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Pope Francis canonises Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI

Christopher Lamb in Rome - The Tablet - Tue, Oct 16th 2018

Pope Francis canonises Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI

The banners of new saints Oscar Romero and Paul VI hang from the facade of St Peter's Basilica 
Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

The banners of new saints Oscar Romero and Paul VI hang from the facade during the canonisation Mass for seven new saints

One was a bishop who gave his life in defence of the suffering people of El Salvador. The other was a career Vatican diplomat who rose to the Chair of St Peter and carved out a blueprint for the modern papacy. 

On Sunday 14 October, in a ceremony in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis canonised Archbishop Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI cementing these new saints as pillars of contemporary Catholicism. 

The 81-year-old Argentine Pontiff, who along with Romero and Paul raised five others to the altar on Sunday, holds the Milanese Pope and Salvadoran bishop close to his heart as figures who gave their lives for the Church that emerged out of the Second Vatican Council. 

For Francis, the suffering of Paul VI, who sought to guide the Church through stormy disagreements over contraception and the liturgy, holds a special resonance. Like his predecessor, this Pope is facing his own trials over opposition against him from inside the Church’s ranks, and it was Paul who Francis made special mention of during his homily.  

“Paul VI spent his life for Christ’s Gospel crossing new boundaries and becoming its witness in proclamation and in dialogue, a prophet of the Church turned outwards,” Francis told 70,000 pilgrims gathered under the blue skies and autumn sunshine in St Peter’s Square. 

“Today he still urges us, together with the [Second Vatican] Council whose wise helmsman he was, to live our common vocation: the universal call to holiness.”

The Pope entered for the canonisation liturgy this morning wearing the pallium belonging to Paul VI and Romero’s blood-stained cincture – a rope-like garment. He also carried a crosier belonging to Paul VI during and used his chalice when celebrating the Mass. 

The crowd, which included 8,000 from El Salvador, clapped when the Pope used the traditional Latin formula at the beginning of the ceremony to announce the new saints. Along with Paul VI and Romero, these include Francesco Spinelli, Vincenzo Romano, Katharina Kasper, Nazaria Ignazia and Nunzio Sulprizio. 

Their witness, Francis said, calls on the Church to reject “the yearning for status and power”, a faith of “half-measures” and “structures that are no longer adequate for proclaiming the Gospel”.

Throughout his papacy, Francis has strived to build a mission-first Church, less interested in institutional survival but focussed instead on taking the message of God’s mercy out into the world. 

Both Romero and Paul VI are guiding lights of putting this vision into action. 

On the one hand is “Monsenor Romero”, the prophet. The former Salvadoran bishop was killed at the altar while saying Mass in 1980, a consequence of his outspoken defence of the marginalised in his country. Just two other bishops have met the same fate: St Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and St Stanislaus, Bishop of Kraków. 

Then there is Paul VI, the reformer. In his homily on 14 October Francis pointed out that “Papa Montini” shepherded through the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council to its completion. Pope Paul sought to internationalise the Roman Curia, added new Vatican departments and was renowned for his commitment to collegial governance of the Church through re-booting the synod of bishops. Francis has taken this structure as one of the primary tools for his own programme of Church renewal, with the canonisations taking place midway through a synod gathering focussed on young people.  

The changes by Paul VI saw him face opposition, something that Romero also found when fellow bishops and the papal ambassador to El Salvador looked on disapprovingly at his bold decision to speak out against the military government’s oppressive actions.

While some have sought to characterise Romero as a progressive, his message transcends intra-Church positions and is rooted in his episcopal motto: “Sentire Cum Ecclesia” meaning “to think with the Church”. 

The canonisation of Romero 38 years after his death at the hands of a government-backed death squad has a special poignancy given that for decades his sainthood cause became entangled in internal politics. Prominent figures in the Vatican and powerful forces in El Salvador saw any declaration of his sanctity as an endorsement of his struggle for the marginalised. 

Canonising Romero was seen as canonising liberation theology, the grassroots movements of Catholics praised for transforming the lives of poor communities but criticised for inculcating Marxist thinking. 

“Romero-phobia had the upper hand for a very long time,” Julian Filochowski, Chair of the Romero Trust, told SIGNIS, a Catholic media association in Rome on Friday. 

“It is important to remember that paradoxically Oscar Romero was killed"‘in odium fidei" – out of hatred of the faith – by self-declared Catholics.” 

All this changed under Francis who, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires told friends that were he chosen as Pope one of his first moves would be to canonise Romero. True to his word, soon after his election as the 266th Successor of St Peter in 2013 the Pope “unblocked” the cause. This was a vital first step along the journey to declare the former Archbishop of San Salvador "Saint" Oscar Romero.

While Romero suffered a martyrdom of blood and bullets, Paul VI underwent what is described as a “white martyrdom” during his 1963-78 papacy which was marked by tumultuous change and coinciding with the sexual revolution. 

He was praised for initiating the modern papacy which saw him put aside the papal tiara, open up a dialogue with the world and become the first Pope to travel outside Italy. 

But he came under heavy criticism for the publication of “Humanae Vitae”, the encyclical which re-affirmed the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception and is one of the most controversial papal letters of recent times. Issued after the advent of the contraceptive pill and alarm about overpopulation, the unequivocal prohibition troubled many ordinary Catholics. 

The way that Giovanni Battista Montini combined Church unity with a missionary focus is something Francis has always admired.

“One of the first things he told me when he was elected was that he hoped, he prayed to be able to canonise Paul VI,” Cardinal Angelo Becciu, Prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and Francis’ former Chief of Staff equivalent, briefed journalists on Thursday. 

By publishing “Humanae Vitae”, the cardinal explained, “he knew he would become unpopular, but his conscience prevailed”. This Pope has adopted a softer reading of the contraception-ban, and in recent months scholars backed by Francis are exploring how to “re-read” the encyclical with a renewed pastoral focus. For Romero, Paul VI offered valued encouragement to persist in his ministry. After Paul appointed him Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 the pair met in Rome that year after the murder of Romero’s friend, the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, now also on the way to sainthood. The murder had been the decisive moment for Romero, turning him from a cautious and hesitant leader into a courageous and radical critic of the brutal Salvadoran government.

“In the meeting they had, Romero showed Paul VI pictures of the priest’s killing,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, Postulator of the Romero cause, told The Tablet earlier this year

“Paul VI saw them, he blessed them, and told Romero, ‘You are the archbishop, you are responsible for your people. Guide them until the end.’ And, I know through witnesses and close collaborators of Romero, that these words gave him an incomparable strength and energy.”

Among those at the ceremony in St Peter’s, today included the presidents of Italy, El Salvador, Chile, Panama, and Lord (Rowan) Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury who was representing Archbishop Justin Welby. Ten other Anglican archbishops also attended. 

Speaking during the Angelus prayer following the canonisation Mass, the Pope expressed his “deep gratitude” for the Anglican presence during the liturgy. 

Paul VI made great ecumenical strides during his pontificate including giving his episcopal ring to Archbishop Michael Ramsey during the first official meeting between a Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1966.  

Lord Williams has a devotion to Romero who has already been declared an Anglican saint and a statue of the Salvadoran bishop placed at the entrance of Westminster Abbey. 

On the day that Romero was murdered at the altar, Archbishop Robert Runcie was being installed as Archbishop of Canterbury and he insisted that the ceremony was modified so that he might go to the spot where Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in a political murder 800 years before, and offer a special prayer for the unburied Arch­bishop from San Salvador.

Mr Filochowski, a former director of Cafod who worked with the new saint, warned against presenting “a decaffeinated Romero” who was simply a “charismatic prayerful guy” who was killed by a crazed gunman. 

“No, Archbishop Romero was killed in a deliberately planned attempt to silence the voice of truth in a society fed on a diet of distortions and lies,” he said during his speech on Friday. “The voice of the voiceless was assassinated at the altar. He was in the end executed like Jesus of Nazareth.

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