VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will canonize two of the most important and contested figures of the 20th-century Catholic Church, declaring Pope Paul VI and the martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero as models of saintliness for the faithful today.

Sunday’s ceremony is likely to be emotional for Francis, since he was greatly influenced by both men and privately told confidantes he wanted them made saints during his papacy. The two represent the epitome of the outward-looking church that Francis has championed, one that is close to the poor and fights injustice.

Paul VI and Romero also endured strong opposition from within the church in life and after death – a fate Francis is experiencing now amid the church’s burgeoning sex abuse and cover-up scandal.

These two towering figures will be canonized along with five others in a ceremony designed to show that holiness can be attained in all walks of life.


When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio delivered the 2013 stump speech to cardinals that got him elected Pope Francis, he made only one citation in the text: Pope Paul VI.

When later that year Francis issued the mission statement of his papacy, he based it largely on a 1975 text by Paul on evangelization, which Francis once called “the greatest pastoral document” of the modern church.

“It’s understood that Paul VI is his pope,” said Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

Paul is perhaps best known for having presided over the final sessions of Vatican II, the tumultuous 1962-65 church meetings that modernized the Catholic Church and opened it up to the world, allowing liturgy to be celebrated in the vernacular rather than in Latin and calling for greater roles for the laity and improved relations with people of other faiths.

Paul set foot on each of the five continents, but two of his trips stand out most: In 1964, he traveled to the Holy Land and met with the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, a first since the schism that divided Christianity 1,000 years earlier.

A year later, Paul traveled to the United Nations, where he delivered the now-famous plea for peace as the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam escalated: “Never again war! Never again war!”

But it was Paul’s 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” that marked his papacy, reaffirming the church’s opposition to artificial contraception.

Issued in an era of the contraceptive pill, the 1960s’ sexual revolution and alarm about overpopulation, the stark prohibition empowered conservatives but drove progressives away.

Even today, the document remains one of the most contested and ignored of papal encyclicals, with studies showing that most Catholics disregard it and use artificial contraception.

“It’s a text that isn’t rooted in reality, where life is absent and above all women are absent,” Monique Baujard, former head of family services at the French bishops’ conference, wrote last month in a Vatican’s women’s magazine.


Francis also longed to declare Archbishop Oscar Romero a saint, convinced that he was a true martyr who willingly gave up his life to stand with El Salvador’s poor and denounce the violence of the military dictatorship.

Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, was gunned down by right-wing death squads as he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980, in a hospital chapel. The military had vehemently opposed his preaching against the army’s repression at the start of the country’s 1980-1992 civil war.

Almost immediately after his death, Romero became an icon of the South American left, with his image frequently appearing alongside the likes of Che Guevara and Salvadore Allende.

But that politicized fame cost Romero dearly as his saint-making cause wound its way through the Vatican.

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