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Commentary » International

Is being Catholic a prerequisite for sainthood?

Perhaps the Church should cast a wider net

Is being Catholic a prerequisite for sainthood?
Fr William Grimm, Tokyo International

August 25, 2014

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On the return flight to Rome following his trip to Korea for Asia Youth Day, Pope Francis answered a journalist's question about the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated while celebrating Mass in El Salvador in 1980.

Though Salvadorans have revered the archbishop as a saint ever since his martyrdom, the cause for his canonization has been held up in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, not even getting to the department that handles canonizations.

Apparently, the reason for steering Romero's cause to a de facto dead end had to do with suspicions that he was in sympathy with leftists or that advancing his cause for sainthood would at least be perceived as supporting leftist causes.

With the anti-communist John Paul II and the intellectual Benedict XVI in charge, a bishop like Romero whose commitment to the poor put him in opposition to a right-wing government and who was more concerned with orthopraxis (right action) than with orthodoxy (right thinking) was bound to be marginalized.

But Francis has said, "Now the postulators have to move because there are no impediments." And so, Romero's case has been moved from the doctrinal congregation. And since, to paraphrase the show tune, whatever Papa wants Papa gets, we can expect that it won't be long before the Church's calendar includes St Oscar Romero. It would be about time, considering that the archbishop is already honored by the Anglican and part of the Lutheran Churches.

Romero's murderers, like those of St  Thomas Becket, were probably at least nominally Catholic, but felt that they had a higher duty to the political and economic arrangements of their society. They may have even thought that they were serving the Church by eliminating a bad bishop. We can only speculate on their motives because no one was ever arrested for the crime.

Certainly, Romero's murder was motivated by politics rather than by odium fidei (hatred of the faith). But then, most martyrdoms throughout history have had political, rather than religious, motives. Rome persecuted Christians because they would not worship the emperors. Japan's shoguns martyred them because Japanese Christians were considered fronts for colonializing European powers. The present persecution of Christians by Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists is a rare example of persecution of the faithful precisely because of their faith.

Romero is a saint, whether canonized or not, because of what he did on behalf of justice for the suffering poor of El Salvador. His deeds rather than his ideas are the guarantee of his holiness.

When Romero is sainted, it won't be the first time someone was canonized for being a martyr for virtue. Another example is the martyr St Maria Goretti, who was murdered not for her faith, but for resisting sexual assault, a situation that so many women face regardless of their faith.

If canonization need not be explicitly concerned with faith, that raises an interesting possibility. When the Church presents people as models for living, calling them saints, might it not go beyond the borders of the Catholic Church to find such men and women?

Certainly the Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been an inspiration to many. The writings of C. S. Lewis have brought many to faith. Martin Luther King was a faith-inspired nonviolent crusader for justice. Dag Hammarskjold, the UN secretary-general who died in a plane crash (possibly shot down) in 1961, was a mystic in the world of politics and peacemaking.

Declaring such non-Catholic Christians to be saints is not such a radical step as it might appear. After all, the Church already has saints who were not even Christians. Some, like Abraham, Moses and the prophets, are Old Testament figures. Others, like the Holy Innocents, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Anne, Joachim and Joseph died before there was a Church. We also have nonhuman saints: Gabriel, Michael and Raphael.

There have even been mythical saints like Christopher, who was only removed from the canon in 1970. I once lived in a town where the local Catholic Church was dedicated to a "saint" who was apparently a grammar mistake on a broken Roman inscription that turned into a legendary character. It is even possible that through the transmission of cultural legends and linguistic variation we have the Buddha on the list under the guise of St Josaphat.

All this brings up another possibility. Might we look more diligently and openly beyond the borders of Christianity to find men and women who in various ways were open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives and times? Might we officially declare them legitimate exemplars of lives responsive to grace, even if they did not recognize it themselves?

After all, a distinguishing characteristic of Catholic Christianity is our sacramental sense that God is at work through all creation, that in the words of the priest in The Diary of a Country Priest, "All is grace." God works through bread and wine, oil and water, words and gestures. God works as well through all God's daughters and sons. Our vocation is to see, point out and acclaim that work.

Recognizing how God has worked in Catholics, other Christians and people of other or no faith in the past might help us to better see how much and where the Spirit is at work in our time, in our lives.

Maryknoll Fr William Grimm is the publisher of

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