Pope Francis honors martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador

Oscar Romero: A life dedicated to helping the poor

He could not be silenced

In his sermons, Romero, who was beatified in 2015, repeatedly condemned security forces' attacks on El Salvador’s civilian population. He was murdered by a gunman on March 24, 1980, while holding mass. His death marked the beginning of El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992).

Oscar Romero: A life dedicated to helping the poor

Even Obama knelt before him

In El Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero is revered as a national hero and advocate of peace and justice. In 2011, then US President Barack Obama knelt before the grave of the "Bishop of the Poor." The UN declared March 24, the date of Romero’s assassination, "International Day for the Right to the Truth ."

Oscar Romero: A life dedicated to helping the poor

Long a 'communist' to the Vatican

After the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States at the end of 2014, Pope Francis set an example of reconciliation by declaring that Romero was no longer regarded as a "revolutionary" or "communist," but as a defender of human rights. "Someone who defends the poor with his life is also a saint," liberation theologian Leonardo Boff told DW.

Oscar Romero: A life dedicated to helping the poor

70,000 victims

A UN commission named Roberto D'Aubuisson, founder of El Salvador’s right-wing conservative party ARENA, as the mastermind behind Romero’s murder. However, an amnesty law passed in 1993 prevented him from being tried even posthumously for the crime. Romero is counted as one of the more than 70,000 victims of the Salvadoran civil war.

Oscar Romero: A life dedicated to helping the poor

Continued relevance

According to the Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa, "something strange is happening" with Oscar Romero. "The more time passes, the more people are enthusiastic about him, follow him, love him, are moved by his story, by his person." Romero is already considered a "saint of America" throughout Central America.

Oscar Romero: A life dedicated to helping the poor

Lasting imprint in Germany

Romero has left his traces even in Germany and inspired the foundation of organizations such as the Christian Initiative Romero (CIR). "He is an example of solidarity with the poor. His legacy is to give them a voice and to support the demands of countries of the south," CIR’s Anne Nibbenhagen told DW.

Oscar Romero: A life dedicated to helping the poor

En route to Rome

About 7,000 Salvadorans traveled to Rome to witness Oscar Romero’s canonization. Already beatified, Romero was to be canonized together with Pope Paul VI and German nun Maria Katharina Kasper and three others.

Oscar Romero: A life dedicated to helping the poor

Driving force for canonization

"My greetings and my blessing to the young people who have gathered for Monsignor Romero’s canonization," Pope Francis declared. And, addressed to Romero: "Please do not forget to pray for me." In his own way, Francis was pointing to the great difficulties behind achieving Romero#s canonization, which was long opposed at the highest ranks of the Church.

Two of the most contentious Roman Catholic figures of the 20th century have been made saints. Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI were among six religious figures canonized in a Vatican ceremony.

After years of stagnant discussion over honoring martyred bishop Oscar Romero in the Catholic Church, things suddenly moved very quickly.

The urgency began when Argentina's Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013. Two years later, he beatified Archbishop Romero, who was gunned down in El Salvador in 1980.

On Sunday, Romero was one of six to be canonized as a saint in a ceremony led by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square. 

Tens of thousands of people gathered in St Peter’s Square on Sunday as Pope Francis declared the two men saints, with others who were born in Italy, Germany and Spain in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

A photograph of Oscar Romero is carried during a ceremony in El Salvador

Romero: a national hero

Romero has been considered a national hero and a champion of peace and human rights in his native El Salvador for years.

His grave in the Cathedral of San Salvador is a place of pilgrimage for many Latin Americans.

When Romero's canonization was announced, El Salvador's president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, was clear about the significance of the moment: "Latin America finally has a saint! May his example help bring change to our country."

A role model for Obama

Romero, who stood up for the rights of El Salvador's poorest citizens and against the violence of his country's military dictatorship, is also a respected figure internationally. In 2011, United States President Barack Obama knelt before the grave of the "bishop of the poor." The United Nations also honored him with a name day. And in 2000, El Salvador's parliament named him an "esteemed son" of the country.

Romero is interred at the San Salvador Cathedral

Nevertheless, until the election of fellow Latin American Pope Francis in March 2013, Romero had few advocates in the Vatican.

Social revolutionary priests and bishops who refused to accept poverty among believers as the will of god and chose instead to ease the fate of the downtrodden through spirituality had little chance of beatification or canonization. Still, "believers throughout Latin America spoke of 'San Romero de las Americas' — the saint of the Americas — long before the church announced plans to canonize him," as Michael Huhn, Romero expert at the German Catholic Church's Latin American aid agency Adveniat, told DW.

Turnaround

But then, the first Latin American to sit upon the Chair of Saint Peter initiated a political turnaround within the Catholic Church. Since Pope Francis took up his post, Romero has no longer been looked at as a revolutionary or a communist, but rather as a champion of human rights. The 62-year-old archbishop became a martyr on March 24, 1980, when he was killed by a paramilitary sniper while celebrating mass.

Pope Francis has helped to connect the Catholic Church with Latin America in a new way

Oscar Romero, Helder Camara, Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino, Leonardo Boff and Erwin Kräutler — not only were these men adherents to Latin American liberation theology, resisting military dictatorship in the region and calling for social justice, they posed a question that has never lost its potency: Can the Christian faith change society? Prelate Vincenzo Paglia, postulator for the cause of canonization of Blessed Oscar Romero, says it clearly can: "The decision to love the poor in order to change the world is the same decision Jesus made."

Read more: Pope Francis: The Catholic Church's Superman?

Romero is the first in a long list of forgotten Latin America martyrs. And Michael Huhn of Adveniat says it is only logical that Pope Francis is pushing so hard for the church to honor him, since the Argentine has long done so himself. "What impressed Pope Francis was the fact that Romero knelt down to help the poor," he said. "The motto that he lived his life by was that little people matter. That is something that Francis emulated in his work as a Jesuit, as the archbishop of Buenos Aires and as pope."

And the remembrance of martyrs, those who died for their faith, is one of the current pontiff's recurring admonitions, Huhn explained: "As an example of what lived Christianity — radically lived Christianity — can mean."

Freude über Seligsprechung Oscar Romeros in El Salvador

Romero is celebrated as a national hero in El Salvador

The priest and the pope

The topic of martyrdom is one that connects Romero with the late Pope Paul VI, who was also canonized together with four others on Sunday. Huhn believes the shared honor is "very good." Paul VI did "tremendous" things for Latin America, he said, pointing out that he was also the first pope to travel there. Latin Americans see Paul VI not as the controversial contraceptive pope of the encyclical "Humanae Vitae" but as the "pope of justice."

"When Romero was being attacked by oligarchs at home as well as other bishops, he went to Paul VI," said Huhn. "The pope opened his door immediately, Romero did not need an audience or an appointment. He brought photos of martyrs with him. They moved Paul VI deeply, and he knew exactly where he had to stand."        

The other religious figures to be canonized on Sunday were Maria Katharina Kasper, the German founder of a religious congregation; Nazaria Ignacia March Mesa, the Spanish founder of another order; and two Italian priests, Father Francesco Spinelli and Father Vincenzo Romano.

Nineteenth century German nun 

Maria Katharina Kasper was born in the southwest of Germany in 1820. 

She founded the religious order of the Dernbacher Sisters, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, whose mission was to care for the old and the sick. 

Today, the community she founded is active across many countries and has 600 sisters.

"The canonization of Katharina Kasper is a unique event for our diocese and for the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ that we will jointly celebrate," Limbourg Bishop George Baetzing said.

Blessed by Pope Paul VI in 1978, the Vatican recognized as a miracle Kasper's curing of an Indian man.