Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Lives of love: Pope Francis canonizes Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Romero

Pope Francis, lower center, leaves at the end of a canonization ceremony in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Oct. 14, 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 canonized the modernizing 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. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — 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 defense of human rights and the poor. The canonization took place outside in a packed St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 14.

Their canonizations did not occur without controversy.

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 evangelization was not complete without working for justice, peace and human liberation. Francis quoted this document extensively when writing his own document on evangelization, 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 canonized, including John XXIII and John Paul II. Undoubtedly when Benedict and Francis die, there will be agitation to canonize them.

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

The canonization 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.

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 Oct. 13, 2018. The next day, Pope Francis canonized the two as models of saintliness for the faithful today. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

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 canonization because regular saints need two miracles to be canonized, 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 canonization 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.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.


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  • You might want to think more deeply about your reservation.

    Humanae Vitae actually laid out a very clear way that lay Cathlolics can become canonizable (that’s the goal isn’t it, canonizable, not canonized) saints.

    Heroic self-gift in married life, an in particular in “using” the intimacies of married life in accord with God’s fruitful plans for our sexuality can help us become canonziable saints.

    As an Opus Dei priest I know said….the unitive function first serves the procreative…but then the “demands of the procreative” in turn serve the unitive, an ever deepening and creative union of the couple, spilling out into the world.

    “Unity” in other words isn’t limited to mere physical unity.

    But the demands of raising children are designed by God to help DEEPEN the union of a married couple until one of them dies.

    Pope Paul VI heroically laid out this beautiful and demanding and strengthening message of HV.

    But most Catholics were too busy self-seeking to understand the depth and beauty of HV.

  • Unfortunately most Catholics:

    – have never read the document;

    – lack the background to understand much of it if they do read it;

    – believe it changed something. It did not. It reiterated the Church’s prior teaching.

    I am glad Fr. Reese wrote “…. negative response to this teaching by theologians ….”, not “… by Catholic theologians …”.

    Not a single Catholic theologian argued with the conclusions in Humanae Vitae, and the faux Catholic theologians who did have since been exposed for what they were then and are now if they’re still extant.

  • So who were the other 5 new saints? I’ve seen nothing other than that they were canonized, being overshaddowed by the late pope and archbishop. From the tapertries hanging in the photo they look to be two nuns, two priests and a layperson.

  • Sainthood for Archbishop Romero? Yes, and well deserved. For Paul VI? An emphatic NO! Paul’s Humanae Vitae has ravaged the lives of countless women. And while it is rejected by most Catholics, it has been used by hack politicians, mostly conservative, to block serious action on our overpopulation crisis, which has been fueling the climate change that threatens our whole planet. (Just look at the report this month of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

    Since Paul extruded Humanae Vitae 50 years ago in defiance of the vast majority of his own advisers, world population has doubled.In that 50 years there have been TWO BILLION abortions worldwide. Without those all too,often illegal and unsafe abortions and the wide (though not wide enough) use of contraception world population today would greatly exceed an unsustainable 10 billion. Humanae Vitae has also led to the deaths and suffering of literally millions of women.

    Paul was not a saint but a misogynist, sadistic demon vomiting on the Jesus he pretended to serve.

    In 1975 the Ford administration produced the NSSM 200 report (classified and hidden for 14 years) that examined the overpopulation problem and recommended universal access to contraception and safe, legal abortion. Democratic politicians have pushed in this direction, but Republicans (Reagan, the Bushes, Trump, etc) have done all they could to follow Paul VI’s plan, one that ignores the health, welfare, rights of conscience, and religious liberty of all women and actually threatens the survival of civilization on our one and only planet.

    I was in Bogota, Colombia, in 1968 when Paul visited the predominantly Catholic country for a religious celebration shortly after issuing Humanae Vitae. His reception was not at all friendly. Even parish priests were writing letters to editors attacking him.

  • The Catholic church is a front for Satan’s work on earth. The HUGE abuse of so many children by so many pedophile clergy, and, the huge cover-up of this for hundreds of years, guarantees the burning in hell FOREVER for this anti-christian church. Mary, Christ’s beautiful earthly mother, can only vomit as she contemplates how Satan has destroyed so many lives in this polluted corrupt church.