The Vatican announced the canonisation of two giants of the 20th-century Church last week: Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero. Observers speculate that they will be canonised on the same day during this October’s youth synod.
There is a precedent for such a pairing: in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II beatified Pius IX and John XXIII. The former is, of course, a hero among traditional Catholics and the latter among liberal ones. The joint beatification was seen as a way of uniting these disparate groups.
If Pope Francis decides to canonise Paul VI and Oscar Romero on the same day, he will be accused of performing a similar balancing act: offering Pope Paul to conservatives who admire his encyclical Humanae Vitae and the archbishop to left-leaning Catholics who honour him as a martyr for social justice.
Others will argue that Francis is seeking to reconcile two great activist movements in the Church: pro-lifers and justice and peace campaigners. The Holy Father, they will point out, never separates “life issues” from social questions. What better way to emphasise this than by raising Paul VI and Romero to the altars on the same day?
But these interpretations are rather crude. For both the pope and the archbishop were complex personalities who didn’t fit neatly into ideological categories. Paul VI was a hesitant and anguished figure, who nevertheless forced through dramatic changes to the liturgy and the Roman Curia. Romero, meanwhile, is often portrayed as a quasi-Marxist revolutionary. Yet his diaries reveal a sober and doctrinally orthodox figure unsettled by some of the changes unleashed by Vatican II.
Romero sought spiritual direction from Opus Dei, then considered a formidable base of opposition to liberation theology in Latin America, and appealed to Paul VI to beatify the personal prelature’s founder, Josemaría Escrivá, shortly after the latter’s death in 1975.
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