After Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot to death as he said Mass, Danlio Macias’ family mourned as if one of its own had been killed.
“I see these photos,” Macias said, eyes red with tears as he visited the site of Romero’s assassination, now a small museum, “and all the trauma comes back.”
Romero was slain 35 years ago next month in a hospital chapel here in El Salvador’s capital by a sniper acting on the orders of right-wing forces that, with U.S. backing, would wage war against leftist guerrillas for more than a decade.
Pope Francis this week took the most significant step yet toward proclaiming Romero a saint. On Tuesday, he recognized the late archbishop of San Salvador, 62 at the time of his death, as a martyr, killed because of “hatred” for his Roman Catholic faith.
It had been a matter of dispute among more conservative factions of the church. Many of Romero’s foes argued he was killed for his politics, not his religion. In fact, Romero only slowly came to oppose the government, siding strongly with the poor and pronouncing shortly before he was killed that soldiers who were slaughtering civilians should not obey orders that go against their God.
Romero was actually the Vatican's conservative choice when he was named archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. Only with time, as he witnessed deadly treatment of the poor and abuse of those who spoke out, did he become more sympathetic to the left.
He never embraced liberation theology, the quasi-Marxist interpretation of the Gospel giving priority to the poor, but his advocacy on behalf of the downtrodden and increasingly critical attitude on his nation’s rich power brokers caused some — both in the Vatican and among the conservative Latin American church hierarchy — to put him in the liberation theology camp. That label derailed the campaign for his canonization for decades.
Pope Benedict XVI, a month before his resignation, removed the main hurdle that was blocking Romero’s cause by saying his candidacy should be considered. Enthusiastic support then came with the March 2013 ascension of Francis, an Argentine and the first pope from the Americas.
El Salvador welcomed the news that Romero’s beatification — the step before sainthood — was now only a matter of time. The Vatican will, somewhat unusually, hold the beatification ceremony in San Salvador. A date has not been set, but it is likely to take place within months.
“It is an overwhelming joy,” Gregorio Rosa Chavez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador and a disciple of Romero’s, said after Mass at the city’s Resurrection Church.
“A lot of us said, ‘We’re never going to see this happen,’” he said, noting the opposition to Romero’s sainthood from right-wing critics, many of whom ruled El Salvador until recently — and many of whom have since died. “Well today, we’re seeing it happen, bendito sea Dios [thank God].”
For many in El Salvador, and throughout Latin America, the Vatican’s action is but a formality. Romero is already regarded as saintly by his followers.
Omar Albanez, 50, is among them. He too was visiting the Divine Providence Hospital, where Romero lived his final years and where he was killed.
“For all the good things he did, for his allegiance to reality,” Romero is already a saint, Albanez said, accompanied by his wife and two children, whom he wanted to learn about the slain bishop. “You can’t deny he did a lot of good.... He paid attention to everyone, and if someone came to him for help, he tried to help them.”
Like hundreds of thousands of other Salvadorans, most of Albanez’s family fled to the United States during the civil war, which ended in 1992 after claiming 75,000 lives in a tiny nation of 5 million people. It was the slaying of Romero that many consider a turning point, driving the nation into war because of the callous brutality of the military and its civilian backers.
On Wednesday at the Vatican, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator, or sponsor, of Romero’s case, also seemed to delight in a hard-fought battle finally won.
“It is an extraordinary gift for all of the church at the beginning of this millennium to see rise to the altar a pastor who gave his life for his people,” Paglia said in a news conference.
“It is not without significance that his beatification will take place precisely when there is for the first time in history a Latin American pope who wants a ‘poor church, for the poor.’ It is a providential coincidence,” said Paglia, who is also president of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
Paglia praised Romero’s concern for the poor, recalling that his advocacy for fair salaries for coffee plantation workers led some in the Salvadoran oligarchy to accuse him of being a communist.
“Romero was not partisan, although to some he appeared that way,” Paglia said. “Rather, he was a pastor who sought the common good of all, starting, however, with the poor.... Romero understood increasingly clearly that being a pastor to all meant starting with the poor.”
Under the rules of the Catholic Church, for a person to be beatified, a miracle must be attributed to his or her intervention. A second miracle is necessary for the next step, sainthood. However, if a person is declared a martyr, the first miracle is forgone and the person can be beatified. A miracle is still necessary for the final elevation to sainthood.
Special correspondent Phillips reported from San Salvador and staff writer Wilkinson from Mexico City.