-FINAL BLOG POST-
St. Oscar Romero was able to bring down the high mysticism of the Doctor of the Church St. John of the Cross (1542 - 1591) to a level that was comprehensible to peasants.
In a November 13, 1977 homily, Romero incorporated the symbolism of the “Spiritual Canticle” of the Spanish mystic to explain the Church’s desire the to be reunified with her Lord. “This Church is like the wife whose husband is far away and sighs for his presence,” Romero said. Without quoting chapter and verse, he borrowed the literary device of a wife who misses her distant husband that St. John portrays in his “Canticle.” Other times, Romero quoted a favorite phrase of the poet saint, “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” So Romero presented John of the Cross not as a lofty scholar, but as someone who talks to us about love.
Now that St. Romero has himself been proposed for possible consideration as a future Doctor of the Church, the example of St. John of the Cross offers us three points of departure for the road ahead.
The first consideration is about the message a Doctor of the Church holds for our time. “The Doctorate is a rare honour,” wrote John Howley in 1927, the year after the recognition of the Spanish mystic was promulgated. “It is almost a new canonization, for it is the recognition of one who has not merely edified the Church by his life and labours, but of one who has taught the Church Universal.”
Howley proposed that St. John’s doctorate completed and complemented other instructions issued by the Church. “As the Doctorate of St. Alphonsus Liguori formed the counterpart to the Papal condemnations of rigorism and laxism in morals, the Doctorate of St. John of the Cross completes the Papal censures of quietism and false mysticism,” argued Howley. “The Church not only condemns error, she indicates also the safe guides.”
More recently, Pope John Paul II explained how St. John’s “Dark night” helps us understand the darkness of modernity. “Our age,” wrote the Polish pontiff, “has known times of anguish which have made us understand this expression better and which have furthermore given it a kind of collective character. Our age speaks of the silence or absence of God. It has known so many calamities, so much suffering inflicted by wars and by the holocaust of so many innocent beings. The term dark night is now used of all of life and not just of a phase of the spiritual journey.” (Apostolic Letter «Master in the Faith,» December 14, 1990.)
But—could we say something similar in support of a doctorate for St. Romero? Current San Salvador Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas, began to articulate the argument when he asked Pope Francis, during an audience the day after the canonization, “to authorize the opening of the appropriate process for St. Oscar Arnulfo Romero to be declared Doctor of the Church.” Archbishop Escobar said that “his highly valuable teachings and testimony of life will be a beacon of light that will illuminate the present world, which sadly suffers from darkness; on the one hand, a lack of faith, and on the other, serious social injustices that cause very serious violations of human rights and of the dignity of persons.”
“One might argue,” Father Steven Payne said during a presentation at Notre Dame University in March of this year, “that Oscar Romero is precisely the new kind of ‘doctor’ we most urgently need today, one whose ‘doctrinal eminence’ arises out of solidarity with the voiceless; thus, recognizing him in this way would signal a ‘preferential option’ for the teaching authority of the poor and marginalized.”
In a sense, opening a doctoral process for Romero could operate, at least initially, as an interim protective measure to highlight the importance of his teachings and ensure that his warnings are heeded by the entire Church and given force. There is a danger that, having been canonized as a martyr, Romero’s martyrial death would be so emphasized that the content of his prophetic message could be overlooked. The doctoral cause would preserve and enshrine that message with the expectation that the grounds for the proclamation would eventually be fully satisfied.
On the other hand, a doctorate for Romero could be the “counter-point” to the instructions issued by the Vatican on Liberation Theology, the warning issued to Fr. Jon Sobrino, and the companion piece for the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, the teachings of CELAM in the documents of Medellin, Puebla, and Aparecida, as well as a guideline on the role of the bishops according to the Apostolic Exhortation «Pastores Gregis», among others.
A second consideration that emerges from the case of St. John of the Cross is that the process of recognizing a new Doctor of the Church is a long-term project. To illustrate, St. John died in 1591. He was beatified 84 years later, in 1675. (By contrast, Archbishop Romero was beatified 35 years after his death.) St. John was canonized in 1726—51 years after his beatification. (Archbishop Romero was canonized 3 years after his beatification.) Having waited 135 years since his death for his canonization, St. John of the Cross had to wait another 200 years to be declared a Doctor of the Church. By these timescales, we would not expect to see Romero a doctor until the year 2315! (But NB: the “urgency” argument could shorten the timeframe.)
Why does it take so long to obtain the proclamation? Rowley reminds us that the process demands “the fulfillment of three conditions: eminent sanctity, eminent doctrine, and the solemn declaration of the Roman Pontiff.” Romero’s sanctity has largely been proven because he has been canonized, but something more is required: eminent sanctity; that is, holiness that stands out even among other saints. The real delay, however, lays in proving the second requirement: eminent doctrine. As Father Payne explains: it must be shown that his teachings “have exercised considerable influence on the thought of the church” for a considerable period of time, and his teaching should have both contemporary pastoral relevance and perennial value.
The process is comparable to extended exposure photography: it is not a snapshot of a given moment in history, but requires measurements from different points in time as inputs. Therefore, we must accept that we probably will not see the final result of the process, and as the famous ‘Romero Prayer’ states, this is a case in which “we are prophets of a future not our own”.
The third and last consideration that we derive from the case of St. John of the Cross flows from the previous one. Given that we are facing a long-term project, what can we achieve at the present time? It would seem advisable to seek some type of «Nihil Obstat,» during the current pontificate, perhaps from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—or from the CDF in tandem with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints—declaring that there is no impediment to work on the case of St. Romero, Doctor of the Church. This is because there has never been a martyr declared a doctor, and various scholars consider that it is not possible to have one.
Maybe it would be worthwhile to draft a “Positio” on just that issue and try to resolve this threshold question during the Francis pontificate, which could be more favorable than other conceivable future pontificates. Once the seed is sown, it can become simply a self-fulfilling prophecy; a matter of time before the eventual proclamation. Also the initial question could be posed as a “dubium” signed by some eminent prelates, or even CELAM itself, asking, with favorable arguments included, if St. Romero can be proposed as a Doctor despite being a martyr.
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One of the at least five occasions on which St. Oscar Romero cited St. John of the Cross during the three years of his archbishopric was at the funeral of Fr. Octavio Ortiz on January 21, 1979, in which he preached:
the figure of this world passes away and there remains only the joy of having used this world to sow the kingdom of God. All of the pomp, all the triumphs, the selfish capitalism, all the false successes of life will pass away with the figure of the world. All of that passes away; what does not pass away is love, which means using your wealth, your assets, your profession for the service of others; the joy of sharing and feeling ourselves sisters and brothers with all humanity. In the evening of life you will be judged on love!
Sancti Ioannes a Cruce et Ansgarium Arnolfum Romero, orate pro nobis!