who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980 because he was a champion of the poor and spoke out against the country’s civil war — offers Catholics a model of modern discipleship.
This view of Archbishop Romero was offered by Damian Zynda, director of Christian formation for Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford, who wrote a dissertation on the archbishop’s life. Zynda was one of four presenters during an all-day workshop Aug. 22 about the “Great Witnesses of the Catholic Spiritual Tradition” at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. The other presentations focused on the lives of St. Therese de Lisieux, St. John of the Cross and St. Antony of the Desert.
Zynda explained to the group of more than 30 people attending her workshop that Archbishop Romero was shot and killed at a small hospital during a memorial Mass for a friend who was a journalist. She called him a “model of holiness” who found his divinity within his holiness, which she said are two tracks that should intersect for all Christians during their lives.
Pope John Paul II named Archbishop Romero a “servant of God” in 1997 when the process for his beatification and sainthood began. His road to sainthood, however, began with conversion, Zynda noted.
“By conversion, I mean embracing things that happen in life to see them as an invitation to grow as a human being,” she said. “We have to start with the self. Conversion has everything to do with knowing ourselves and knowing God.”
To know God is not to know about him, Zynda added, but to develop an intimate relationship with God and the Trinity, which also represents community in our lives.
Archbishop Romero’s conversion began at the age of 13, Zynda said, when in 1930 he left his parents and six siblings to enter the seminary. His father had arranged a carpentry apprenticeship for his second-oldest child and was against this move, she said. Archbishop Romero asked the mayor of his town to intercede, and he began his priestly formation. The seminary was operated by Jesuit priests grounded in Ignatius spirituality, which formed the basis of his own work as a priest, Zynda said.
The archbishop, whose role model became Jesuit theologian Luis de la Puente, lived his life as a good shepherd, Zynda said, helping everyone else and taking no time for himself. He often worked himself to exhaustion, she noted.
“He had already established within himself a need for structure and a rigorous life,” she said. “To the day he died, he was scrupulous.”
In 1966, he decided to take a hiatus and also began psychotherapy, a move that serves as recognition of his humanity, Zynda asserted. During this time, he talked about his inability to control his emotions, his inflexibility, his preoccupation with rules and his need to do everything himself, she said. He discussed many of these frustrations in his extensive journals, Zynda explained, and a psychotherapist diagnosed him as obsessive-compulsive with perfectionist tendencies.
“It gives him an understanding of what’s going on in his life,” she said. “He is able to see the holistic expression of the person in the image of God.”
In the last 10 years of his life, his journals show a softening and a need to be “converted to love,” Zynda said.
In 1977, three years before his death, he was named Archbishop of San Salvador. His prior experience as a bishop of a small rural diocese witnessing the deaths around him — including the brutal death of fellow Jesuit priest and friend Rutilio Grande — propelled him further into his conversion, Zynda explained. He began to decry his country’s violence more publicly and fervently, she said.
“He wants to be a bishop with a heart of Jesus,” Zynda said. “Other bishops isolated themselves from violence. (But) this is where his people were. This is where he wanted to be. He continued to be compassionate, to be there, to suffer with his people.”
This public outcry threatened the oligarchy that controlled El Salvador’s government at that time, Zynda noted. U.S. officials have traced the call for his assassination to the country’s 14 founding families, information Zynda said that she discovered during her doctoral research.
“They (El Salvador’s oligarchy) took very good care of him,” she said. “They saw his siding with the poor as a betrayal.”
Although aware of the threat his work was to those in power, Archbishop Romero never saw himself as a martyr, Zynda added.
She noted that before his assassination he told a journalist, “Should this be the call of God, I pray that I am worthy of martyrdom.”
“What is that for us? A man who allows us to see that God can reach into the stuff of our lives and see in us someone who can (represent) the glory of God,” Zynda said. “He became fully human.”
Upon his death, she said that Archbishop Romero’s vicar general described him as the most beloved and the most hated man in El Salvador. As the audience smiled and nodded in understanding, Zynda asked them to remember that this statement also described Jesus.
“I rest my case,” she remarked.
Janet King, a parishioner of Christ the King Church in Irondequoit, said that she was traveling in El Salvador with a group from Rochester’s Corpus Christi Church at the time Archbishop Romero was killed. The group had visited the country to witness what was happening during El Salvador’s civil war, King said.
At one point, King said that her group, which included about 11 parishioners, feared it would not be allowed the leave the country. A U.S. congressman at the time intervened on the group’s behalf, she said.
“It was an incredible experience,” King remarked. “But I came home hating the sound of helicopters.”
She remains devoted to Archbishop Romero to this day, she added, noting that because of his example, many Christians traveled to El Salvador to represent those who had been murdered during the civil war.
“To me, this is what Jesus would expect of us,” King said.