Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero, gunned down in 1980, is beatified in a ceremony attended by hundreds of thousands of people. (Reuters)

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to convene in a central plaza here Saturday to celebrate the beatification of Archbishop Óscar Romero, 35 years after he was shot in the heart while celebrating Mass.

Romero, a towering and polarizing figure in Salvadoran history, was chosen by Pope Francis this year to be beatified, the last step before sainthood. It is the first time a Salvadoran has received this religious honor. After years in which the process was stalled, Francis’s decision was a “surprise and a thrill for everyone,” said Simeon Reyes, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in El Salvador.

But not quite everyone. Within the church, even among the hierarchy in El Salvador, some conservatives have opposed Romero’s bid for sainthood, seeing him as a symbol for the Latin American left and the Salvadoran guerrillas who fought the U.S.-backed military in the 1980s.

For a politically divided country still struggling with high rates of violence, Romero’s ceremony has revived memories of the Cold War era and a 12-year civil war that left tens of thousands in this impoverished Central American country dead.

“There was so much controversy because there were always priests who were not in agreement with him,” said Gaspar Romero, the slain archbishop’s brother. “But the Vatican has recognized him as a saintly man, a man of faith, a man who spoke for the neediest, defending the poor from injustices, and who was killed for it.”

Demonstrators hold pictures of people who disappeared during the country's internal armed conflict in San Salvador. The demonstrators demanded that the murder case of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero be reopened. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

Romero’s legacy has been debated since his death in 1980. Known as a conservative prelate for most of his career, he became archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 and evolved into an unabashed advocate for the poor and a fierce critic of the government.

His opponents viewed him as a subversive and a revolutionary. Amid the debate, Romero’s case for sainthood became bogged down in church politics.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who guided Romero’s beatification cause through the process, said this year that Salvadoran church representatives lobbied the Vatican to not approve Ro­mero. Over the years, the archbishop’s opponents argued that he was too politically controversial and a follower of “liberation theology,” a movement within the church focused on fighting injustice and inequality.

“The mountain of paper, unfortunately, weighed down” his case, Paglia was quoted as saying.

Romero was famous in El Salvador for his radio sermons, in which he catalogued killings and disappearances attributed to the military government. He also wrote to President Jimmy Carter asking him to halt military aid to the Salvadoran government. The day before the archbishop died, he called on soldiers to disobey orders and cease their abuse of the population.

The violence Romero encountered, including killings of fellow priests, “radicalized Romero and made him aware that the repression had no limits, that they would attack anyone equally, including the church,” said Jose Jorge Siman, a friend for many years.

Siman remembered how Romero once kept a senior U.S. official waiting while he spoke with a peasant. “The priority was the poor people,” he said.

Busts of late archbishop of San Salvador Óscar Arnulfo Romero are sold by street vendors at El Salvador del Mundo Square before his beatification ceremony in San Salvador, May 22, 2015. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

Romero’s death was a watershed moment in El Salvador, a slaying that helped propel the country into civil war. He was shot March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in a church at a hospice for cancer patients, where he lived. A “truth commission” set up after the war concluded that former army Maj. Roberto d’Aubuisson, a suspected leader of a right-wing death squad, ordered the killing, but he denied involvement and was not tried. He was the founder of the conservative ARENA party, which governed El Salvador until 2009 and now is in opposition.

“His death, for a whole generation of Christians in Latin America, was a demonstration of the high degree of barbarity of the military dictatorships,” said Bernardo Barranco, president of the Center of Religious Studies, an institute in Mexico City, who met Romero the year before he was killed. “Some categorize him as a subversive, but he wasn’t a revolutionary. He didn’t have an agenda for the country, including socialism — his only demand was to protect the people.”

After Romero’s death, his message was taken up by both Catholic parishioners and left-wing opponents of the military regime.

“He was seen by many bishops as giving cover to a Marxist infiltration of the church,” said Matthew Whelan, a Duke University doctoral student researching a dissertation on Romero at the church’s archives in San Salvador. “There’s a sector of the church that’s very supportive and a sector that’s much more cautious. What they don’t like is how Romero was taken up by the left. They don’t like that conflation.”

The decision to beatify Romero suggests that the pope, an Argentine well-acquainted with military repression in his home country during the “dirty war” of the 1970s and ’80s, found Romero’s saintly cause compelling regardless of the concerns of his political opponents. But the progress of the case also signifies that the Cold War wounds are gradually healing. Today, a former Marxist guerrilla commander, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, is president of El Salvador.

“The Vatican froze the cause of Romero, but now, with the presence of Pope Francis, a sensible Latino who knows the history of Latin America, the process has been revived,” Barranco said. “It’s an acknowledgment of a figure of the church who has been denied for decades.”

Martinez reported from Mexico City.

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