Francis ended years of debate when he declared Romero, a pivotal figure in the Roman Catholic Church's struggle with conservative and progressive forces, a martyr. Doing so cleared the way for Romero's beatification — the step before sainthood — which took place in El Salvador on Saturday.
Romero's advocacy for the poor in especially violent, difficult times of war and repression fell squarely in line with Francis' emphasis on "a poor church for the poor," a theme that he inaugurated in the first days after his election to the papacy in March 2013 as the first pontiff from the Americas.
A forceful and often solitary voice for those killed, kidnapped and tortured in an El Salvador sliding into civil war, Romero established a record that enabled Francis to sweep aside claims by some that the Salvadoran archbishop's work was more political than pastoral and tainted with leftist leanings. Romero was slain by a right-wing death squad as he said Mass 35 years ago.
"Romero is an icon of the church that Francis is seeking to build," said Elisabetta Pique, an expert on the papacy and author of "Pope Francis: Life and Revolution." It is a church "with pastors that are close to the people and especially to the marginalized and those who suffer most. The beatification is another clear sign of the direction of his papacy."
An earlier signal from the pope about the direction he wanted to take the church came in his little-noticed meeting with the Peruvian founder of Liberation Theology, a philosophy that was soundly out of favor with
Father Gustavo Gutierrez and his supporters were shunned and punished for decades by the Vatican and church hierarchy, which did its best to replace progressive bishops with those from ultraconservative groups such as Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ. An invitation for him to meet with Francis about six months after the pope's ascension, not announced and only later confirmed by the Vatican, was a remarkable shift in attitude, and, in the view of many, a vindication for Liberation Theology.
Francis "is saying things I've wanted my church to say for a long time," said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a Catholic who attended the Romero beatification. As a congressional staffer in the 1980s, he became something of an expert on El Salvador and witnessed the myriad attempts by church conservatives, and the U.S. government, to vilify Romero and the left.
"I am hoping this is not just a moment in history but will last and that you are going to see a more vibrant church, more outspoken on behalf of the poor, and governments that will address poverty," McGovern said. "Francis has made all this possible."
The United States under the Reagan administration continued to back the right-wing Salvadoran government as a bulwark against communism, even as Romero, other priests, American nuns, labor organizers and thousands more were killed.
In 1978, two years before Romero's death, a Polish bishop became pope. John Paul II was guided organically by his fight against, and suffering under, communism. Some observers say that made him tone-deaf to fights against rightists who painted the enemy as Marxist. Romero recalled in his diary his thwarted efforts to make John Paul understand the persecution of his church by a brutal right-wing regime.
The shift under Francis, telegraphed in his first days as pope, has been noticeable: his decision to wash the feet of the poor and a Muslim during Easter week; his statement that he would not "judge" homosexuals; his current focus on climate change as a scourge threatening the planet; his affable humility, including his refusal to take on papal trappings of luxury.
Although his predecessor, Benedict XVI, is the one who formally reopened the Romero case for sainthood, he was a dogmatic conservative more interested in a pure, if smaller, Catholic Church. Francis, by contrast, is the epitome of inclusiveness.
This evolution unnerves conservative forces within the Catholic Church, including in the United States, where he will visit in September, but perhaps no more visibly than in San Salvador, the capital, the day after the beatification at Sunday Mass.
At the Divine Providence chapel where Romero was slain, worshipers, many wearing "St. Romero" T-shirts, filled the pews; a reverential portrait of "Monsignor" graced the altar along with a burst of brilliant flowers.
But up the skirts of the hills surrounding the city, to the wealthiest suburbs, the story was different, more formal, more solemn. Only one or two small Romero posters decorated those large and overflowing Catholic sanctuaries.
At the Immaculate Conception church in the suburb of Santa Tecla, the Mass was officially dedicated to Romero, but the sermon was about materialism and abortion, how a woman, thinking her body is her own, can kill a baby inside her as easily as removing a thorn from a foot.
At the Monte Elena Catholic Church, where Romero T-shirts gave way to Carolina Herrera designer bags, and nannies and bodyguards populated the gardens, a huge portrait of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva, fast-tracked to sainthood by John Paul in 2002, took prominent position near the altar. A tiny poster of Romero, advocating conversion and reconciliation, not the slain archbishop's usual themes, was on a back wall.
Lorena Duque de Rodriguez, congregant at Monte Elena and vice rector at a local university, said the beatification of Romero, which she supported, had been politicized by both sides.
"It is an uncomfortable theme, people hate to touch it," said Duque, who, like so many Salvadorans, counts much of her family in the Los Angeles area. "People say, 'Let's not talk about it. That's a political subject.'"
A United Nations Truth Commission, after the end of El Salvador's civil war in 1992, determined that Romero was killed on the orders of army Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, who founded both the death squads that terrorized the country and the Arena political party that ruled for two decades until 2009. D'Aubuisson and his closest collaborators, in turn, have said they were acting on orders from the richest Salvadoran landowners and coffee tycoons, whose economic status quo was threatened by Romero's support for the poor.
D'Aubuisson's sister, Marisa, split from the family decades ago and was always a staunch supporter of Romero, inspired, she said in an interview, by the scenes of poverty and desperation she saw in El Salvador.
"It was a blessing that Pope Francis arrived, a Latin American who had lived under the repression of Argentina and understood the context of El Salvador," Marisa D'Aubuisson de Martinez said. "That was very different from John Paul II, whose suffering under communism prevented him from understanding what was happening here. He did not understand our reality."
Pope Francis' new direction has irritated some of the more conservative members of the church, especially in the U.S., but other Vatican observers warn it would be a mistake to cast Francis as a left-winger, noting his shift also has a lot to do with changing history.
"The further we got from the Cold War, the better Romero looked," said Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit — like Francis — who analyzes Vatican affairs for the National Catholic Reporter. "Nevertheless, the beatification does mark a big change in the church's orientation and is a symbolic moment in Francis' papacy."
Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from San Salvador and special correspondent Kington from Vatican City.