“Unlikely Spiritual Heroes” by Brennan R. Hill. St. Anthony Messenger Press (Cincinnati, 2010). 143 pp., $14.95.

“Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints” by Scott Wright, with photos by Octavio Duran. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2010). 162 pp., $20.

Both “Unlikely Spiritual Heroes” by Brennan Hill and “Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints” by Scott Wright profile courageous modern-day people who worked and died for justice and peace.

Hill’s book focuses on the many forms violence and injustice can take. All of his heroes began as ordinary people who then developed a vision for the world, such as the Jesuit leader Pedro Arrupe, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton. The author offers detailed stories, including three missionaries who lost their lives fighting oppression for ordinary people: Jean Donovan in El Salvador, Sister Dorothy Stang in Brazil and Fr. Maximilian Kolbe in Nazi Germany. The book is the third in a trilogy that Hill created for his theology class at Xavier University in Ohio.

Wright’s “Oscar Romero” provides a complete picture of Archbishop Romero’s life and the conditions in El Salvador through accounts from friends and associates, including excerpts from his letters, sermons and radio broadcasts. For 50 years preceding the archbishop’s assassination, the dominant government favoring the wealthy had routinely liquidated thousands of peasants attempting to speak out against its unjust systems and persecuted or killed those helping them — missionaries, both religious and lay, native priests and local leaders.

The author clearly shows Archbishop Romero’s initial blindness to the situation, in attempting to befriend both the rich and the poor. He preached about heaven, where the rich who gave alms went and the poor also, if they “didn’t give too much trouble.” Not in sympathy with the “institutional violence” issue raised by the Latin American bishops who met in Medellin, Colombia, he was mistrustful of the social justice movement, liberation theology and basic Christian communities. His elevation by Rome to the episcopate seemed based on his allegiance to landowners, military leaders and the government.

Wright follows closely Archbishop Romero’s gradual growth in consciousness of the peasants’ dire situation and the persecution and killing of priests. Death squads and the slogan “Be a patriot – kill a priest” culminated in the murder of his friend Fr. Rutilo Grande, a Jesuit pastor who began to educate and unify the peasants. Shortly before his death Fr. Grande stated, “It’s practically illegal to be a Christian. … Proclamation of the Gospel is subversive.”

The book describes Archbishop Romero’s transformative conversion from being “wishy-washy” to becoming what Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino called “the most universal Christian at the end of the 20th century.” Archbishop Romero admitted that he, coming from a poor family, had forgotten his roots, but now saw the suffering, the poverty, the killings, and said of Fr. Grande: “If they killed him for what he was doing, it’s my job to go down the same road.”

That road included operating an archdiocesan radio station and a legal aid office, sending Medellin documents to the government and military, encouraging people to gather at large Masses to honor slain priests and housing the homeless. In addition, Archbishop Romero unsuccessfully wrote to the U.S. president to discourage shipping weapons to El Salvador, and appealed to the pope, who unhelpfully responded by encouraging him to be on better terms with the government. He was assassinated March 24, 1980, while saying a memorial Mass for a friend.

There are many books on Archbishop Romero, but Wright’s invites us to reflect on injustices in our own country that might parallel the greed of Salvadoran plantation owners in exploiting the workers. Countless laborers have suffered from faulty equipment, unsafe conditions, negligible benefits and unemployment due to outsourcing in so-called “Christian,” first world nations.

Sister Mona Castelazo, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, has taught English for many years in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Under the Skyflower Tree: Reflections of a Nun-Entity.”