Msgr. Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI were declared saints of the Catholic Church on Oct. 14. Father Robert Pelton, CSC –– a Holy Cross priest, theologian and filmmaker who resides at Holy Cross House, Notre Dame –– has close ties to both saints and was blessed to be present at their canonizations.
Father Pelton, or “Father Bob” as most know him, grew up in Evanston, Illinois, where his father taught at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. A star backstroke swimmer from the North Shore area of Chicago, he was offered a scholarship to swim at Stanford University. He turned down the offer, however, and feeling a call to the priesthood, he enrolled at Notre Dame in 1939. There he excelled in his studies, graduating summa cum laude in 1945, four years after entering the Congregation of Holy Cross. In 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood.
In 1950, Father Pelton was sent to do doctoral studies at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, commonly known as the Angelicum, in Rome. During his time there he studied alongside Archbishop Marcos G. McGrath, a Holy Cross priest who had enrolled at Notre Dame, entered the novitiate, and was ordained to the priesthood at the same time as Father Pelton. McGrath was later appointed the archbishop of Panama from 1969-94.
Returning to Notre Dame in 1953 to teach in the Religion Department, Father Pelton became close friends with Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, and the two sought to transform religious education at the university. In 1959, Father Pelton was appointed chairman of the newly named Theology Department, which he reformed by raising academic standards and adding an honors program.
Archbishop Montini, then-Archbishop of Milan who became St. Pope Paul VI, visited Notre Dame in 1960. When the archbishop arrived, despite his friendship with Father Hesburgh, Father Pelton remembers that he was not too comfortable because of his lack of English-language skills. “But once he met the Italian faculty, he was invited over to their homes and played with their children, he felt right at home.”
As part of the school’s commencement ceremonies that year, Father Pelton served as subdeacon for the Latin solemn high Mass on South Quad celebrated by the archbishop. President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered the university’s first presidential commencement address that same day: June 5, 1960.
Soon after, the numbers of priests in South America had dwindled to a number that caught the attention of the Vatican. In response, it called for 10 percent of the U.S. religious to address the need. Under his “fourth vow” of ordination — going wherever his superiors needed him to go — in 1964, Father Pelton accepted a Congregation of Holy Cross request that he minister in Chile. He was assigned to teach at St. George’s College in Santiago, where he served as religious superior, rector and president. Though he often came in contact with the sons of the wealthy during his time at St. George’s, Father Pelton also witnessed the grave poverty in the neighborhood of Santiago.
Liberation Theology and Catholic social teaching led Father Pelton to approach the poor and vulnerable in Santiago. It was among the “campesinos,” or peasants, that he felt a great call to serve. Knowing he could not impose what he knew of religion upon the people, Cardinal Joseph Cardjin’s “See, Judge, Act” model, used prominently by liberation theologians in the 1960s, became important to him.
In 1965, Father Pelton left Chile for Rome. He was appointed “peritus,” or “theological expert,” for Leo Jozef Cardinal Suenens of Belgium, one of the primary organizers of the Second Vatican Council, during its last session. Cardinal Suenens asked him to work with a team of five people to organize two seminars a week: At meetings, they discussed the “important issue of asking people [about] the future of the religious life” as well as the most recent topics of the council, including the role of the laity, the social and political responsibilities of Catholics, and modern media. Venerable Father Patrick Peyton, CSC, “The Rosary Priest” who popularized the saying, “The family that prays together, stays together,” also participated in the Second Vatican Council, according to Father Pelton. “We lived down the hall from one another,” he remarked. “It was easy to get our rooms mixed up because of the one-letter difference between our last Father Pelton returned to Chile. He later became episcopal vicar for Religious Institutes in the Archdiocese of Santiago from 1968-72, a time of atrocities committed by the Pinochet regime.
At the time, many people who worked with the poor and manual laborers were deemed political threats and targeted by the dictatorship. In January 1974, Father Pelton agreed to smuggle out of the country documents composed by the Committee of Cooperation for Peace and contain details of each person who had been kidnapped, tortured or killed.
Wearing only a thin guayabera shirt, Father Pelton had the documents pressed up against his chest as a guard with a gun questioned him before boarding the plane at Santiago. Fortunately, the guard had sent his son to St. George’s and recognized Father Pelton.
In El Salvador in 1980, St. Oscar Romero was slain at the altar while celebrating holy Mass. The Latin American/North American Church Concerns outreach program of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at Notre Dame was founded by Father Pelton in 1985. Beginning two years later, LANACC has sponsored an annual observance of Father Romero’s death, called “Romero Days.”
The first film recounting the saint’s life, “Romero,” came out in 1989. A second movie recounting just the last three years of his life came out in 2011. Father Pelton aided with the production of the second movie, titled, “Monseñor: The Last Journey.”
“No Hollywood actors were used,” said Father Pelton. “Peasants or other people who were in that place the last three years of his chaplaincy in El Salvador acted in the movie.” It competed against 25 films in the Americas and won the Film Festival of the Latin American Studies Association in 2012.
Now almost 98 years old, Father Pelton supports greater recognition of Latin America’s saints. “Notre Dame has cooperated with the Salvadoran bishops to name Romero a pastoral doctor of the Church,” he said. “[We’re waiting for] the Holy Father to hurry up the beatification of the Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, S.J.” Father Grande was assassinated in 1977 and was a close friend of St. Romero.
“St. Romero has given a good example for bishops throughout the whole world,” Father Pelton said.
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