VATICAN CITY (AP) — Thirty-five years after he was gunned down by a right-wing death squad as he celebrated Mass, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero moved a step closer to possible sainthood Tuesday when Pope Francis declared he was a martyr killed out of hatred for his Catholic faith.
The decree by the first Latin American pope ended decades of debate over whether Romero — a hero of the liberation theology movement — was slain for his politics or his preaching. It opens the way for Romero to be beatified as early as this year, though no date has been set.
A human rights campaigner, Romero had spoken out against repression by the army at the beginning of El Salvador's 1980-1992 civil war between the right-wing government and leftist rebels.
His assassination on March 24, 1980, presaged a conflict that killed nearly 75,000 people.
Romero's sainthood cause had been held up for years by the Vatican, primarily due to opposition from conservative Latin American churchmen who feared his perceived association with liberation theology would embolden the movement that holds that Jesus' teachings require followers to fight for social and economic justice.
Under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had launched a crackdown on liberation theology, fearing what were viewed by church conservatives as its Marxist excesses.
A conservative who had spoken out against liberation theology in the past, Romero experienced a transformation of sorts following the murder of his friend, the Rev. Rutillo Grande, a Jesuit priest who was gunned down after helping Salvadoran peasants organize.
In a now-famous homily delivered the day before he was killed, Romero reminded the government's police and soldiers that no one is ever obliged to obey an order that is "against the law of God."
"In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!" he said.
Following his death, Romero was transformed into a rallying figure for El Salvador's left as the country slowly recovered from its brutal civil war. Even today, his image routinely shows up on flyers next to the likes of Che Guevara and Salvador Allende — icons of the Latin American left.
Over the summer, Francis told reporters that Romero's case had been "blocked out of prudence" by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but that it had been "unblocked" now that there were no more doctrinal concerns.
Romero's supporters say there never were any real doctrinal issues and that the holdup was due to ecclesial politics in the Latin American church, which was badly divided between right and left during the years of right-wing military dictatorships on the continent.
The decision to beatify Romero "is an invitation to peace, reconciliation, and brotherly solidarity," Monsignor Rafael Urrutia, vice chancellor of the Salvadoran bishops conference, said Tuesday. "We believe this isn't a victory for Monsignor Romero, it isn't a victory for the Catholic Church, but rather a sign of God's love for this people."
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who spearheaded Romero's cause for years and endured its many obstacles, said it was fitting that the first Latin American pope had approved beatification for a hero to so many on the continent.
"A church that is poor and for the poor, that's what Romero lived for, even to the point of shedding his blood," Paglia told Vatican Radio.
Unlike regular candidates for beatification, martyrs can reach the first step to possible sainthood without a miracle attributed to their intercession. A miracle is needed for canonization, however.
For many martyrdom cases, it's clear-cut if the candidate was killed in an act of anti-Catholic persecution, such as the many martyrs slain during the Spanish civil war, or those killed more recently in anti-Christian violence in Iraq and Syria.
Romero's case, however, lagged in part over questions about whether he was killed for his faith or his politics, given his outspoken support for the poor and the victims of the right-wing dictatorship.
The one-line decree signed Tuesday by Francis makes clear that Romero was a martyr killed out of hatred for the faith.
Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, a Rome-based historian who collaborated with Paglia on Romero's sainthood cause, said the circumstances of Romero's death showed he was killed out of hatred for the faith, even if the gunmen were Catholic.
"He was killed at the altar, in a church while he celebrated Mass," Morozzo della Rocca said in a telephone interview. "He wasn't killed while he drove a car, or at the barber shop or at the beach, where he liked to go in the mornings. He was killed in a church, which is very symbolic for a priest."
Romero infuriated the political elite of El Salvador — who like Romero were Catholics — but not because he conveyed a political message, Morozzo della Rocca said.
"He talked about sin, about evil, about conversion," said the historian and author of the 2005 book "God First: The Life of Oscar Romero." ''He didn't see social problems from a political vision, but from a Christian, biblical vision."
In 1993, a U.N.-sponsored truth commission determined that Romero's assassination was ordered by a former army major, Roberto D'Abuisson, founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance party, known as ARENA. D'Abuisson had died the year before.
Leaders of ARENA now honor Romero's contributions to El Salvador and have even offered to build a monument to him.
"Monsignor Romero is a historical leader in our country, he is a leader for us Catholics, he is our guide and leader of the church," ARENA party president Jorge Velado told local media on Tuesday.
Velado noted the party had not yet been founded when Romero was killed, and that D'Abuisson was never convicted of the crime.
The United States backed a series of right-wing governments during the civil war, despite mounting evidence of massacres and human rights violations.
Romero isn't the first martyr to be named using this broader definition of being killed out of hatred of the faith.
In May 2013, the Rev. Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi was beatified as a martyr in Palermo, Sicily, 20 years after he was slain by mobsters for defiantly preaching against the Mafia in a neighborhood where the Cosa Nostra held sway. In that case as well, the killers were ostensibly Catholic but the Vatican found that Puglisi was killed out of hatred for the faith.
Associated Press reporters Mark Stevenson in Mexico City, and Marcos Aleman, in San Salvador, El Salvador contributed to this report.
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