The 35th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero falls on March 24, and it will be a happy one this year in view of his beatification as a martyr on May 23 in San Salvador. It’s happy news for those, like myself, who consider the anti-totalitarian martyrs of the 20th century – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein, Aloysius Stepinac, Jerzy Popiełuszko – to be lights in a dark century.
Archbishop Romero was killed, while offering the Holy Mass, by agents of the state. He had called the previous day for the armed forces to ignore government orders to arrest, abduct and kill their political opponents. The government’s answer came soon enough. The course of Romero’s beatification tells an important story about saints in the contemporary Catholic Church.
On January 25 1983, Pope John Paul II signed two apostolic constitutions, or legislative documents. The one thought more important promulgated a new code of canon law, the Church’s supreme legal code. That reform had been worked on for nearly 20 years. The other document, Divinus Perfectionis Magister (Divine Teacher of Perfection), reformed the rules for the recognition of saints. The latter has had a greater impact in the life of the Church, which is as it should be, for saints are the Church’s mission, while law is a means to that end.
Since the reforms of Urban VIII in 1625 and 1634, the process of beatification and canonisation was modelled on an adversarial court process. The candidate would be proposed, and then a designated official would argue against – the so-called “devil’s advocate”. If the candidate survived that process, and various miracles were authenticated, a new blessed or saint could be declared.
John Paul changed all that, dispensing with the adversarial process and the devil’s advocate, and reducing the number of miracles required. The adversarial process was replaced by a historical/biographical one, where theological experts rather than canon lawyers evaluated the evidence of sanctity. As George Weigel, John Paul’s biographer put it, “scholarship replaced legal advocacy”, and the “new procedures were aimed at making the process swifter, less expensive, more scholarly, more collegial and better geared to producing results”.
And results it did produce, not just in the number of new blesseds and saints, but also in the number from recent times. Moreover, the Catholic faithful began to expect saints to be made sooner, rather than later. Indeed, as the funeral of John Paul, the great “saint-maker” himself, the immense crowd chanted santo subito – a saint immediately!
Romero’s case shows how deeply entrenched John Paul’s reforms have become. He will be beatified 35 years after his death, and most of the commentary has been that Pope Francis “unblocked” a process that had been languishing. It turns out that it was Benedict XVI who unblocked the cause in the last months of his pontificate, but none the less there is a widespread consensus that it needed the personal interest of Francis to advance. That 35 years is now considered a slow process for a well-known candidate demonstrates how much our expectations have changed.
Maximilian Kolbe, whose heroic death in Auschwitz in 1941 led immediately to a widespread devotion, was beatified in 1971 – 30 years later. St Thérèse of Lisieux was canonised in 1925, 28 years after her death. Maria Goretti was canonised within 50 years of her death, and Pope Pius X within 40 years. All under the old rules, those Causes were thought to be rapid, perhaps even excessively so. So 35 years for Archbishop Romero still counts as a fast, not slow, beatification, despite current attitudes.
The beatification of Mother Teresa six years and six weeks after her death was the record in recent times, exceeded only by John Paul, beatified six years and four weeks after his death in 2005 (and canonised three years later).
We expect now to have canonised saints sooner rather than later. That’s partly a reflection of a wider culture that does not like to wait for anything, which is why we will never build the magnificent churches that in the past took generations to build. Yet the reforms also speak to the reality that saints are with us; the Church exists not only on earth but even more so in heaven. That we should have our contemporaries with us, alongside the vast cloud of witnesses from every time and place, seems right.
There are other models, too. The recent massacre of 21 Christians by jihadists on a Libyan beach prompted the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt to move quickly, declaring them martyrs and inserting them into the liturgical calendar within weeks. Canonisation without adequate investigation is an obvious step too far, even if the desire to move quickly is understandable.
Some of us have waited years for the beatification of Oscar Romero. But we can’t really say we have waited too long.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/3/15).
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