San Salvador: Thousands gathered in San Salvador Saturday to celebrate the beatification of Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, a divisive figure whose defense of the poor and repressed split both his nation and the Church.
Waving flags and decked out in t-shirts printed with Romero`s face, jubilant crowds gathered for the ceremony, set to begin at 10:00 am (1600 GMT).
"Long live Monsignor Romero, the saint of America!" some chanted, as vendors sold posters inscribed with Romero quotes.
Officials expect 285,000 worshipers to attend the ceremony on San Salvador`s main square, where Pope Francis`s envoy for the occasion, Cardinal Angelo Amato, will confer the title of "blessed" on Romero, putting him one step from sainthood.
Four presidents, six cardinals and more than 100 bishops and archbishops are also expected to pay tribute to the man nicknamed the "Voice of the Voiceless," who was shot through the heart by a sniper on March 24, 1980 while delivering mass in a hospital chapel.
For some, Romero`s beatification secures his place in history.
"We all feel indescribable joy for his beatification. We never met Monsignor Romero in life, but our parents have told us about him and his legacy," said 21-year-old Carmen Ayala.
Others were there to celebrate his core principle of defending the needy.
"Today we glorify the bishop who championed the poor and whose truth prevailed over lies," said Juan Flores, wearing a Romero shirt.
US President Barack Obama welcomed Romero`s beatification, calling him an inspiration and a martyr.
"He was a wise pastor and a courageous man who persevered in the face of opposition from extremes on both sides," Obama said in a statement.
"He fearlessly confronted the evils he saw, guided by the needs of his beloved pueblo, the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador."On Friday, thousands joined a rain-soaked procession, walking two kilometers (1.2 miles) to the crypt in San Salvador`s cathedral where Romero`s remains lie.
For some, visiting the tomb was one way to honor the assassinated archbishop.
"Romero was a legend when I was born, and all my life I`ve heard of him. I learned to admire and love him from my parents, who identified with his defense of the poor," Canadian Christie McNeil, 28, told AFP.
"I could not miss this," she said, before descending to Romero`s crypt.
Security was tight at Saturday`s gathering, with helicopters and military airplanes hovering over the proceeding.
The movement to make Romero a saint was long resisted by conservative Catholics and the Salvadoran right, who saw veiled Marxism in his sermons eulogizing the poor and radio broadcasts condemning government repression.
The petition languished for years at the Vatican`s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, finally moving forward in February when Pope Francis named Romero a martyr for the Church, one of the paths to sainthood.
Though Romero remains controversial in El Salvador, criticism is more muted than in the past.
Even El Salvador`s right-wing Arena party showed its support for the archbishop in a Saturday newspaper advertisement.
"We join the celebration of the Catholic Church in the beatification of Archbishop Romero and share his message of reconciliation," the ad read.
But not everyone at Saturday`s gathering joined the praise.
"Outside of El Salvador, he has the image of a saint, but here he is known as a figure who sowed division among Salvadorans," said 28-year-old businessman Alberto Mojica.
Romero`s assassination occurred at the outset of El Salvador`s civil war, and propelled the country deeper into a brutal conflict that raged until 1992, when the right-wing government signed a peace deal with the leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
No one was ever convicted of Romero`s killing, but a UN-sponsored truth commission concluded it was carried out by a right-wing death squad under the orders of Roberto D`Aubuisson, a former army officer who died the year the war ended.