Pope Francis's declaration of Archbishop Oscar Romero as a martyr has been met with an outpouring of emotions in the slain priest's native El Salvador, where he is a revered figure and where wounds of a war that started soon after his 1980 assassination remain fresh.
"It is an overwhelming joy,” said Gregorio Rosa Chavez, a Romero disciple and auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, the Los Angeles Times reported. "A lot of us said, 'We’re never going to see this happen.'. . . Well today, we’re seeing it happen, bendito sea Dios [thank God]."
For many Salvadorans, the designation had been a long time coming. Francis made the declaration after years of theological questioning as to whether Romero died for his religion or for political reasons, as well as opposition among some in the church.
Romero's path to becoming an outspoken advocate of the poor ended with his 1980 assassination, ordered by right-wing officials. He had been celebrating Mass when a gunman shot him in the heart. His death became a pivotal point at the start of El Salvador's bloody 12-year civil war, which left about 75,000 people dead.
At the time, Romero was considered one of the most prominent Salvadorans to publicly criticize the country's military and government, as he denounced violence by extremists on the right and left.
But his career didn't begin that way; Romero, who studied in Rome and El Salvador, was ordained in 1942. Before he became San Salvador's archbishop in 1977, he was regarded as a conservative priest in a climate in which many Latin American nuns and priests were increasingly critical of governments' treatment of the poor, giving rise to a movement called liberation theology. The elite in many of these countries became wary of such clergy, whom they viewed as aligning with Marxism.
So Romero's ascent to archbishop of San Salvador was initially met with relief by the aristocracy and government, which thought he wouldn't buck the status quo.
Violence continued to spread in El Salvador. The Rev. Rutillo Grande, a Jesuit priest and friend of Romero, was killed in 1977 after he helped to organize Salvadoran peasants. This event, as well as Romero's time serving in the rural and poor region of Santiago de María, caused him to "experience a transformation of sorts," as the Associated Press described. He publicly rebuked his country's junta government, just as he had denounced violence by leftist fighters.
Romero's words were often broadcast via radio, and he built up a massive following.
In February 1980, Romero wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter, in which he described human rights abuses perpetuated by the military and asked the Carter administration to reconsider supporting the junta government in El Salvador.
"The contribution of your government instead of promoting greater justice and peace in El Salvador," Romero wrote, "will without doubt sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their most fundamental human rights."
His public denunciation of military violence against civilians put his life in danger: In the weeks before his assassination, he told reporters that he had been receiving death threats.
“These are nothing new for me, and there is nothing really I can do about it," he said, according to the AP. "When the church produces conflicts there will be threats. There is nothing more I can say."
He had been "offered security in the past because of the possibility of attempts on his life," AP reported. "He refused protection, saying, 'The shepherd does not want security for himself, but for his flock.'"
On March 23, 1980, Romero delivered a now-famous homily in which he urged soldiers to turn to their consciences and disregard orders to kill fellow Salvadorans.
"Brothers, you are all killing your fellow countrymen. No soldier has to obey an order to kill," he said. "It is time to regain your conscience. In the name of God and in the name of the suffering people I implore you, I beg you, I order you, stop the repression."
That sermon drew sharp rebuke from government officials, who said Romero was committing a crime in inciting rebellion. A day later, Romero uttered these words as he celebrated Mass at a hospital chapel, just moments before a gunman shot him through the heart:
"Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grain of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies. ... We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us."
He was 62. When news of Romero's death broke, about a thousand people flocked to the hospital where he was being treated, and thousands more rushed home, fearing an outbreak of violence, the Associated Press reported.
About 25,000 to 50,000 people turned out for Romero's funeral, where a bomb exploded and gunfire erupted. As The Washington Post's Christopher Dickey reported from San Salvador at the time, the "solemn funeral mass" soon "turned into a panic-driven hell" that left at least 40 people dead.
Romero's death marked a turning point in the country, with the violence soon turned into a full-blown civil war that killed thousands, many of them rural peasants.
A year after the war ended in 1992, a U.N.-sponsored commission concluded that former army Maj. Roberto D’Abuisson, who died of cancer in 1992, ordered Romero's death. But many in El Salvador suspect more powerful elements in society actually plotted Romero's assassination, the Los Angeles Times's Alex Renderos wrote.
Since the war, Romero's image has been embraced by those on the left throughout Latin America. In El Salvador, which had a right-wing government for decades following the war, Romero's death received no official commemoration. It wasn't until 2010, following the election of the country's first leftist president, that Romero received such recognition. As Renderos wrote:
About 1,000 people marched Wednesday from the hospital chapel where Romero was killed to this city's Roman Catholic cathedral, chanting a phrase that Romero made famous: "They can kill me, but they will never kill justice."
"I remember the monsignor as someone who always defended justice," said one of the participants, Sandra Delmy Platero, a dentist. "He used to say that he would be reborn in the people, and today he has been."
Romero is revered in much of El Salvador, and the wider Latin America and Catholic world. But he was despised by the wealthy, hard-line right, which felt threatened by his advocacy on behalf of the poor and painted him a Marxist.
"It’s almost an act of acclamation from the people who claimed him as a saint a long time ago,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican media spokesman. “Msgr. Romero’s tomb in El Salvador is a huge place of pilgrimage.”
But his legacy has been divisive for some, including among some in the Vatican who strongly oppose liberation theology, which prioritizes fighting social and economic oppression, particularly of the poor. Although Romero didn't advocate for liberation theology, he has been embraced as a symbolic figure by those on the left, and his legacy has been aligned with the movement. Romero's new designation may signal how the Vatican is warming to liberation theology under Francis.
The question also loomed as to whether he was killed for political reasons.
But Romero as a figure is so powerful in El Salvador, that some of Romero's former enemies have been quick to praise him; some have even called him a social activist, and promised to erect memorials in his name, AP reported.
Jorge Velado, head of country's right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, recently called Romero "a historical leader of the country, a leader for Catholics, because he was our guide and the head of our church."
Devotees of Romero have criticized such former enemies as "opportunists," AP noted.
Francis, the first pope from Latin American, declared that Romero was "killed in hatred of the faith." Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who spearheaded the effort for Romero to earn the designation, told reporters this week that Pope Benedict XVI actually helped remove obstacles in the sainthood case before he left the papacy.
“It’s clear that the figure of Romero required time, because for he who wasn’t in favor or who had robust prejudices against it had to be helped to understand that he was wrong,” Paglia told reporters, AP reported. “But, as we can see today, the truth has had its victory.”
In 2010, the U.N. General Assembly designated the anniversary of Romero's assassination as a day to honor Romero and others who dedicated and lost their lives in the pursuit of protecting human rights. Thus, March 24 is observed as International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.
In his 2014 message, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote about Romero: "Our commemorations defy the attempt by his murderers to silence his cries for justice and reinforce the importance of standing firm for fundamental freedoms."
Weeks before Romero's death, he told a reporter about how he had often been threatened with death.
"If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people," Romero said. "If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality."
Romero's beatification, the step that precedes sainthood, will take place in El Salvador later this year.