ROME — In what is arguably one of the most personal moments of his papacy, Pope Francis declared Pope Paul VI and the slain former Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, as saints on Sunday — extolling them as witnesses of a Church turned outward toward the world, but still living lives of radical holiness.
“Today Jesus invites us to return to the source of joy, which is the encounter with him, the courageous choice to risk everything to follow him, the satisfaction of leaving something behind in order to embrace his way,” declared Francis.
“The saints have traveled this path,” he said.
Sunday’s canonization Mass drew a colorful crowd estimated at more than 60,000 to Saint Peter’s Square for the outdoor celebration, which took place in the middle of the October Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” It’s the largest canonization ceremony to take place since Francis declared Popes John XXIII and John Paul II saints in April 2014.
Along with Paul VI and Romero, Francis declared five other new saints:
- Francesco Spinelli, a diocesan priest and founder of the Institute of the Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament.
- Vincenzo Romano, a diocesan priest from Torre de Greco in Italy.
- Maria Caterina Kasper, a German nun and founder of the Institute of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.
- Nazaria Ignacia of Saint Theresa of Jesus, a Spanish founder of the Congregation of the Missionary Crusaders of the Church.
- Nunzio Sulprizio, who died from bone cancer at the age of 19 — and the only young person of the mix to be made a saint.
Reflecting on the Gospel passage from Mark where Jesus was asked what must be done to have eternal life, Francis said the man was caught off guard by the answer he received, which was not one of “supply and demand” but rather “a story of love.”
“He asks him to pass from the observance of laws to the gift of self, from doing for oneself to being with God,” Francis said.
Wearing the bloodstained cincture of the martyred Romero and a pallium, crozier and, chalice belonging to Paul VI, Francis hailed the lives — and in the case of Romero, the sacrifice of his life — for their love of Christ.
“Our heart is like a magnet: it lets itself be attracted by love, but it can cling to one master only and it must choose: either it will love God, or it will love the world’s treasure – either it will live for love, or it will live for itself,” he said.
“Let us ask ourselves where we are in our story of love with God. Do we content ourselves with a few commandments or do we follow Jesus as lovers, really prepared to leave behind something for him?” asked Francis.
Both Paul VI and Romero are figures close to Francis’s heart, and individuals whom he’s repeatedly extolled throughout his papacy, and the two men themselves are intricately linked, as it was Paul VI who made Romero a bishop and later transferred him to San Salvador where he would eventually face martyrdom.
Paul VI, who was elected as pope in 1963 oversaw the Second Vatican Council after the death of St. Pope John XXIII, including launching the synod process and providing a model for a more decentralized, “synodal” Church. He ushered in sweeping liturgical changes after Vatican II, became the first modern pope to travel outside Italy, pioneered ecumenical and inter-faith relationships, and fostered dialogues with the worlds of art, science and culture.
While he is perhaps best remembered for his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae upholding the Church’s ban on artificial birth control, many have argued that his forgotten legacy is pushing the Church forward in dialogue with the modern world, most notably in his 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, in which he described respectful dialogue not merely as a hallmark of good governance but an expression of God’s very nature, along with his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, where he insisted the economy must serve the common good and not just a select few.
During Sunday’s Mass, Francis hailed Paul VI as “a prophet of a Church turned outwards, looking to those far away and taking care of the poor.”
“Even in the midst of tiredness and misunderstanding, Paul VI bore witness in a passionate way to the beauty and the joy of following Christ totally,” he said. “Today he still urges us, together with the Council whose wise helmsman he was, to live our common vocation: the universal call to holiness. Not to half measures, but to holiness.”
As for Romero, who was brutally murdered while celebrating mass in 1980, and the man who became the voice of conscience for an entire nation — protesting government corruption and vociferously fighting for the rights of the country’s poor and marginalized — he has been hailed by many as the quintessential Francis model of a saint.
At a 2007 meeting of the Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil — where then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio would play an instrumental role that would later serve as a catalyst for his election to the papacy — he’s said to have remarked that “Oscar Romero is saint and a martyr, and if I became pope I would canonize him.”
During his homily doing just that, Francis lauded Romero for leaving “the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the Gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters.”
“Let us ask for the grace always to leave things behind for love of the Lord: to leave behind wealth, the yearning for status and power, structures that are no longer adequate for proclaiming the Gospel, those weights that slow down our mission, the strings that tie us to the world,” Francis pleaded.
“Without a leap forward in love, our life and our Church become sick from ‘complacency and self-indulgence,’” he argued.
“All these saints, in different contexts, put today’s word into practice in their lives, without being lukewarm, without calculation, with the passion to risk everything and to leave it all behind,” Francis said. “May the Lord help us to imitate their example.”
On the eve of the canonization Mass, Francis made a visit to Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiase monastery where the former pontiff resides. Benedict was created a cardinal by Paul VI on June 27, 1977.
In 2014, Benedict XVI concelebrated the canonization for Popes John XXIII and John Paul II with Francis, in what was dubbed the “Mass of Four Popes.” This time, Benedict, now 91, did not attend the Mass.
Among the dignitaries on hand for Sunday’s canonization were President Sergio Mattarella of Italy, Queen Sofia of Spain, President Sebastian Pinera Echenique of Chile, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador, and President Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez of Panama where the next World Youth Day will be held in January 2019.
Also present was Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. A statue of Romero is displayed at Westminster Abbey.