A commentary by «L’Espresso»’s venerable Vatican analyst Alessandro Magister argues that Pope Francis brings to bear the full force of his persuasive authority regarding the Church’s processing of future saints. “In beatifications and canonizations, the pope is acting as an absolute monarch,” Magister concludes—and he points to the Pope’s lifting of the hold order on Archbishop Romero as a case in point. We’ll take issue with Mr. Magister just this once—at least with respect to his assertion that Francis’ “unblocking” of Archbishop Romero’s canonization cause is an unusual exertion of papal influence.
Refuting Mr. Magister’s reading that the Pope’s action is unusual boils down to three points:
- Papal intervention over particular causes is not out of the ordinary, as is evident from the history of the Romero cause—which has been dependent on papal preferences from the outset;
- Francis has not given any special dispensation to Archb. Romero’s cause; he has simply put it on similar footing as other causes by removing an exceptional “hold” impeding its progress; and
- The “unblocking” of Archb. Romero’s cause was part of a process that was already in motion and in which the Pope’s intervention was not as dramatic as it may have seemed.
First, the Pope’s personal active involvement in particular canonization causes is not unusual. In fact, papal involvement in Archb. Romero’s canonization cause is not unusual. It is par for the course. As the relator for the Romero process, Fr.Daniel Ols, said in a 2003 interview, “if the Holy Father wants things to accelerate, they speed up.” In Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, And Why (1996), Kenneth Woodward reveals the extent of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s involvement in the institution of Archb. Romero’s canonization process. Woodard details how Bl. John Paul believed that Romero was a martyr, but he asked Salvadoran Church authorities to hold-off on initiating the canonization process until such time as it could be assured of a positive reception. Woodard says, “it is apparent that John Paul II had personally interdicted, for the time being, any effort on the part of the Salvadoran church officials to introduce a canonization process for Archbishop Romero.” He notes that, “Such a direct papal intervention is highly unusual, but not unprecedented.” Woodward, at 45 (emphases mine). In fact, the cause was not started until the late pope signed off on the timing: even though the cause “did not sit well in some Vatican dicasteries … John Paul II, personally and in spite of this, gave his approval” (Sobrino—emphasis mine). It is evident that Archb. Romero has depended on papal authority from the beginning.
Second, by “unblocking” Archb. Romero’s process, Pope Francis has not given his canonization cause any special advantage over other causes. He has simply assured that the opposite was not true—he has guaranteed that Archb. Romero’s canonization process would not be subjected to further delays because of political considerations. Msgr. Gregorio Rosa Chavez, the Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador, has stated that even though he has reason to know that Pope Francis “is absolutely convinced that Romero is a saint and a martyr” and that “everything points to his beatification being in the cards,” nevertheless “we follow God’s time frame which is not the same as ours.” El Salvador's ambassador to the Holy See, Manuel Lopez, belongs to the Catholic Sovereign Order of Malta and also commented on the next steps. “The postulator will present the positio to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, it will be analyzed first by a commission of theologians, and then by a commission of cardinals, and the two commissions will forward their recommendations to the Pope, who will make the final determination,” said Lopez. In other words, the course that Archb. Romero’s process will follow is the ordinary course.
Finally—and Mr. Magister candidly acknowledges this fact in his analysis—it is not clear how decisive Pope Francis’ intervention was, as “unblocking” the cause may have been a merely ministerial act; it may have been started under Pope Benedict; and it may have followed independent developments in the canonization office. In 2012 «La Stampa» analyzed that bureaucracy “plays a role” in explaining the lack of progress and that a directive re-starting the “coordination required between the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” might set the cause back in motion. That appears to be what Francis has done. Moreover, Bishop Rosa Chavez has stated that Pope Benedict XVI had been gearing up to do the same before he retired. Finally, in an interview in February of this year, the postulator of the cause, Archb. Vincenzo Paglia, spoke of his plan to kick-start Romero’s beatification cause. «La Stampa» later reported that Paglia’s strategy has opened an “expressway” to beatification for Archb. Romero. Pope Francis merely confirmed these developments.For all these reasons, “unblocking” Archb. Romero’s cause is not evidence of heavy handedness by the Pontiff, as Pope Francis’ action is in keeping with historical precedents for these processes.
Elsewhere, Mr. Magister also writes that the cause had been blocked, “in part because of the influence over Bishop Romero - and above all over his boundless homiletic production - exercised by the Jesuit Jon Sobrino.” But, it is not true that Sobrino had such influence on the homilies of Archbishop Romero. Sobrino helped write a pastoral letter and one speech for Romero, but Romero’s homilies were written by the archbishop himself after consulting with a small group of advisers, which did not usually include Sobrino.