Pope Francis presided Sunday over the canonization of two of the towering figures of the 20th-century Catholic Church: Pope Paul VI, who oversaw the modernizing church reforms of the 1960s, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, a human rights icon who was murdered for his defense of El Salvador’s poor.
In a sign of the strong influence both men had on history’s first Latin American pope, Francis wore the blood-stained rope belt that Romero wore when he was gunned down in 1980 and also used Paul VI’s staff, chalice and pallium vestment.
As Francis processed in at the start of Mass, portraits of the two men fluttered in the breeze from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, along with five others being canonized in a service aimed at showing young people that holiness can be achieved in every walk of life.
About 5,000 Salvadoran pilgrims traveled to Rome for the ceremony, and tens of thousands more stayed up all night to watch it on giant TV screens outside the San Salvador cathedral where Romero’s remains are entombed.
For many it was the culmination of a fraught and politicized campaign to have the church formally honor a man who publicly denounced the repression by El Salvador’s military dictatorship at the start of the country’s 1980-1992 civil war.
“I am here to give glory to Monsignor Romero,” said Aida Guzman, a 68-year-old Salvadoran woman who carried photos of people killed during the war as she joined thousands in an evening procession in San Salvador. “He is a light for our people, an inspiration for all.”
Archbishop of San Salvador
Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, was gunned down by right-wing death squads as he celebrated Mass, March 24, 1980, in a hospital chapel. A day before he was killed, he had delivered the latest in a series of sermons demanding an end to the army’s repression, sermons that had enraged El Salvador’s leaders.
Almost immediately after his death, Romero became an icon of the South American left and is frequently listed along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi as one of the world’s most influential human rights campaigners. The United Nations commemorates the anniversary of his death each year.
His influence continues to resonate with El Salvador’s youth as the country endures brutal gang violence that has made the Central American nation one of the most violent in the world, a scourge that Francis has frequently lamented.
“He is my guide, and from what I have read about his life, I want to follow in his steps,” said Oscar Orellana, a 15-year-old who participated in the San Salvador procession wearing a white tunic like the one Romero used to wear.
Pope Paul VI
Paul VI, for his part, is best known for having presided over the final sessions of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 church meetings that opened up the Catholic Church to the world. Under his auspices, the church agreed to allow liturgy to be celebrated in the vernacular rather than in Latin and called for greater roles for the laity and improved relations with people of other faiths.
Paul is also remembered for his two most important encyclicals, or teaching documents, that have had a profound effect on the church and Francis: One, “The Progress of Peoples” denounced the mounting inequality between rich and poor, and the other, “Humanae Vitae,” reaffirmed the Catholic church’s opposition to artificial contraception.
The stark prohibition empowered conservatives but drove progressives away. Even today it remains one of the most contested and ignored of papal encyclicals, with studies showing that most Catholics use contraception anyway.
Francis was deeply influenced by Paul, who was the pope of his formative years as a young priest in Argentina and was instrumental in giving rise to the Latin American church’s “preferential option for the poor.”
Francis has styled his papacy on another of Paul’s exhortations, and has adopted the “church of the poor” ethos that Paul embodied when he formally renounced wearing the bejeweled papal tiara.