Last Sunday, Pope Francis canonized two saints, a pope and an archbishop who died within a couple of years of each other—Pope Paul VI in 1978, and Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. Both of these churchmen had a strong influence on Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis.)
Both men knew that Christian faith in these modern times must entail a great love for, and personal involvement with, the poor. They were advocates for peace and justice. Paul VI’s philosophy is encapsulated in a simple phrase that has very profound implications: “If you want peace, work for justice.” Romero became a martyr for the cause of peace and justice.
Paul VI was pope when Bergoglio was first ordained priest in 1969, a time of great change in the Church in the wake of Vatican Council II. Changes that were embraced by Bergoglio’s religious order, the Jesuits.
Meanwhile, Romero was Archbishop of San Salvador city (El Salvador country) at the same time that Bergoglio was the Jesuit provincial superior of another Latin American country, Argentina.
There was great turmoil in both El Salvador and Argentina at that time, the 1970’s and 80’s. Both countries were ruled by repressive right-wing military governments. (Sad to say, both governments had strong ties to the US.) These governments were responsible for an estimated 30,000 deaths each. Romero himself, along with 7 Jesuits and 4 American (US) churchwomen were among those killed.
Romero’s faith journey was a fascinating one. At the time he was appointed archbishop in 1977, he was considered a quiet, bookish, conservative bishop who was unlikely to get very involved in the conflict going on in his country. However, just one month after he took office, his very close Jesuit friend Fr. Rutilio Grande was killed by the ruling junta. Grande’s death greatly impacted Romero. He saw that he could no longer be neutral, that he had to stand up for human rights. He became a passionate advocate for the poor, and critic of the military government.
In one famous radio address to the entire nation, Romero spoke directly to the soldiers in his country. He said, “Brothers, you came from your own people. You are killing your own brothers…the law of God says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’…I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.”
Romero knew that his impassioned stand made him a target. Like Gandhi and Dr. King, he saw his death coming. He said, “I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.” Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass with nuns in a small hospital chapel.
At the canonization last Sunday, Romero had relics of both saints. He carried Paul VI’s bishop staff and used his chalice. He also wore Romero’s blood-stained belt.