An innovative theologian and dynamic teacher, Dr. Maureen H. O’Connell, Chair of the Department of Religion at LaSalle University, will deliver the 15th annual Romero Lecture at Rutgers-Camden on Friday, March 20 at 7 p.m.
Held every year near the anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination (March 24, 1980) and sponsored by Camden’s Romero Center Ministries (www.romero-center.org), the lecture series strives to honor the legacy of the Salvadoran martyr by offering various perspectives on a faith that does justice.
Dr. O’Connell kindly answered a few questions for the Catholic Star Herald.
CSH: Your lecture is titled, “Encounter, Engage, Create!: The Latino/a Moral Imagination as Resource for Social Justice.” Could you give us a quick overview of the talk?
MHO: One of the unique contributions that the Latino community has made to the universal Church is to highlight the role of beauty when it comes to understanding who God is, what God desires for us as individuals and communities, and how we ought to live together. In my lecture I will explore the legacy of Monsignor Romero in the work of theologians, artists and faith communities who show us that the vision of justice of which he spoke is stunningly beautiful.
CSH: What might Catholics today learn and integrate from Oscar Romero’s life and ministry?
MHO: One of the things I find most compelling about Oscar Romero is the fact that he did not have a hardened heart. In other words, he was not so fixed in his way of understanding himself or understanding what was going on in the world around him that he could not change his mind.
Not only that, but he allowed his perspectives – and perhaps more importantly his heart – to be changed by ordinary people. He did not resist God’s invitation to allow his heart to be softened, in fact broken, by the unnecessary suffering of people around him. And in those same people he found the courage to see more clearly his gifts and privileges, and to use them to build the Kingdom of God. Given how polarized we have become – in our politics, in our Church – I think Romero provides an example of how to be prophetic precisely through being vulnerable enough to change your mind.
CSH: What personal experiences with Latino communities have shaped the way you think about faith?
MHO: A few years ago I had the opportunity to accompany some students from Fordham University, where I previously taught, to Guatemala for a very interesting spring break service project.
The students were part of a very prestigious BFA program that Fordham offered in conjunction with the Alvin Ailey School of Dance. Rather than build houses or teach English or work in soup kitchens (more conventional service immersion projects), these students shared the gift of dance with communities all over the country. They offered workshops for various groups, gave private performances in hospitals and orphanages and schools and retirement communities, and put on full-scale performances in public and sacred spaces in the evenings.
I was struck by the way in which the people we encountered – whether in the bigger cities or in the mountains – were familiar with the language of beauty. There was such a deep appreciation on the part of the people for whom the students performed for what they had to share, an awe for what was being communicated through the movement of their bodies, a palpable sense that something very meaningful or even sacred was being revealed.
I didn’t speak Spanish at the time (I’m working on it), but even I was able to participate in what I have frequently read about from liberation theologians – that beauty is something that many people in Latin America do, and do in their everyday lives.
If God is understood in Euro-American Christianity as “the true,” then in Latin American Christianity, God is understood as “the beautiful.” That was just so apparent to me, and something I’ve tried to integrate into my faith life and professional vocation as a theologian.
CSH: How might we be more creative in our faith-based work for social justice?
MHO: I think we need a bit more imagination in our work for justice – the ability to think outside the box, to view reality from a variety of perspectives, to tap into emotions like joy or playfulness or surprise or delight.
Many of the social problems facing us are deeply entrenched – embedded in the way we understand ourselves, our relationships to other people, our understanding of the way the world works. I think we rely too much on strategies for justice that are already limited by the way things are.
Imagination allows us a chance to step outside some of that for a moment and to fantasize about radically different alternatives to the way things are. And very basic things can spark the imagination – a good story, a song or poem, a cherished memento from the past, dreams. And there are things we can do everyday to flex the muscle of our imagination, all of which can point us toward justice or sustain us in trying to create it.
We can tell ourselves and other people the stories behind why we do what we do, we can stop using words all of the time and turn to images or movement to capture what we’re trying express, we can appreciate that creating something out of nothing is a way of participating in the ongoing work of a creator God.
If you go
The 15th Annual Romero Lecture, featuring Dr. Maureen H. O’Connell. Friday, March 20, 7 p.m, Rutgers-Camden (multipurpose room in the campus center). Free parking is available in Lot 14 on N. 3rd St. Admission is $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Purchase tickets and learn more at www.romero-center.org/ministries/lecture