St. Pope John Paul II, left, and St. Oscar Romero. St. Pope John Paul II photo from CNS, St. Oscar Romero photo from Wikimedia Commons

Fr. Raymond de Souza: Long line of martyr-bishops marked by men of no fear

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  • October 19, 2018

VATICAN – The twin canonizations — along with five others — of Pope St. Paul VI and St. Oscar Romero prompted many to look for similarities between the two. But the more suggestive similarity is between “San Romero” — as they call him in El Salvador — and the pope whose 40th anniversary is marked this week.

Forty years ago, on Oct. 22, 1978, Pope St. John Paul II sounded a trumpet in St. Peter’s Square which was heard throughout the Church and around the world: “Be not afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!”

At 58 he was a young pope, but he had lived since he was 19 under regimes that were built upon fear — first the German Nazis and then the Soviet communists. And so he knew that the task of a bishop was to help his people live without fear. And that task is costly. 

The archbishops of Kraków trace their lineage back to St. Stanisław, the bishop martyred by the king’s henchmen at the altar during Holy Mass in 1079. There was a delegation from Kraków already in Rome for the 40th anniversary celebrations of John Paul’s election on Oct. 16, 1978. No doubt they saw in Archbishop Romero, gunned down by military assassins in 1980 while celebrating Mass, an echo of their own St. Stanisław.

The canonization of San Romero brought that history to mind, the history of the martyr-bishop, which also includes, more famously, St. Thomas Becket, the “meddlesome” Archbishop of Canterbury killed at the king’s behest.

St. John Paul II learned how not to be afraid — and to teach others not to be afraid — because he had learned it as a young man, a clandestine seminarian, from the heroic Cardinal Adam Sapieha, archbishop of Kraków during the Nazi occupation.

When the bombs began to fall on Kraków at the outset of the Second World War, some people thought that perhaps the archbishop should flee into exile before the Nazis took the city. 

“I stay,” Sapieha replied when asked, committing himself immediately to a role that Kraków’s archbishops had played for nearly nine centuries. 

“It had long been the tradition that the Cracovian bishop was the defensor civitatis — the ultimate defender of the city, its citizens, and their rights — in a line of episcopal heroism that ran back to the 11th century and the martyrdom of St. Stanisław by King Bolesław the Bold,” writes George Weigel, author of City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Kraków. “In the 20th century, that role had been brilliantly played by Cardinal Sapieha who defied Nazi gangster Hans Frank during the German Occupation of 1939-45.”

San Romero played that same role in San Salvador in the late 1970s. As the regime increasingly terrorized the ordinary people, and restricted their human rights, St. Oscar became their champion. He was not just a defensor Ecclesiae, a defender of the Church, but a true defensor civitatis or even defensor patriae, a defender of the country.

San Romero defended his people’s right to know the truth about what was happening in El Salvador. With the government controlling information and limiting freedom of speech and the press, the archbishop himself would take to the radio each night simply to tell the truth about what was going on. All across El Salvador people would gather around their radios, not only to hear their saintly archbishop preach the Sunday Mass, but to find out about the daily news that the government did not want them to know.

When St. John Paul visited El Salvador for the first time after Romero’s murder, it was suggested by both civil and Church advisors that visiting the tomb of the slain archbishop might be too controversial, for El Salvador was still in the grips of great military and civil conflict. But John Paul replied, “The pope has to go.” An archbishop had been assassinated at the altar for defending his people. The successor of Peter ought to visit; the successor of St. Stanisław in Kraków must visit.

San Romero did not get involved in politics as an opponent of the government, though it often accused him of doing just that. Rather he spoke boldly as a pastor defending his people, even as the bishops of Venezuela and Nicaragua are doing today. As the martyr-bishop is raised to the altars, his brother bishops in Latin America are facing similar choices to what he faced.

St. Stanisław and St. Thomas Becket are distant from us in time. Now we have San Romero, martyred in 1980, and St. John Paul II himself, who suffered an assassination attempt in 1981. In Rome this week, both figures take their place in a long line back to that martyr-bishop who shed his blood at the Vatican itself, St. Peter.

(Fr. de Souza is editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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