When Mark Twain was asked about heaven and hell, he said: “I prefer heaven for the climate, and hell for the company!” I’m not sure what you prefer, and why. Personally, I’d choose heaven both, for its climate and company. On Sunday, Pope Francis raised two more saints — Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero — to the heavenly company.
Nowadays, when bishops, pastors and godmen are accused of sexual aberrations or financial scams, the media delights in stripping them bare. Not to be outdone, the public announce and renounce their sins in sordid detail, often adding masala. But, unbeknownst to us, there are wonderful folks who live saintly lives, sacrificing everything to serve God and others. Saints Paul VI and Oscar Romero can be numbered among those.
I have vague childhood memories of Pope Paul VI visiting Mumbai in 1964 — the first ever by a pope. He said: “India is the cradle of great religions, the home of a nation that has sought God with a relentless desire, in deep meditation, silence and prayer. Rarely has this longing for God been expressed with words so full of the spirit many centuries before Christ: ‘From the unreal lead me to the real; from darkness lead me to light; from death lead me to immortality’. This prayer belongs to all times; it should rise from every human heart.” Paul tirelessly strove for dialogue among religions and disciplines.
While that white papal figure remains etched in childhood memory, a black-robed archbishop, Oscar Romero, fascinated me, later. Championing the cause of poor peasants forced to work under inhuman, unjust conditions by repressive regimes, he was accused of being a violent Marxist. He said: “I never preach violence, except the violence of love, which left Jesus nailed to a Cross — the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness.”
Romero renounced the love of power and unleashed the power of love. He preached: “I cry out against injustice, but only to say to the unjust: Be converted!” Of himself he said: “I am God’s microphone.” His prophetic words were seen as a threat to the unjustly rich and powerful who had him murdered on March 24, 1980. Fittingly, the UN declared his martyrdom-day as “International Day for the Right to the Truth of Victims of Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims”.
In 2007, when a priest asked then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now, Pope Francis — his opinion about Romero, he said: “To me, Romero is a saint and a martyr… If I were pope, I would have already canonised him.” He did that yesterday.
Climatic conditions apart, wouldn’t you want to get to heaven to relish such company?...