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New Saints1

US Catholic commentator THOMAS REESE reflects on Pope Francis’ decision to declare Pope Paul VI and martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero saints…


On a beautiful October Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis canonized two of his favorite people, Pope Paul VI and the Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was murdered in 1980 because of his defence of human rights and the poor. The canonisation took place outside in a packed St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 14.

Their canonisations did not occur without controversy.

New Saints1

Pope Francis, lower centre, leaves at the end of a canonisation ceremony in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 14th October, 2018. Pope Francis has praised two of the towering figures of the 20th-century Catholic Church as prophets who shunned wealth and looked out for the poor as he canonised the modernising Pope Paul VI and martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Francis declared the two men saints at a Mass in St Peter’s Square before tens of thousands of pilgrims, a handful of presidents and some 5,000 Salvadoran pilgrims who traveled to Rome. PICTURE: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo


“Francis believes both these men in different ways lived out lives of love, and that is why he declared them saints.”

Paul VI (1963-1978), a Vatican insider who spent most of his priestly life working in the Roman Curia, became the pope who brought to a successful conclusion the Second Vatican Council, which attempted to update Catholicism to the needs of the modern world.

In his quest for consensus in the council, progressives felt that Paul too often gave in to conservatives to win their votes. Passages put in to satisfy the conservative minority, such as those on the role of the hierarchy, were later used to influence how the council is interpreted to this day.

He also was the pope who oversaw the translation of the liturgy into the vernacular as well as the elimination of many of the monarchical trappings of the papacy. He wrote a number of documents, including Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World), which said that evangelisation was not complete without working for justice, peace and human liberation. Francis quoted this document extensively when writing his own document on evangelisation, Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel).

But Paul is mostly remembered for his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), which included a ban on any use of artificial contraceptives. The overwhelmingly negative response to this teaching by theologians and the faithful overshadowed his papacy.

Paul VI is added to the list of recent popes canonised, including John XXIII and John Paul II. Undoubtedly when Benedict and Francis die, there will be agitation to canonise them.

I find this rush to canonise recent popes unseemly at a time when the church needs to showcase lay examples of holiness to inspire ordinary Catholics in their lives. Canonisation is often an attempt to put a halo over all the activities of a pope. For example, conservatives have noted that Pope Paul’s canonisation takes place on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae.

The canonisation of Archbishop Romero was even more controversial. In life he got little support from his fellow bishops in opposing the brutal military regime governing El Salvador. He was labeled a Communist by his opponents simply because he sided with the poor and told soldiers not to kill their brothers and sisters.

He also had opponents in the Vatican Curia who thought he was too liberal. After he was killed, many did not want to call him a martyr, saying he was killed because of politics, not because of the faith.

Traditionally, martyrs were killed because of some article of the faith. John Paul II expanded the notion of martyrdom to include Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan who volunteered to die in place of another inmate in Auschwitz.

New saints2

Tapestries of Roman Catholic Archbishop Óscar Romero, left, and Pope Paul VI hang from a balcony of the facade of St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on 13th October. The next day, Pope Francis canonised the two as models of saintliness for the faithful today. PICTURE: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo.

The concept of martyrdom was thus expanded to include being killed for acting like a Christian, not just for what one believed as a Catholic.

This debate over martyrdom held up Romero’s canonisation because regular saints need two miracles to be canonised, whereas martyrs need only one. Also contributing to the delay was the reluctance of the Vatican to canonize Romero while the Arena Party was still in power in El Salvador. The party was founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who orchestrated the killing of Romero.

The canonisation of Romero should put to rest the war between the Vatican and liberation theologians in Latin America. The theologians, who were accused of being revolutionaries and communists during the last two papacies, saw Romero as their kind of bishop.

In his homily at the canonization Mass, Pope Francis described Jesus as “radical,” because “He gives all and asks all.” Jesus does not speak of “supply and demand” but rather proclaims a “story of love.”

“Jesus,” according to Francis, “changes the perspective: from commandments observed in order to obtain a reward, to a free and total love.”

Francis believes both these men in different ways lived out lives of love, and that is why he declared them saints.



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