San Salvador: Thousands of Salvadorans marched Tuesday in memory of slain archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated 35 years ago during the country`s civil war and will be beatified in May.
An outspoken critic of social injustice, Romero was shot through the heart by a sniper while celebrating mass, a day after exhorting El Salvador`s soldiers to stop killing civilians.
The ensuing movement to make him a saint long divided both El Salvador and the Catholic Church.
It finally moved forward last month when Pope Francis, who has also sought to champion the poor, named him a martyr for the Church, clearing the way for his beatification on May 23 -- the step before sainthood.
Singing "he is the people`s saint," some 3,000 people marched through the streets of the capital San Salvador, paying tribute to Romero`s advocacy for the poor.
"Even before they killed him our Monsignor Romero was a saint. He was on our side, the poor people`s side. He suffered our pain," said Domitila Pena, a white-haired 79-year-old who marched with a cane in one hand, a palm frond bearing a cut-out of Romero in the other.It was a very different scene from Romero`s funeral in 1980, when soldiers opened fire as more than 100,000 mourners gathered at San Salvador cathedral, killing dozens.
Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran clerics held a mass in Romero`s memory at the same cathedral, where a capacity crowd chanted "long live our martyr, long live Saint Romero!"
The congregation included Salvadoran President Sanchez Ceren, whose Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) was founded as a leftist guerrilla army in the wake of Romero`s death and is now the governing party.
Romero`s murder, which occurred at the outset of the Salvadoran conflict, propelled the country deeper into a brutal war that raged until 1992, when the right-wing government signed a peace deal with the FMLN.
No one has ever been convicted of the 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.
Romero was gunned down while performing evening mass in the chapel of San Salvador`s Divine Providence hospital.
The day before, he had delivered a homily aimed at ordinary soldiers, urging them to halt the growing wave of atrocities committed by the army as it sought to stamp out the burgeoning leftist rebellion gripping the country.
"I beg you, I plead with you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression," he had said.
His murder had widespread impact across Latin America, a predominantly Catholic region where several far-right regimes were then fighting wars against Marxist guerrillas.The movement to make him a saint pulled at El Salvador`s fault lines, even after peace was restored, and outraged conservative Catholics who smelt a whiff of communism in his teachings.
Romero has been held up by some as a proponent of "liberation theology," a political movement rooted in Latin America that advocates working with the poor to bring about social change -- though he did not actually adhere to the theology.
Panamanian Cardinal Jose Luis Lacunza, who presided over the anniversary mass, said the Vatican "has spoken loud and clear" by declaring Romero a martyr.
"This decision by the Holy See must end, once and for all, the attempts to politically and ideologically manipulate Monsignor Romero`s figure and words," he said.
"I look at Monsignor Romero and I think, `There`s the paradigm in flesh and blood, the model of the pastor and the Church that Pope Francis is looking for."