By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, a champion of the poor who became a human rights icon in Latin America when he was killed by a right-wing death squad in 1980, will be made a Roman Catholic saint.
A statement on Wednesday said Pope Francis had given final approval to several sainthood causes, including Romero, and the late Pope Paul VI, who reigned from 1963 to 1978. Francis personally announced Pope Paul’s canonization last month.
Romero’s path to sainthood had stalled under two previous popes, reflecting concerns by some that he was overly political. It was revived by Francis who is also from Latin America and has made defense of the downtrodden a hallmark of his five-year pontificate.
Romero, who had often denounced repression and poverty in his homilies, was shot dead on March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel in the San Salvador, the capital of the impoverished Central American country of El Salvador.
“The long delay in recognizing the obvious fact that Romero was obviously a martyr was shameful,” said Father James Martin, an U.S. author of and editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America, adding that many saints had not been understood in their own times.
In a Tweet, Martin called the pope’s decision “an immense step forward for the Church.”
Romero’s murder was one of the most shocking of the long conflict between a series of U.S.-backed governments and leftist rebels in which thousands were killed by right-wing and military death squads.
The civil war claimed some 75,000 lives before it ended with a peace agreement in 1992.
No one was ever brought to justice for his killing but last year a Salvadoran judge reopened the case. The main suspect is a former soldier whose case was reopened after the country’s constitutional court repealed a previous amnesty.
Romero was beatified, or declared a “blessed” of the Church, in 2015 after a ruling that he was a martyr killed in hatred of the faith. That ceremony in San Salvador brought together former Marxist guerrillas and their former enemies.
Francis ruled that Romero could be declared a saint after a Vatican theological and medical commission approved a miracle attributed to him.
The Church teaches that only God performs miracles but that saints who are believed to be with God in heaven intercede on behalf of people who pray to them. A miracle is usually the medically inexplicable healing of a person.
No date was given for the sainthood ceremony, which is expected to take place this year, most likely at the Vatican.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)