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Our Church’s newest saints walked a controversial road to holiness

Today, 14 October 2018, will go down in history as the day that Pope Francis recognised seven new saints: Pope Paul VI, Archbishop Oscar RomeroFrancesco SpinelliVincenzo RomanoMaria Caterina KasperNazaria Ignazia of Saint Teresa of Jesus, and Nunzio Sulprizio. Here, Fr Anthony Egan SJ looks at the lives of two prominent and complex figures of our Catholic faith, Oscar Romero and Paul VI, drawing comparisons between them and showing their long, contested and controversial path to sainthood.

Among the canonisations celebrated in Rome today, two stand out as global figures known beyond the Catholic Church: the Italian-born Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Both bishops, both deeply committed in their own ways to social justice, and both public figures respected and admired beyond the Catholic Church, they are also figures often misunderstood in their lifetime.

Paul VI (1897-1978), born Giovanni Batista Montini, served as Pope between June 1963 and his death in August 1978. Ordained in 1920, he served as a Vatican diplomat in the 1920s before being recalled to work in the Roman Curia. He was made a cardinal for his services, and then appointed archbishop of Milan, where he served until he was chosen as successor of Pope (Saint) John XXIII in the middle of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He presided over the latter to its completion, broadly welcoming the reforms it introduced to the Catholic Church.

From the late 1960s onwards he was seen by some as having backtracked on the ‘spirit’ of the Council because of two encyclicals that maintained the status quo insistence on priestly celibacy and prohibition of artificial birth control. Widespread opposition to both those statements – from many clergy, laity and even some bishops – overshadowed his later years, as well as his many progressive (some might say radical) statements on social justice.  The myth associated with him is one of indecisiveness, even loss of confidence after the difficult year of 1968.

Nothing could be further from the truth. From his earliest years as priest, diplomat and Vatican civil servant Paul was both cautious and decisive. He was decisive on where he stood – he was strongly hostile to the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, but his diplomatic training made him cautious and measured in how he expressed this.

It was this caution and sense that the Church was losing its cohesion after Vatican II that led him – against rising expectations – to reaffirm priestly celibacy and the ban on artificial birth control. Ironically both – and especially the latter – led to greater division in the Church and his ill-deserved reputation as a conservative pope.

After the war and until his death his views on social justice were perhaps the most progressive, left one might say, of any pope till that time: he supported decolonisation, human rights and social democracy, with the result that conservative Catholics felt he’d sometimes gone too far. As pope he also tried, with mixed success, to ease the Church’s relations with the Soviet Bloc. For this ostpolitik he was again criticised by the right.

Twenty years younger than Paul VI, El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980) suffers something of a similar misunderstanding. The popular myth is that the murder by government forces of his friend Fr Rutilio Grande SJ in 1977 ‘converted’ Romero from a conservative bishop to a radical liberation theologian is also a distortion.

Coming from a small town (Ciudad Barrios) of lower middle class family, he studied in San Salvador and then Rome at the Gregorian University where he was ordained in 1942. Much of Romero’s early ministry as a priest, then (from 1967) Secretary General of the Salvadoran Bishops’ Conference, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador and bishop of Santiago de Maria might be seen as conventional, even quite conservative, but this demands closer attention.

It was more subtle than that. Romero welcomed – albeit cautiously – the reforms of Vatican II. He kept up on contemporary theology, but found (even till his death) aspects of liberation theology difficult to embrace. While initially hostile enough to the latter to dismiss some Jesuits from the National Seminary in the early 1970s – an ironic move he would note since many of them would advise him after 1977 – he was all too aware of repression and injustice in the country throughout his ministry.

What changed for Romero over time – what evolved – was how he approached these questions. He initially approached the matter by polite but clear preaching about Catholic Social obligations of rich to poor, and discreet appeals to ruling elites to fulfil their moral duties to the poor. After 1977 and in the face of an increasingly repressive state, the preaching became more forceful, and appeals were replaced by prophetic denunciation of injustice. Yet he was also open to dialogue and occasionally served as mediator and even hostage negotiator between regime and opposition forces.

Significant for today’s canonisations is the cordial relationship between Romero and Paul VI. Paul had appointed Romero to all his episcopal positions and like any bishop Romero visited Paul VI regularly in Rome. When Romero found himself out of step with his brother bishops in El Salvador, and as complaints about his prophetic ministry filtered to Rome, Paul VI quietly affirmed his decision. On one occasion, after listening to Romero, it is said that Paul VI said simply: “Coraggio!” [Courage]. Both saints were on the same page.

Another point of common ground between Paul VI and Romero might be their path to sainthood. Paul has long been overshadowed by his predecessor and a successor: John XXIII and John Paul II, both canonised a few years ago. Paul lacked John’s ebullient warmth that made him the world’s favourite ‘grandfather’. He also lacked John Paul’s charismatic style and very top-down decisive model of leadership.

Romero’s official canonisation – I say official because he was popularly acclaimed ‘Saint Romero of the Americas’ straight after his death – took longer because of certain controversies, partly stirred up by claims that he could not be called a martyr. He did not die for the Catholic faith but because of his ‘political’ views, was the view. While some theologians argued that since he’d died as a result of his adherence to an aspect of the faith (i.e. Catholic Social Teaching), debates slowed things down. Pope Benedict XVI unblocked the process in 2012 and Pope Francis has seen it through to its completion.

Both our new saints enjoyed respect beyond the Catholic Church. Paul VI built up good relations with both the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion, and was respected by civil leaders the world over for his diplomacy and concern for justice. Romero’s popularity has extended from secular figures on the left worldwide, through the ecumenical Christian movement to being included as a ‘saint’ in a number of Anglican and Lutheran church calendars. As such they represent a catholicity beyond Catholicism and serve all as a reminder of the priority of justice in our times.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.