I will be in Rome for the canonisation of Blessed Oscar Romero this Sunday, but I wish I weren’t – in Rome, that is. I would have preferred that the inspiring martyr-bishop be canonised in his own city of San Salvador, which would have been easy enough to arrange, as Pope Francis will be next door in Panama in 100 days, and could easily have made a side trip to El Salvador. The Salvadoran bishops asked for that grace, but it was not granted to them.
There are routine canonisations and signature canonisations. The former are usually groups of candidates who have been approved at roughly the same time, but have no particular importance, or even awareness, outside of their religious order or locale. Their inscription in the “book of saints” can sometimes seem like a bit of ecclesiastical book-keeping.
Then there are signature canonisations, when the candidate, location and timing is chosen to highlight the special importance of the new saint. Romero – like Paul VI, canonised alongside him – deserved a signature occasion, not the routine one he is getting. Romero and Paul VI are being canonised with five others.
St John Paul II loved the signature canonisation, granting the privilege of the solo ceremony to the towering figures of the 20th-century Church: Maximilian Kolbe, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Faustina Kowalska, Padre Pio. He did something similar for the beatification of Mother Teresa, which he put at the centre of his 25th anniversary as pope in 2003.
Pope Benedict XVI limited himself to the routine group canonisations, scheduled more or less annually. Pope Francis has done both, choosing to canonise Mother Teresa by herself during the Jubilee of Mercy. More relevant to the case of Oscar Romero, the Holy Father canonised Joseph Vaz on his visit to Sri Lanka in January 2015, the island nation’s first saint. Romero is more important to El Salvador as a nation than Vaz is to Sri Lanka, where Catholics are a small minority.
It’s not just symbol and ceremony that would make Romero’s canonisation more fitting in San Salvador. Rather, the timing is urgent. Romero’s declaration as a saint comes at a time of great crisis for the Church in Latin America, with threats external and internal pressing on all sides.
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