With the Oct. 14 canonization of El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, Paulist Productions is releasing on DVD the 1989 movie Romero. The newly remastered film tells the story of Archbishop Romero — a bookish cleric turned lion — who in the face of persecution, refused to abandon his people and his duties as a priest.
A voice for the oppressed and the impoverished, Archbishop Romero (played by the late Raul Julia) tried to peacefully and faithfully live Christ’s teachings in the midst of inequality and violence against the poor and the Church in El Salvador.
Catholic Digest spoke with Fr. Tom Gibbons, CSP, from Paulist Productions, about Romero, Paulist Productions, and how playing Archbishop Romero brought Julia back to the Church.
Q: What’s Paulist Productions mission?
A: Paulist Productions was founded in 1960 by Fr. Bud Kaiser as a way to help foster the conversation between the sacred and the secular, as a way to introduce Catholic values into the larger culture. For almost 60 years, we’ve been doing that through a series of television programs, documentaries, films, web series, and web content.
Q: I’ve seen Romero twice, and it struck me how well the movie aged. Do you think that Hollywood needs more directors and movie producers who are also priests?
A: I would love the opportunity. Fr. Bud Kaiser was the driving force behind productions like Romero. Fr. Bud also enlisted John Sacret Young, one of the top writers in Hollywood, as the screenwriter — his big show was China Beach, and he was very involved in The West Wing.
Fr. Bud’s real genius was getting the best people together and harnessing that energy and talent to make films like Romero that continued to speak to us today.
Q: Are you a filmmaker?
A: I made a film about the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Fr. Isaac Hecker. He was born in New York City in 1819, and he was a New England transcendentalist for a period of his life. He hung out with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who was his good friend. Then he decided to become Catholic, and he eventually founded the Paulist fathers in 1858 as a way to help introduce Catholicism to the United States and to try to foster a conversation between America and the Catholic Church. You can watch it on Amazon Prime.
Q: I heard that Raul Julia got paid very little for the film. Is that true?
A: Well, he got paid very little by Hollywood standards. When you do well in Hollywood, you command a certain salary, but there was something about this role that showed Raul Julia the importance of Archbishop Romero and what a dynamic human story he had.
Julia was desperate to get the role even to the point where he was willing to go around his agent because his agent wanted him to take other roles for more money. But when Raul Julia heard about Romero, he told Fr. Bud, “I’ll do this for whatever it takes. This film is too important.”
Q: Was Julia a Catholic?
A: When Julia was making the film, he was estranged from the Catholic Church. Doing the film brought him back into the fold, and he credited Fr. Bud Kaiser for helping him reawaken his faith. Julia passed away in 1994.
Q: What does Archbishop Romero’s canonization mean to Catholics today?
A: I think it means many different things to Catholics today particularly those of us in the United States. He’s a saint from the Americas, and he’s also a saint in our modern time. I’ve had the privilege to speak with many people over the last couple of weeks, as we’ve been preparing the release of Romero, who knew the actual Oscar Romero.
Usually when we think of saints, we think of people who were born 500 years ago and who come from a foreign land. He’s a saint for our time because so many of us are either frustrated or are questioning our leadership in the Church with all the scandals that have been going on and all the stories.
One of the great things about Romero is that he is someone who represents the best of the Catholic tradition. He was a bishop who sacrificed for his people. He was a bishop who was willing to follow the way of the cross no matter what. He went out of his way to be with the poor, which is what Jesus asks of all of us.
Q: My favorite scene in the movie is when he goes back in to get the Blessed Sacrament despite knowing that he’s probably going to get shot. Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?
A: That’s probably the top scene for so many people.
Another scene I like is where Romero is interacting with an aristocratic woman portrayed by Ana Alicia. She wants a private Baptism for her baby. In Romero’s understanding — really the Church’s understanding of Baptism — is that we’re all brought into this Church together rich, poor, young, no matter what country you’re from and no matter who you are. There’s a big division when Romero won’t give her a private Baptism. There’s this interesting back and forth because Romero always tried to reconcile. His being for the poor didn’t mean he wanted to cut off his rich friends. What’s sadly ended up happening is his wealthier friends cut him off.
Q: What do you think the Romero movie’s message is for today’s audience?
I hope that the message for today’s audience is that it’s a film of hope when many people are struggling with their Catholic faith particularly with everything going on in the news. Archbishop Romero is someone who lived the faith authentically.
Romero is a relevant movie for today because there are still many problems in El Salvador, and we’re receiving so many immigrants who are running for their lives. I do hope that the film asks us to reconsider what our relationship is with those who are poor, particularly the immigrant. That this film causes people to rethink the age-old question: “Who do we consider our brother and sister?”
Q: Pope Benedict XVI once said that Archbishop Romero’s cause had been hijacked by supporters of liberation theology. What’s your opinion?
A: Romero himself was not a proponent of liberation theology. He was eventually canonized not because he was a political martyr but because everything Romero did was the reflection of his faith in Christ and his faith in God. He saw Christ in his people. He didn’t do what he did out of political motivation. He did what he did out of spiritual motivation.
Q: Do you think that film is true to Archbishop Romero’s life?
A: I would not look at Romero as a documentary. What the film tries to do is to get at the larger truth of the saint. Anytime there’s a dramatization there’s going to be liberties taken, but I know that Fr. Bud went out of his way — and all the writers and producers and directors — to make sure that there was an integrity to what was being done and that it was true to the spirit of the archbishop.
Q: Where can people see the film?
A: The remastered DVD release date was Oct. 9. They can purchase a DVD or a digital download off of Amazon. If your readers have Amazon Prime, they can stream the remastered Romero film for free.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about the film, watch this brief video from Paulist Productions: