Today is Pentecost Sunday. Catholics consider it the Birthday of the Church. Yesterday (Pentecost's vigil) also marked the beatification of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was martyred in 1980. The beatification ceremony (the final step before canonization) took place in El Salvador on Saturday.
The coincidence of the two anniversaries is far more significant than most Catholics realize. Both are about the possibility of radical change even at advanced age. The 2000 year old Catholic Church can change its theology. Individuals even in the twilight of life can reverse course.
Consider the radical personal change experienced by Oscar Romero. For all but the last three years of his life, the archbishop was a rigid conservative. Politically, he sided with El Salvador's 1% in their war against the impoverished majority. He considered rebels against the wealthy minority to be communists. And communists, he knew, were godless subversives.
Religiously, Romero understood his faith to be about rejecting communism and going to heaven.
But Archbishop Romero had this friend. His name was Rutilio Grande. He was a Jesuit priest who understood his faith in terms of standing in solidarity with the poor in their demands for social justice. Jesus, he believed, had a similar understanding.
Grande's assassination by the U.S.-supported Salvadoran military radicalized Oscar Romero. Soon he was denouncing the government and the military. He vainly implored President Jimmy Carter to stop supporting El Salvador's genocidal military. His pleading fell on deaf ears.
To silence the archbishop, an assassin gunned him down at the altar in a crime intellectually authored by agents of U.S. policy in Central America.
The archbishop's life is a testimony to the human ability to profoundly change course, even at an advanced age.
Similarly, Pope Francis' unblocking of Archbishop Romero's canonization process indicates the ability of an arch-conservative institution like the Roman Catholic Church to reform at a deep theological level.
You see, during the three years of his episcopate, Archbishop Romero was not only opposed by his own government and by the United States. He was also rejected by Rome.
According to Maria Lopez Vigil, author of Monsignor Romero: Memories in Mosaic, Pope John Paul II humiliated Monsignor Romero when the archbishop came to Rome with "mountains of documents" detailing the sufferings of the poor in his country.
After forcing the archbishop to wait hours for his scheduled meeting, the pope told him that he didn't have time to read all that material.
Monsignor Romero then tried to show him a photo of one of his parish priests butchered by the Salvadoran military. "But wasn't he a guerrilla?" was the pope's response.
John Paul II went on to explain how important it was for the church in El Salvador to cooperate as much as possible with the government there.
"But that's impossible, Holy Father" the archbishop humbly responded. "The government is massacring my people."