In a Saturday ceremony believed to mark the largest religious gathering in the history of Central America, the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed in 1980 for defending the poor and victims of human rights abuses in El Salvador, was declared a “blessed” of the Catholic Church.
Beatification is the final stage before sainthood. Romero was beatified as a martyr, meaning someone who died giving witness to the Catholic faith, following a decree recognizing him as martyr issued by Pope Francis last February.
The crowd gathered in a downtown San Salvador plaza for the beatification Mass was estimated to be at least 300,000, including scores of pilgrims from outside the country. The crowd included roughly 300 bishops from around the world and nine heads of state, all from Latin America.
“The memory of Romero is still alive and giving comfort to the poor and marginalized,” said Italian Cardinal Angelo Amato, head of the Vatican department for sainthood causes, who celebrated the beatification Mass.
“He was the light of the world and the salt of the earth,” Amato said. “His persecutors have disappeared and been forgotten, but Romero continues to shine a light over the poor and marginalized of the earth.”
Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, sent a personal message to the beatification ceremony.
“In times of difficult coexistence, Romero knew how to lead, defend, and protect his flock,” the pope wrote.
“We thank God because he gave this bishop and martyr the ability to see and hear the suffering of his people,” Francis said. “When it is fully understood, faith in Jesus Christ generates communities of workers of peace and solidarity.”
Amato read the pope’s letter aloud at the beginning of the Vatican ceremony.
US President Barack Obama issued a statement on the beatification, saying he was “grateful to Pope Francis for his leadership in reminding us of our obligation to help those most in need, and for his decision to beatify Blessed Oscar Arnulfo [Romero].”
“Let us hope that Archbishop Romero’s vision can inspire all of us to respect the dignity of all human beings, and to work for justice and peace in our hemisphere and beyond,” Obama said.
Named the archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, Romero quickly became the country’s most outspoken opponent of a U.S.-backed right-wing government with strong ties to the military.
Romero’s final public act, the day before his death, was to beg, even order, soldiers and security forces not to fire upon civilians protesting government policies. The next day, he was shot through the heart while saying Mass in a small chapel on the grounds of a Catholic hospital, which also contained the modest house where he lived.
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