One of the points in my Christian journey when I realised I ought to leave the Church of England was during a clergy training day in Dulwich many years ago when a speaker, thought to be an expert on mission and evangelism, said that she was fed up with churches which were ‘named after dead Christians.’ In terms of traditional Christian teaching what was said was so ridiculous: for us, the saints in heaven are more alive than we are, praying for us and being along-side us.
One of the marks of Catholic Christianity is an awareness of how close we are to the saints, and an awareness that for all of us holiness is possible if we depend on God’s grace, one of the messages of Lent. We are constantly growing in awareness of what this means: saints are not distant figures in the history of the Church, they are part of the life of the Church in our own age and every age. So we should not be surprised that more and more saints are being canonised – St John Paul II canonised more than all other popes put together.
Earlier this month the Holy See announced that a number of men and women who have already been beatified would become saints later in the year. Among them were two men who were among the most important Catholic figures of the last century. Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini) was pope during formative years for many of us (from 1963 until 1978). He had been a papal diplomat for most of his life as a priest, reaching prominence in the Second World War when he assisted Pope Pius XII in trying to rescue Jews in Italy; he then became Archbishop of Milan in the 1950s.
He took over as pope in the middle of the Second Vatican Council and after it came to an end in 1965 oversaw the implementation of its measures which renewed the whole life of the Church. Many of you will remember his encyclical on birth control in 1968, Humanae Vitae; equally significant was his letter from the previous year on world development, Populorum Progressio, very important for Catholic aid agencies such as CAFOD. It did not endear him to some in the rich nations – the Wall Street Journal denounced it as ‘souped-up Marxism.’
Pope Paul also worked hard to try and end the Vietnam war. Paul was marked by personal humility and holiness and sometimes agonised over decisions; others also found him difficult to work out and his predecessor St John XXIII once dubbed him amletico (I expect you can work out what that means).
These days popes get to appoint all the bishops in the world and in 1977 he appointed Bishop Oscar Romero as Archbishop of San Salvador in the small central American republic of El Salvador. El Salvador was, and is, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Oscar Romero’s father was the local postman in a tiny village and the large family lived in poverty; he was born just over a century ago. Oscar’s intellectual talent and holiness were noticed at an early age and before the war he was sent to Rome to train for the priesthood. As a young priest after the war he worked both in parish life and in the national life of the Church, writing and preaching, and was made an auxiliary bishop in the early 70’s. The country and the Church were deeply divided; corrupt and repressive governments, together with private armies and ‘death squads’ were at odds with those who tried to improve the lot of the poor and speak up for them.
At this time Romero was considered a rather conservative and cautious figure; many among those who ran the country thought he would be a ‘safe pair of hands’ when the pope appointed him as archbishop. However from the beginning of his ministry as archbishop in early 1977 Romero quickly realised the extent of the real moral evil behind the campaign of violence against the poor and those who helped the poor, including priests and religious. He became an outspoken critic of the government, the ‘security services’ and the death squads – this continued through his ministry in the diocese and in particular in the weekly radio broadcasts of his Sunday Masses from the cathedral, including substantial homilies (recently a full English edition of all his sermons as archbishop has been published).
The Church radio station which broadcast these Masses was repeatedly bombed, and repeatedly rebuilt with money collected from Catholics in this country. Through his witness to Christian teaching and his pastoral ministry he aroused deep hatred from the richest in society (as so often happens), and this hatred for the Church was shown in many acts of violence and sacrilege: at one stage posters went up in San Salvador bearing the words ‘Be a patriot! Kill a priest!’ To make matters worse Romero was undermined by most of the other bishops in the country.
On 24 March 1980 he was shot while saying Mass in a hospital chapel. He quickly became an unofficial saint not only in El Salvador but elsewhere in Latin America and the world. There is a statue of him outside Westminster Abbey and a shrine to him in our cathedral in Southwark diocese; his canonisation later this year will be a major event in the life of the Church.