Reform comes through suffering: The lessons of St. Romero and St. Paul VI

Saints Paul VI and Oscar Romero are two of seven new saints Pope Francis canonized Oct. 14 at the Vatican. They are pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/Equipo Maiz, courtesy CAFOD, Just One World)

On October 14, Pope Francis canonized seven new saints, among them Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero. These two men of reform experienced rejection, both from those inside and from those outside the Church. Yet these circumstances did not daunt their unflagging zeal for Christ, His Church, and souls.

St. Paul VI served as pope from 1963 to 1978. He continued the Second Vatican Council, begun by his predecessor Pope St. John XXIII, and implemented its reforms. He is perhaps best known for his encyclical Humanae Vitae, which, among other things, affirmed the Church’s teaching against the use of artificial contraception. In the wake of this encyclical, many, even in the Church, rebelled against the Pope and this teaching. Paul VI was a true prophet, both because the horrors he predicted as resulting from contraception have occurred in society, and because he was “not accepted in his own native place” (cf. Luke 4:24).

St. Oscar Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 until 1980, when he was martyred while saying Mass. He had a particular concern for the poor and spoke out against social injustice. His desire for reform ultimately resulted in his death. He literally gave his life for Christ and his flock.

Today, as we experience our own crisis in the Church, many of us surely feel the need for reform. But what would this reform look like? What difference can an ordinary person in the pews make?

Twentieth-century French author Georges Bernanos once wrote, “The only way of reforming the Church is to suffer for her … The only way of reforming the vices of the Church is to lavish on her the example of one’s own most heroic virtues.” This is the answer; this is what we can give for our Church. Every little suffering, every little inconvenience and annoyance can be offered to our God in reparation for our own sins and those of her other members, as a plea for His purifying and healing grace. We can bring about the reform we want to see in the Church by allowing the Lord to transform our own lives into ones of heroic virtues – in other words, to transform us into saints.

St. Paul VI and St. Oscar Romero understood this. The reform they sought to bring involved much suffering. They lived a deep friendship with the Lord and a life of daily virtue. They knew that, for change to occur, Jesus Christ must be at the center – of their own lives and then of those they served. Their heroic steadfastness in the face of rejection and persecution led them to be saints, raised to the altar, and won many graces for the suffering Church on earth. 

May we imitate their willingness to live, suffer, and die joyfully for love of Christ and of His Bride, the Church. 

Sr. Mary Martha Becnel, OP, is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.