A papal envoy Saturday declared slain Archbishop Óscar Romero “blessed” in a ceremony that drew hundreds of thousands of people and moved the Catholic martyr one step closer to sainthood 35 years after a sniper’s bullet felled him at the altar.
Known as a champion of the poor and a voice for the voiceless, Romero was slain in 1980 at the outset of a civil war that lasted for a dozen years. His beatification had been blocked for three decades by conservatives in the church hierarchy until Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, ordered that it move forward.
As throngs stood under a hazy tropical sun, Francis’ representative, Cardinal Angelo Amato, speaking in Latin, read the decree of beatification, drawing a roar of approval.
As church bells pealed, robed seminarians hefted onto their shoulders a carriage containing a glass enclosure with the bloody shirt Romero was wearing the day of his assassination and paraded before six cardinals and some 100 bishops.
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Also attending the ceremony were the presidents of Panama and Ecuador and delegations from two dozen countries. Church estimates put the crowd size at well over 250,000.
The slain archbishop henceforth will be known as Blessed Óscar Romero, although some at the ceremony said they consider canonization inevitable.
“He’s a saint. Saint Romero. Let him perform miracles,” said Erminia Medrano Hernández as she stood in a crush near the open-air flower-bedecked stage.
The most widely known of the victims of Central America’s civil wars in the 1980s, Archbishop Romero was beloved by the poor but right-wing clerics and politicians derided him as a divisive radical. The civil war ended in El Salvador in 1992 but the tiny nation still has not found peace. It is gripped by debates about its past and by gang bloodshed that has taken an average of 20 lives a day this year.
It took the Vatican 35 years to recognize Romero as a martyr, reflecting decades of theological debate over the role of the church under repressive regimes and the sharp shifts that have occurred under Pope Francis, an Argentine prelate who assumed the papacy a little more than two years ago.
Pope Francis has purged conservative prelates, taken a more welcoming approach toward gays and unmarried couples and opened the doors to clerics, like Romero, once viewed by the Vatican as influenced by Marxism.
In a letter Saturday to the current archbishop of San Salvador, the pope called for “true national reconciliation” and said Romero distinguished himself for his concern for “the poor and the marginalized.”
President Barack Obama, in a statement, hailed the church’s new direction under Francis. “I am grateful to Pope Francis for his leadership in reminding us of our obligation to help those most in need, and for his decision to beatify Blessed Oscar Arnulfo Romero,” he said.
Romero, the second of seven children in a household that had neither electricity nor running water, finished seminary and was sent to Rome for further studies, returning as a parish priest.
Upon his elevation to archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, it was believed that he was a conservative who would not challenge the nation’s leaders.
But a month later, gunmen killed his friend and fellow priest, Rutilio Grande, and Romero became increasingly vocal over the failure of the U.S.-backed government to investigate violence, using the radio waves to air his sermons. He flayed death squads for targeting opponents of the ruling right-wing party.
Paid newspaper ads painted the prelate as dangerous.
“They accused him of being a communist, and that just offered a guarantee of impunity for those who wanted to kill him,” Rodolfo Cardenal, a Jesuit priest who runs the Msgr. Romero Center, which pays homage to the slain archbishop, told San Salvador’s Channel 33’s 8enpunto program Friday night.
In his final sermon on March 23, 1980, Archbishop Romero implored soldiers to lay down their weapons: “I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression.”
The next day, while Romero celebrated Mass in a chapel at Divine Providence Hospital, a sniper fired a single bullet through the open doors and shot Romero in the chest.
Six days later, as more than 100,000 mourners gathered for Romero’s funeral, an explosion triggered a stampede and gunfire. Dozens died, most of asphyxiation.
The events helped propel El Salvador into a civil war that took 75,000 lives.
Papal envoys said this year that Romero was slain in odium fidei, Latin for “in hatred of the faith.” In short, they said he was killed for practicing the teachings of Jesus, not for believing in Marx, as his critics suggested.
Romero had both political and ecclesiastical enemies, many of whom tried to link him to liberation theology, a radical movement that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s when much of Latin America was ruled by right-wing military dictatorships. It embraced some Marxist precepts to align clerics with the poor and downtrodden.
Before Romero’s death, “the Vatican received kilos of letters against him, accusing of playing politics, of being unbalanced, of being a communist,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, told reporters in early February.
Among those blocking canonization of Romero was a Colombian cardinal, Alfonso López Trujillo, who died in 2008. López Trujillo carried great weight in the Vatican on Latin American matters.
A petition to canonize Romero stalled at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints under the conservative papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis unblocked the petition in 2013 and declared in February that Romero was a martyr for the church. He indicated that Romero used Catholic social teaching as his reference points, not Marxism.
A final step toward sainthood for Romero would normally require proof of his intercession to achieve a miracle, but Pope Francis has previously put aside that requirement in order to approve sainthood for others.
After the war’s end in 1992, a U.N.-sponsored truth commission concluded that Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former army major, and godfather to the death squads, was the mastermind behind Romero’s assassination, although not a participant.
D’Aubuisson remained leader of powerful civilian and military cliques until his death in 1992. His legacy remains hotly debated. San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano renamed a city boulevard after D’Aubuisson in late 2014 before leaving office. City council members overturned the decision May 1.
“We don’t have justice yet. If we had it, we would have crucified those who killed him,” said Luis Aparicio, a retiree, at the ceremony.
El Salvador’s main warring gangs said last month that they would offer a truce in the run-up to the beatification ceremony, but violence has spiked. The past week has seen an average of one homicide an hour in El Salvador, until Friday, which tallied only four killings.
“The situation today is worse than it was when Monsignor Romero was alive,” Cardenal said.