In which we look at the journey of Faith on the canonization superhighway. Not for the person being canonized, but for his followers—and not on the storied “fast track.” Canonization is a legal proceeding with your hero on trial, and although you expect that, like George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” he will earn his wings (or halo), it can be a weary, soul-testing and sometimes dispiriting process. For exactly this reason, Pope Francis’ advice for the followers of Archbishop Óscar A. Romero of El Salvador seemed so insightful. He said we “must have faith that the canonization of Archbishop Romero is proceeding at an appropriate speed.” Faith. That’s exactly what you need. Lots of it.
Imagine the person you admire the most, who preaches love and holiness, is slandered, vilely accused, and based on those smears, unjustly murdered. Even after his death, some continue to revile him, while you hold on to a belief that, because of Faith, he will be justified, redeemed, vindicated. That process should sound very familiar. In a sense, it’s a metaphor for the Christian history of salvation. Jesus came, preached, was rejected by the world, was accused of political insubordination and executed, but we believe that He did not die and will return in glory. Although this piece is about Archbishop Romero, it applies to the causes of many saints. And, although this piece deals with canonization, its lessons can apply to many of the Church’s processes, which can be seen through the lens of politics and palace intrigue, but we must trust that they are guided by the Holy Spirit.
Alright, let’s hop on the time machine. It’s Sunday, March 12, 1983, less than three years after Archbishop Romero’s assassination. I live in New York, in a crowded two bedroom apartment with my parents and three brothers. I’m keeping a diary (no blog yet!). In my last entry that evening, I write: “I believe I have been in the presence of a saint when I have been in the presence of Archbishop Romero.” That’s it. That’s the moment I knew it. I was 14 years-old at the time. I did not understand the process, or the requirements for beatification and canonization. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking that Romero was a martyr—I didn’t really grasp the concept of martyrdom. So, I wasn’t thinking that he was a saint because he had been killed in hatred of the faith, or because he had been killed at all. I just fervently believed that he was a saint because I had met him when I was a boy growing up in El Salvador and he came across that way. I had attended his Masses, had been confessed by him. I was a witness to his holiness.
Alright, fast forward a couple of years. It’s winter 1985. I’m still living in New York, but in a different tenement. I have found a book, “The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero,” by Fr. James Brockman. But we are poor and I do not yet know the luxury of buying books at this point in my life. So, I have to go to the library to read it. The closest one with a copy is a distant branch of the New York Public Library. I have to take two buses to get there. But, I go there on Saturdays for several months, taking the journey to read and re-read Fr. Brockman’s book. I remember waiting for the bus. It was so cold that my toes would hurt from the exposure, and I was glad when they went numb. What was I doing? What was driving me to make this trip? The answer is that at the end of my journey, I would have an encounter with holiness, an encounter with Archbishop Romero. Later, I had the audacity to write a letter to Fr. Brockman, addressed to the book’s publisher (no Google to search for his address). To my delight, some months later, a letter came back from Fr. Brockman, with whom I was able to exchange correspondence about Romero. Gingerly, I broached the subject with Fr. Brockman, of whether Romero could ever be declared a saint. He was unsure, but he told me that he believed Romero was a model of holiness.
It’s now March 1988; a sunny day in Boston. During college, I am in Harvard Sq., walking toward an address I have found in a newspaper listing, for a gathering to honor Archbishop Romero. I find the place, right off the square. It’s small. Perhaps I expected some big meeting hall. This place looks like some hole-in-the-wall bookshop. Plus, I don’t see anything that seems appropriate for the remembrance of an archbishop. No candles, no crosses, nothing remotely religious or sacred. Immediately, red flags go up when I spot, well, red flags. There are communist symbols, pamphlets, materials in support of the Marxist rebels fighting in El Salvador. I draw no closer. Instead, I turn around and walk away, disenchanted. I have not found holiness at the end of this outing; I have not found Archbishop Romero. God is not in the flurry, the fire, or the earthquake. (1 Kings 19:11-12.) This is what I will find time and time again in the next couple of decades: distortion and manipulation of Archbishop Romero’s message by those who wish to use it to serve their own political ends. It is very disappointing and disheartening.
Forward one more year. It’s August 25, 1989. I am in Manhattan with my best friend, a Baptist African-American kid who shares my spiritual hunger and whom I am drawing into the Catholic Church. Five years earlier, the same year I wrote in my diary that Romero was a saint, I had dragged this same friend to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to pay our respects to another fallen archbishop, New York’s own Cardinal Cooke. But this time, in ‘89, we were in Manhattan on a more joyous note. We were there for the premiere of the Paulist Pictures movie “Romero,” starring Raul Julia as the archbishop. A decade after I had last seen my childhood hero, I would see him again, on the big screen. It was uplifting, at a time when my spirit needed uplifting. El Salvador was in the midst of its civil war, and I was constantly hearing depressing news from home. Salvadoran refugees were pouring out of the country to flee the horrors of war. The movie contained a positive message of valor and holiness amidst this, a glimmer of Hope.
One year forward. August 1990. I am in back in El Salvador, for the first time since leaving the country. It’s not under optimal circumstances; I am there because my grandmother, who raised me as a child, has passed away. But, at the end of this journey, I find Archbishop Romero. His likeness is in a big picture on the wall of my grandmother’s bedroom. I also make time to visit Archbishop Romero’s grave at the Cathedral. The place is mobbed by faithful, praying for miracles. As I knew it as a child, the poor know that Romero is a saint before the theologians have confirmed it, and despite the fact that the dictators dispute it. The tomb is strewn with plaques thanking Archbishop Romero for favors granted.
Now, fast forward one whole decade. I am back in El Salvador in March 2000 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s death. I’m not alone. Between 100,000 - 500,000 people crowd the square in front of the Cathedral to honor Romero. The atmosphere is festive. There is music and fireworks. By now, the war is over, the country is at peace. There are still many who whisper that Romero was a communist—the now standard slander against him. But I am happy to find kindred spirits—not just political agitators, but people who admire Romero for his holiness. This camaraderie attests to our Faith (John 13:35). Also—and this is icing—I find that audio recordings and even videos of Romero are popping up on the Internet. I have not heard Romero’s voice at all in 20 years, but it has been resounding in my head all this time, and now I can hear his voice outside my head, also.
In the time since that trip to El Salvador, I have been back a few more times. I have met many more people who admire Romero for his spiritual qualities. There have also continued to be more ups and downs like the ones described. I have had the singular grace of befriending some of Romero’s family, including his brother, and they are wonderful people (their story is a gripping saga on to itself!). I started an online community around Romero in 2002, but was kicked out of it by vocal political activists who overran the group. They accused me of being a right-winger, too religiously conservative, anti-Romero, and even worse. I saw Romero’s beatification process surge to a near breakthrough in 2005, only to see it fall back to an uncertain status in more recent years. Then, I started this blog and have had the gratitude of developing into a place for the proper type of reflection on Romero that I have always sought, going back to those trips to the library. Of course, this last year, with the announcement that Pope Francis has unblocked the beatification process, I feel the gratification of St. Paul when he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7.)