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.
The distinctive pastoral approach of the Latin American Church since Vatican II has been solidarity with the suffering masses – the “preferential option for the poor”. Romero’s last years were marked by just that, ending with his assassination at the altar during the Holy Mass.
Today in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Mexico clergy risk their lives to stand with their people. As political violence returns to Latin America and religious liberties are restricted, the Church finds itself defending her liberty and that of civil society against hostile regimes. Romero’s model and intercession are needed as criminal regimes rise again in Latin America, a reality that Romero and his contemporaries knew all too well.
At the same time, the Church in Chile and Argentina is facing a deep reckoning on matters of episcopal malfeasance and negligence regarding sexual abuse. The Chilean Church has lost its credibility for a generation at least, and is somewhat paralysed as it is de facto being governed directly from Rome after the mass resignations of its bishops. There are renewed rumblings in Argentina about how cases were handled when Pope Francis was in Buenos Aires – the subject of the recent cover story in Germany’s Der Spiegel entitled “Thou Shalt Not Lie”.
Holiness and courage seem in short supply in the episcopates on those countries. It’s usually not found in abundance anywhere, to be sure, but it is critically needed now, and prominently lifting up the holy bishop-martyr in the midst of his own continent would have been most timely.
The Church in Latin America, despite the election of one of its own as pope in 2013, is flagging in its implementation of the missionary vision of its last plenary meeting at Aparecida in 2007. The special synod next year for the Amazon is not about the Church making missionary disciples, but rather reconciling itself precisely to the failure of missionary discipleship.
Archbishop Romero’s admirers will rejoice at his canonisation wherever they are, as I will in Rome. And obviously he will intercede just as effectively wherever the canonisation takes place. But the Church in Latin American needs its heroic witnesses urgently just now, and a canonisation at home would have been a superlative occasion to meet that need. In contrast, of the many things Rome needs at the moment, another canonisation is not it.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the October 12 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here