This is part one of a four-part series on biographies of saints that best portray…
Biographies of the saints that get it right: Part 4
You cannot tell the story of a saint without telling the story of God’s love for his people. The saint is where the love of Christ is made manifest in a particular way, in a particular time, for particular communities and people. Saints never stand alone: Christ is with them, and they bring Christ to others.
In this fourth and final installment of this series on biographies of the saints, we examine two works: “Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints” (Orbis Books, $24) by Scott Wright with Octavio Duran, and “Bakhita: From Slave to Saint” (Ignatius Press, $16.95) by Roberto Italo Zanini — both testify to the presence of communion in the life of every saint.
Oscar Romero died in 1980 is one of the more recent saints to be canonized by the Church (October 2018). His historical proximity to us might seem like an advantage for knowing him as he really was, but we know that familiarity often breeds contempt. Even when it doesn’t, familiarity might still generate misperception or false certainty.
Though Scott Wright is closer to the person of Romero and his culture than most, he manages to present a living image of the saint that is illustrated through Romero’s deepening contact with the people of El Salvador. Romero rises from Wright’s pages as a man whose own joys and sorrows were the birth pangs of communion. The potentially overfamiliar saint becomes a marvelous mystery to us.
One of the main issues with which any biographer of Romero must reckon is the change that came over Romero throughout his priestly life and into his episcopacy. This change is sometimes labeled as a conversion — not a conversion from unbelief to faith, but a conversion toward the poor. Wright’s portrayal of Romero does, to a certain extent, show him as a man who once conformed to governmental ideals and was therefore averse to political action as a pastoral imperative. As Wright argues, Romero’s change — whereby he came to understand his pastoral responsibility as ineluctably directing him to political action — was catalyzed in three ways:
“First, after seven years of office work as secretary to the bishops’ conference of El Salvador, Romero returned to the direct pastoral activity with the people that had always characterized his ministry as a priest. Second, a change began to take place in his ideas, both theological as well as pastoral … and in the way in which he looked at and judged reality. Finally, certain incidents that occurred while he was bishop of the diocese [of Santiago de María], particularly the massacre at Tres Calles, were important events in his deepening conversion and commitment to the poor.”
This third stage deserves special attention because it was the violence visited upon others that truly sealed Romero’s conversion — if that is indeed the right term for his deepening concern for and personal commitment to the plight of the poor. There is no theory or argument around the tragedy of mangled bodies, lifeless corpses and disfigured friends. These are facts. To Romero, these were the protomartyrs to his own eventual martyrdom, victims of the very same injustices that conspired to condemn Jesus. While his love for Christ nourished Romero throughout his life, it was the blood of these victims that watered his love for his people.
The distinctive virtue of Wright’s work — as the book’s subtitle suggests — is that it illumines the permanent connection of Romero to the people that formed him, and that he himself formed. Their life gave him life; their plight gave him urgency; their deaths gave him courage; his sacrifice became their hope.
Wright’s biography is neither the most comprehensive — that would be James Brockman’s “Romero: A Life” (Orbis Books, $19) — nor the most theologically astute — that might be Michael Lee’s “Oscar Romero: A Revolutionary Saint” (Orbis Books, $18.49). What it is is a heartfelt introduction, a probing and caring portrayal, and a thorough presentation of a man who stirred up controversy in both his life and death.
On nearly every page the reader is treated to photographs of Romero and his people, with excerpts of his homilies and letters quoted in the margins. Even more, entire sections of the text are devoted to Romero’s homilies, especially ones from the season of Advent.
Wright does a great deal of work himself in crafting this biography, though he also yields much space so that the reader can see and hear Romero directly, rather than always being told about him. Especially for those who are just discovering Romero, this book is hard to beat.
What the reader finds is that in this saint, an entire vision of the world is embodied. It is a vision that informed his preaching, directed his action and empowered his witness. It is the vision of the world as seen through the light of the Gospel. He sought to read the signs of the times — including political realities — in light of the Gospel, and not vice versa. In Romero’s own words:
“The word of God is not a reading of the past but a living word, a spirit that is being accomplished here and now. [What follows is] the effort to apply the eternal message of God to the concrete circumstances of the people.”
A world that neglects the needy, oppresses the weak, injures the vulnerable and afflicts the downtrodden does deserve joy and beauty. Such a world — our world — would not care well for these gifts. And yet joy and beauty are given, not because of who we are but because of who God is. In the harshest of realities — kidnapping — and the cruelest of human institutions — slavery — Josephine Bakhita was the gift of joy and beauty that dawned upon a dark and callous world.
At the outset of his second encyclical, Spes Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI presented Josephine Bakhita as an icon of hope. Roberto Zanini’s biography “Bakhita: From Slave to Saint” allows us to marvel at the hope she found in her life, as well as the hope she offers to others, even now. Bakhita’s hope was not skin deep; it went deeper. Since for large portions of his biography Zanini brings forth Bakhita’s own written testimony, we hear from her about the deepest sufferings of her life, which also become the source of the greatest joy. As Bakhita herself wrote in recalling her own time as a slave:
“It was customary that slaves bore on their bodies particular marks or grooves in honor of their owner. These marks were obtained through tattoo incisions. Up until now, I did not have any tattoos, while my companions had many. … Well, one day on a whim the lady of the house decided to give a gift to those who had not been tattooed. … Two of the strongest slaves were commanded to hold [me], one by the arms and the other by the legs. [The lady of the house] bent down over [me] and with the flour began to make marks. … Once the marks were all made, the woman took the razor, and down it went, cutting each and every mark that had been traced. … Once that operation was completed, she took the salt and began rubbing it hard into each wound, so that it would enter inside the cut, making it larger in order for the slits to remain open.”
Bakhita bore 144 scars throughout her life. In her slavery, these are only tragedy. But in her faith, these same scars became the occasion for joy. That is because the greatest of all masters that she eventually discovers is the one hanging upon a cross, whom she learns is the Son of God — the God who created the whole world. Unlike all her other masters who inflicted their will upon her flesh, she saw in this master one who bore wounds like the ones she bore. This is a master who suffers — who shared her suffering and suffered for her, out of love. By his wounds, hers were healed.
Zanini’s biography gives us enough to begin to imagine how a saintlike Bakhita is a gift for all of us who are complicit in a malicious world. She bore the scars of that malice, but she grew to love even those scars because they united her to Christ. In him she discovered the God who assumes the wounds we inflict on each other. And because Bakhita herself became for others the joy and beauty they did not expect or deserve, she herself is the witness to the joy and beauty of God who would undo all our malice, if we would only let him.
The movement of this book takes us from the story of her slavery to the story of her discovery of Christ and her baptism, to the story of the effect she had on others from her own time down to today. Even with its limitations, this biography allows us to see that Bakhita is not herself by herself. She was claimed in love by Christ, and she claimed others in her own love. The communion of the Church finds an image in her.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His book on the theology of the communion of saints is “Work of Love” (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).