If you’re Pope Paul VI on the first day of summer, 1978, what do you say in your meeting at the Vatican with Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador?
You appointed Romero to the post a year earlier, and not even three weeks into his tenure, one of his best friends, Father Rutilio Grande, SJ, was assassinated because he was working to empower groups of poor Salvadoran farmers, campesinos.
You know that Archbishop Romero has been going on the radio across his small Central American country to condemn violence and the nonstop disappearances of the poor at the hands of a repressive government.
You know that it hadn’t been in his DNA to rock the boat, to challenge the status quo, but that after the murder of his friend he has discovered a new well of righteous indignation and a fire for justice inside himself.
You know the political leaders of El Salvador, who welcomed Romero’s appointment, are not pleased with these developments. You know the killers who came for Father Grande might come for Archbishop Romero, too.
So, what do you say to him?
“I understand your difficult work. It is a work that can be misunderstood, you need to have a lot of patience and fortitude. I do know that not everyone thinks like you…Proceed with courage, with patience, with strength, with hope.”
We know what Pope Paul VI said because Archbishop Romero paraphrased the message in his diary during his trip to Rome, a moment of connection between two men thrust into enormous leadership roles they never could have imagined. Paul VI was Italian and had never experienced the sort of danger Romero was facing in El Salvador, but his work of bringing the Second Vatican Council to completion after the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963 was packed with pressure and controversy. He knew the importance of courage, patience, and hope when the task at hand seems overwhelming.
Romero called the moment intimate and unforgettable. “It has confirmed me in my desire to serve our people with love,” he wrote. He returned to El Salvador soon after and kept up the work until he was murdered while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. To this date, the gunman has not been identified.
Forty years after their meeting in Rome, Paul VI and Romero were canonized saints together in the Catholic Church during a Mass at the Vatican on Oct. 14, 2018. I have no idea what heaven is like, but I am heartened by the possibility of these two men meeting again in some way, laughing and embracing, so grateful to have met God face to face.
It’s no coincidence that Paul VI and Oscar Romero are being canonized during the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, a gathering of a few hundred bishops and other Catholics from around the world that’s exploring ways the church can support and nurture the faith of youth and young adults. These new saints were different men with different stories, but they both have so much to offer the Church today. Here are just three messages I hear from their holy lives.
- Take risks
- Be genuine
- Go to the margins
What would our church look like if we were 10 times bolder than we are today? Romero and Paul VI might never have asked that question exactly that way, but they definitely answered it.
The Sunday after Father Grande was killed along with two other Salvadorans, Archbishop Romero canceled Mass at every church in the entire country except for at the cathedral in the capital city of San Salvador. About 100,000 people came, and Romero called for an end to the violence. Afterward, he spent hours meeting with poor farmers, listening to their stories. That’s Romero’s ministry in a nutshell: Bold action, bold words, bold listening.
This month’s meeting of the synod of bishops is the 18th time the group has gotten together (with different participants) in various forms since Paul VI created this permanent advisory body in 1965. He took the immense power concentrated in the papacy and opened it up to feedback from his brother bishops. Paul VI was secure enough in his own identity as a leader that he didn’t regard others as threats.
That’s the type of shared leadership the Church needs today — cooperation between clergy and laypeople. When we use our own gifts for the betterment of the Church community and the world, we are living a part of Paul VI’s legacy.
Paul VI has a quote from a big letter he wrote about evangelization that I had never heard until I got to theology grad school, and then I heard it about once a week: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” In other words, talk is cheap — you better live with integrity and genuine compassion if you want to convince me your Church is worth my time. This rings so true to my millennial ears.
The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness.” Oscar Romero, who was declared a martyr by Pope Francis on his road to sainthood, laid down his life for his people because of his faith. We are not all called to that extraordinary type of witness. But I’m inspired to be part of a Church that has so many members who have given up everything out of love for another.
Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit six continents. He was the first pope to leave Italy since 1809! He went to India, Pakistan, Israel, Uganda, Colombia, the Philippines, and more. The symbolic message of all of these visits was to tell people from places often forgotten or overlooked in the West that they are important, unique, sacred children of God.
In his diary entry about his meeting with Pope Paul VI, Romero wrote that the Holy Father spoke warmly about the people of El Salvador, whom he had met while serving as a Vatican diplomat. “He told me that I had to help them, to work for them, but never with hatred nor fomenting violence, but on the basis of a great love,” Romero wrote.
Romero lived that great love, marked by closeness to the people who were suffering. When he spoke out against injustice, he listed the names of people who had been killed or kidnapped in the country. His speeches had extra weight and were feared by those in power because he was always specific. “For the Church, the many abuses of human life, liberty, and dignity are a heartfelt suffering,” he said. “As holy defender of God’s rights and of his images, the Church must cry out.”
Jesus spent so much of his own ministry on the margins of society, accompanying outcasts like lepers and prostitutes. If we want to value what Jesus valued — what Paul VI and Romero valued — we will have to spend time on the peripheries, too.
October 14, canonization day, is a crucial moment for a Church in crisis. We need the bold, genuine, selfless faith of Paul VI and Romero so badly — it needs to live in our institutional leaders and in every single follower of Jesus. There is such great hope and energy for us in their stories.
Saint Paul VI and Saint Oscar Romero, pray for us!