On Sunday, Pope Francis canonised two spiritual giants of the 20th century. From now on, St Paul VI and St Oscar Romero will always be connected in the Catholic imagination. But do the two saints share anything more than a canonisation date?
Their biographies are strikingly different. Paul VI was a consummate Vatican insider who served for more than 30 years in the Secretariat of State before leading the vast Archdiocese of Milan. Romero grew up in small-town El Salvador and trained as a carpenter before discerning a vocation to the priesthood.
There are, of course, ecclesiastical ties. It was Paul VI who named Romero an auxiliary bishop in 1970 and, seven years later, chose him as Archbishop of San Salvador, the de facto head of the Church in El Salvador. But the connection between the two men runs deeper.
In 1977, El Salvador was heading towards civil war and Romero was struggling to assert his authority within the Church. A highly anxious person, he felt so overwhelmed that he travelled to Rome for a papal audience. According to biographers, Paul VI said to him: “Courage! You’re the one in charge.” Romero left the Vatican with his morale restored and drew strength from the encounter for what remained of his life. Back home in San Salvador, he hung a glass frame above his bed with nine photos of himself with the pope from that day.
Romero saw Paul VI for the last time a month and a half before the latter’s death. In his diary, Romero recalled that Paul was “cordial and generous”. Again, the pontiff gave him much-needed reassurance that he was on the right path. “Even if I know that not everyone thinks like you in your country,” Paul said, “proceed with courage, with patience, with strength, with hope.”
In 1979, a year after Paul’s death and a year before his own, Romero made a final trip to Rome. Faced with open opposition from bishops at home and suspicion of his motives within the Vatican, the archbishop sought out Paul’s tomb. Later, he dictated these words into a tape recorder: “He impressed me, more than all the others, for his simplicity. I felt a special emotion in praying at the tomb of Paul VI, I went recalling many things about our dialogues during the visits I made, and having the luck of being admitted in his private presence.”
Now that the two men have been canonised together, it is touching to recall this scene: one saint-to-be praying to another in his hour of need, and receiving the strength to carry on towards his martyrdom. This event took place within many of our lifetimes: a reminder that God is working powerfully among us, even if we only become aware of it much later.
In canonising Paul VI and Romero on the same day, Pope Francis is reminding us of the importance of spiritual friendships – those bonds which sustain us on the often arduous path towards holiness. We all long to encounter someone who both understands and encourages us. For Romero, that person was Pope Paul – and that is why it is fitting that their names are forever linked.
Pain and privilege
The resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl as Archbishop of Washington, DC, was no surprise. The cardinal was long past the canonical age for retirement, having first submitted his resignation after his 75th birthday three years ago. In addition, after the publication in August of the Pennsylvania grand jury report into child abuse, which mentioned him numerous times, it was clear that he had sustained irreparable reputational damage. The report made the cardinal the focus of considerable anger. He also lost the confidence of many of his clergy.
Yet in the wake of the grand jury report, the Vatican appeared firmly opposed to the cardinal’s resignation. It seemed to maintain this stance even after the cardinal publicly expressed his wish to step aside.
When the Pope finally accepted the cardinal’s resignation, sending him a letter filled with praise and making him administrator of the archdiocese, it was clear that this was a resignation forced on the Holy See. To its critics, Rome appeared once again to care more about the status and privileges of high-ranking prelates than the pain inflicted on the innocent, and to be impervious to public opinion.
The handling of the cardinal’s departure suggests that the Vatican as a whole has learned little in the decades since the abuse crisis began. The Church needs to act swiftly in removing those who have lost the confidence of the faithful, and it needs to show that it is sensitive to what the faithful think and feel.
It is true that Cardinal Wuerl’s service to the Church had many positive aspects. He was, for example, a gifted evangeliser. But at present it is pressing that the Church should show that it understands that, when it comes to child protection, there can be no leeway shown to those who fall short.
Even though Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation has been accepted, he will – curiously – remain in place as an administrator for the foreseeable future.
As for the faithful, it should be amply clear by now that their patience is running out.