On October 14, 2018, Pope Francis will canonize two great church leaders who helped shape Catholicism across the globe in the second half of the twentieth century: Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero. In reflecting on their lives, I cannot do justice to the complex and controversial circumstances that forged these extraordinary men into the saints they are. Instead, I’d like to reflect on something common and fundamental to us and them: Baptism.
Baptism sets the foundation for a lifelong calling and mission. The Catechism calls Baptism “the basis of the whole Christian life” and “the gateway to life in the Spirit” (CCC 1213). A saint is someone who lives their baptismal identity to the full. The three fundamentals we are called to live and practice “on entering the People of God through faith and Baptism” (CCC 783) are what we call the “three offices of Christ”: Priest, Prophet, and King. What made Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero saints was the integrity and fullness with which they lived out their baptismal vocations as priest, prophet, and king.
Both Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero were ordained Catholic priests, but by virtue of their Baptism they shared what we call the “priesthood of the faithful.” What is this priestly vocation? We live it by offering prayer and sacrifice for others. At the heart of every saint is a love for and commitment to prayer. Archbishop Romero lived his priestly vocation in a powerful and tragic way when he was martyred on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass in Divina Providentia Hospital—uniting his prayer and sacrifice with Christ’s into eternity.
Paul VI and Oscar Romero excelled at the way they lived the prophetic vocation of their Baptism. A prophet, in the biblical sense, is someone called by God to deliver a message of truth through either words or actions. One of my favorite descriptions of a prophet is one who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. During their lifetime, prophets are often inconvenient, unpopular, or even attacked, but history proves they shared the right message at exactly the right time.
Both Paul VI and Oscar Romero faced harsh criticism, and Romero (as did many other prophets through history) suffered martyrdom. When Paul VI issued the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (1968), which affirmed traditional Catholic teaching on sexual ethics, he faced a wave of criticism and dissent in the Church. Fifty years later, many Catholic moral theologians and historians see that his analysis and predictions were right on target. Archbishop Romero, standing in the tradition of Old Testament prophets like Amos and Isaiah, stood up and spoke out to the government (known as the Junta) in his home country of El Salvador, as well as other world governments (including the United States), on behalf of the poor and marginalized who were being treated unjustly. Like Paul VI and Romero, every baptized person is called to stand up and speak out for truth and justice, especially when it is unpopular or inconvenient.
While we gravitate toward thinking of the “royal” or “kingly” role as one of being above or served by others, it is actually the exact opposite. A true leader is one completely dedicated to serving others through his administration and decision-making. I can think of few more monumental or difficult tasks a church leader faced than Pope Paul VI when he was called by the Church to steer the conclusion and implementation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which has been called the single most important religious event in the twentieth century. Archbishop Oscar Romero was often criticized for his ecclesial administration getting mixed up with the political situation. Yet Romero recognized that in order to effectively lead and serve the church under his pastoral care, he needed to engage the civil government around him.
We, like Paul VI and Oscar Romero, do not become saints by being perfect administrators or leaders, but by bringing God’s spirit of wisdom into the challenges and opportunities that come our way. I would guess that at their baptism and even priestly ordination, Paul VI and Oscar Romero had no idea how God had planned for them to exercise their royal vocation. Under extraordinary times and circumstances, these saints modelled for us how we all are called to exercise leadership in ordinary, everyday circumstances with humility and whole-hearted devotion to God and others.
On October 14, let us rededicate ourselves to living our own priestly, prophetic, and royal vocation of Baptism with the same spirit and integrity as Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Please click the following links for more information about the canonization and lives of Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero.