Pope Francis has cleared the way for Archbishop Oscar Romero, an advocate for the poor who was slain in 1980 by right-wing death squads in El Salvador, to become a saint, the Vatican announced Wednesday.
The Vatican said Wednesday that Francis considered Romero a model for the Roman Catholic Church and had approved a miracle attributed to the archbishop – a requisite for canonization. It said Francis had also approved a miracle for Pope Paul VI, which means he, too, can be elevated to sainthood.
The news comes after years of efforts by church conservatives to block Romero's canonization because they opposed his leftist political views. It was celebrated in El Salvador, where the gulf between the rich and the poor remains as wide as ever, and where Romero's unflinching advocacy for the downtrodden still resonates with the masses.
Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez, a close associate of Romero, called the news "a gift for the country and a promise that we can find a way out of so much violence, out of so much suffering."
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President Salvador Sanchez Ceren tweeted that Francis' decision "fills us with immense joy."
Many people in El Salvador already consider Romero a saint. About 250,000 Salvadorans turned out for his beatification ceremonies in 2015, with some donning T-shirts declaring him "Saint Romero."
Born in a rural corner of El Salvador, the priest began his career in the church as a relative conservative. But years of seeing how El Salvador's poor were mistreated by a handful of rich oligarchs turned him against the elite.
He was killed – with a bullet through the heart while saying Mass in a hospital chapel in 1980 – just as El Salvador's civil war was heating up, pitting leftist rebels against a right-wing military dictatorship backed by the United States.
Romero, who spoke out against the military's harsh tactics in his homilies and radio broadcasts, angered the military by writing to President Jimmy Carter to ask that the U.S. stop military aid to El Salvador. Shortly before his death, Romero delivered a sermon begging army soldiers to not obey orders to kill civilians.
At his funeral, the army opened fire, killing dozens of mourners. That incident and his death were seen as key events at the start of the 12-year civil war, in which 75,000 people were killed and thousands disappeared.
Conservatives within the church long blocked efforts to name Romero a saint, arguing he was slain for his politics, not his religion. They disliked Romero's embrace of liberation theology, a church movement that argued that while clergy should care for the poor, they should also push for political changes to end poverty, with some priests even supporting armed struggles.
Francis, a Jesuit from Argentina who became pope in 2013, has made Romero's ascension a priority. He cleared the way for him to be beatified in 2015 and now for canonization, the last step to sainthood.
Normally, candidates for sainthood have to be attached to two miracles. In Romero's case, however, he is declared a martyr – killed for his faith – which means only one miracle had to be attributed to him.
The miracle that cleared the way for Romero's sainthood concerned the medically inexplicable cure of a pregnant, terminally ill Salvadoran woman who was "condemned to death" by illness but lived, and gave birth to a healthy child, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, a Vatican official, told the Associated Press.
The woman's husband first began praying to Romero in May 2015 when the priest was beatified in San Salvador, Paglia said. By late August or early September, the woman's condition had worsened, and her doctors delivered the child fearing that he too would die.
"They did the caesarean and were waiting for her to die," because all the tests indicated she wouldn't survive. Paglia didn't specify the illness. Her friends started praying to Romero "and after five days, in an inexplicable way, this woman begins to improve and was completely healed."
Paglia said he hoped Romero and Pope Paul VI would be declared saints together in October, saying a joint canonization would give Catholics a "burst" of energy and example of the need to live one's life for others.
"I'm in a hurry because there's an urgent need to change the world," Paglia told AP. "It has been a long, tortuous journey, full of obstacles and opposition," he said. "But it has finally reached its conclusion."
Father Tom Reese, an analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, said Wednesday's announcement "shows first and foremost that Pope Francis really liked and admired Oscar Romero."
"To Francis, he was a bishop who cared for the poor and marginalized and was prepared to lay down his life for them," Reese said. "That is the kind of bishop Francis wants, that is the model, and that is his message for bishops in Latin America."
James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, said the Romero announcement signals the church is moving away from past conflicts.
"The canonization of Oscar Romero is an immense step forward for the church, and a great wrong finally righted," he tweeted. "Archbishop Romero, gunned down at the altar while saying Mass, after his prophetic defense of God's poor in El Salvador, was clearly, and always, a martyr and a saint."
For Salvadoran churchgoer Josefa Trejos, the news of Romero's pending canonization only confirmed what she had long believed.
"The pope is giving us a blessing with this news, but St. Romero is already on the altars," she told AP. "He is already miraculous and a saint."
(Linthicum of the Los Angeles Times and Wilkinson of the Tribune Washington Bureau reported from Mexico City and Washington, respectively, and special correspondent Kington from Rome.)