A confrontation between President Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1930s was only defused when one of the nine justices changed his mind, leading to a favorable result for Roosevelt, and removing the need for the President to take on the nine Court members. Accordingly, the one jurists’ change of heart is called “the switch in time that saved nine.” The episode demonstrates how making a single change can have broader consequences. In the canonization process for Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the following three switches in time paved the way for a panel of nine theologians to certify last week that Archbishop Romero is a martyr as defined by the Church.
· Carlos Mauricio Funes Cartagena sworn in as President of El Salvador, June 1, 2009.
Mauricio Funes was to official recognition of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador what Constantine was to the acceptance of Christianity in Rome. Like the Roman Emperor, Funes was committed to Romero both for political expediency as well as for what appears to be genuine faith. Funes recognized that Romero had achieved a broad level of international acclaim, but had never been tapped by any Salvadoran government. On the other hand, Funes and his wife appear to be genuine Romero devotees, believing his intercession allowed them to conceive a child after experiencing fertility problems. Whatever his motivation, Funes’ appearance on the scene was decisive for the Romero cause. Before Funes arrived, the key obstacle to Romero’s beatification was the perception that the far left was using Romero, in the words of Pope Benedict, “as their badge, as an emblematic figure;” while official circles and the right were decidedly cool to his cause. Funes came to power in coalition with the leftwing FMLN, but he was not a former guerrilla nor even a member of the party. Instead, Funes was a centrist, who had several confrontations with the party during his term.
Funes began his administration by stating that Romero would be its spiritual guide, and he presented Romero as the national moral reference for El Salvador. Funes admitted the State’s role in Romero’s assassination and issued an official apology. Funes led a number of high profile tributes, becoming the first Salvadoran president to attend Romero commemorations, and naming several infrastructure projects after Romero, including El Salvador’s airport and a new highway artery. On the one hand, Funes’ actions revolutionized the position of officialdom vis-à-vis Romero, making Romero as prominent in Salvadorans’ self-image as he had been in outsiders’ vision of El Salvador. This represented a tectonic shift, which mollified many of the divisions in Salvadoran society about Romero, and made the martyred bishop no longer taboo. On the other hand, because Funes was a centrist, and because of his highly personalized devotion to Romero, his intervention was not seen as further utilization of Romero by the extreme left, but rather a nationalization of his figure which helped dispel the polarization which had led to the stagnation of the cause.
· Gerhard Ludwig Müller appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, July 2, 2012.
Upon arriving at the CDF, Cardinal Müller discovered that the congregation had custody of the Romero file, waiting for its opinion as to various questions regarding Romero’s orthodoxy. Müller was an admirer of Romero, who had, before his appointment, called Romero “truly the voice of those without a voice, and thus an advocate of the poor and an example to every bishop as a defender and father of the ‘poor, homeless and neediest of all’,” and had even attended the commemoration of Archbishop Romero’s anniversary in San Salvador. Rather than continue to sit on the documents, Müller opened the files and read them. “I read six volumes,” Müller said in an interview, “and eventually the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [under Müller] gave its Nihil Obstat.” [VIDEO: Card. Müller comments the cause in 2013—in Italian.]
A year after his appointment, Müller said: “I see Oscar Arnulfo Romero as a great witness of the faith and a man who was thirsty for social justice.” He made that judgment with the informed authority of a man who had scrutinized the file: “This was clear in his homilies, where he talked about the tragic condition his people lived in at the time,” said the prefect, who also pointed to the rooting of Catholic social justice doctrine on the documents of the Second Vatican Council. “Archbishop Romero always stressed this in all his speeches.” Cardinal Müller’s initiative enabled him to move the Romero file out of its holding pattern at the CDF. Müller saw to it that the green light was given “during Benedict XVI’s pontificate,” meaning that it happened essentially within half a year of Müller’s arrival at the CDF. Müller’s resourcefulness led to the cause being unblocked by Benedict. Although Benedict’s resignation required the approval of a new pope, because of Cardinal Müller’s efforts, the incoming pontiff would find that the preparatory work had been completed for the cause to advance.
· Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) elected to the papacy, March 13, 2013.
According to San Salvador Archbishop José Luis Escobar, most of the credit for progress in Romero’s beatification should go to Pope Francis, “because after God himself, he has been the principal driver of this cause.” Sound exaggerated? Last year, the Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador joked that “The Pope is more motivated than we are.” Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez explained that Francis had issued “orders in the Vatican so that all will cooperate so that the process speeds up.” Another Salvadoran cleric, Msgr. Jesus Delgado, elaborated that Francis had “issued the order that everything relating to Archbishop Romero in any congregation be sent to the Congregation of the Saints.” As a result of the Pope’s intervention, “The documentation that was missing is now in the hands of the Congregation of the Saints,” he said. More recently, Francis appeared to publicly urge the postulators of the cause to proceed with more haste.
In matters of canonization, papal interest can be decisive. As Fr. Daniel Ols, the relator of Romero’s cause told John Allen, “If the Holy Father wants things to accelerate, they speed up.” Allen listed papal buy-in as one of five factors necessary to put a canonization on the “fast track,” and Francis is linked to Romero on at least three levels. First, Francis was personally convinced of Romero’s holiness: “when he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, he reportedly said he already considered Archbishop Romero to be a saint.” Second, Romero’s solicitude for the poor resonates with Francis’ statement that he would like to have “a poor church, for the poor.” Third, Romero, the most visible Latin American martyr, seems a fitting patron saint for the first ever Latin American pontificate.
Thus, in Archbishop Romero’s canonization process, Mauricio Funes, Cardinal Müller, and Pope Francis are three substitutions that proved to be game changers.