SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — To some he was a champion of the poor, a defender of human rights during some of El Salvador's darkest days. Others called him a supporter of armed revolution, a Marxist guerrilla clothed in a cleric's cassock.
Thirty-five years after a right-wing death squad assassin's bullet pierced his heart, Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero will join the hierarchy of the blessed on Saturday even as conservative corners of El Salvador and the Vatican still harbor his critics.
The beatification of Romero stands to officially bring his legacy in from the cold as state and church officials portray him as a force for healing wounds remaining from an era when left-leaning clergy were targeted by military regimes in Central America and censured by the Holy See.
"He becomes a symbol of an El Salvador in a new era that could unite the Salvadoran people," said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a historian of religion at the University of Havana.
At a time when Latin American Catholics celebrate having one of their own as pope in the Argentine-born Francis, the beatification further bolsters the church's standing in the region, he added.
The Vatican "is trying to regain space it has lost in the world," Lopez Oliva said. "You have to remember that the largest population of Catholics is in Latin America."
At least 250,000 people are expected to gather in the Plaza El Salvador del Mundo for the ceremony of beatification, a first step toward canonization and sainthood.
Romero, known as "the voice of the voiceless," was named archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 with the blessing of El Salvador's government, which signed off because Romero was seen as a friend of the elite and the armed forces, according to his biographer, Monsignor Jesus Delgado.
A month later, a death squad killed the Rev. Rutilio Grande, a fellow priest and Romero's friend, greatly affecting the newly minted archbishop. Before long, Romero rededicated his archdiocese to serving social justice. He sought to mediate labor disputes, established a human rights office and opened the doors of the church to give refuge to poor farmers fleeing persecution in the countryside.
On March 23, 1980, Romero boldly admonished the military government to end abuses of civilians: "In the name of God and this suffering population, whose cries reach to the heavens more tumultuous each day, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you, in the name of God, cease the repression."
A day later, he was gunned down as he celebrated Mass in a cancer hospital chapel in San Salvador.
The killing upended the city and the nation. About 100,000 people turned out for Romero's funeral in the capital's main square, and dozens died when shots were fired into the crowd. The ruling junta placed the armed forces on high alert, and a string of bombings damaged buildings. Then Pope John Paul II and U.S. President Jimmy Carter condemned the killing.
Romero's assassination is considered by some to be one of the opening shots of the Salvadoran civil war, one of the last major conflicts of the Cold War pitting leftist guerrillas against a U.S.-backed military junta and subsequent governments. The conflict lasted until peace accords in 1992 and resulted in at least 75,000 deaths and 12,000 disappearances, according to a U.N. account.
Twenty-three years after the war's end, the FMLN political party that arose from the former rebel movement has its second president in power in Salvador Sanchez Ceren, and many see Romero as a figure that can help rally a nation struggling not only with its past, but also rampant gang violence and sky-high homicide rates today.
The church hopes the beatification "will be a point of hope," said Salvadoran parish priest Luis Ayala, who is organizing this weekend's celebration. "Afterward, we can love and break the prejudices that may exist at an ideological and party level."
Romero's remains lie in a tomb in the basement of the cathedral of San Salvador capped by a bronze sculpture of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, covering his body with a blanket. St. John Paul II, U.S. President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are among the dignitaries who have visited to pay their respects.
On weekends, thousands flock to the crypt to honor his memory and beseech favors. Believers say it's a place of love, faith and solidarity, and many credit the spirit of "Saint Romero of the Americas" with healing illnesses and other miracles.
"He is the spiritual guide for the family and for the nation," said Alma Dinora Aguirre, who travels to the tomb twice a month from her home in San Miguel, 80 miles (135 kilometers) from the capital, to thank Romero for answering her prayers to ease her dying mother's suffering. "He is a true saint."
Others still view Romero with distaste, even if they are hesitant to be seen as openly criticizing his memory.
"Communist," muttered one man in a San Salvador church who declined to expand on that thought or give his name, simply waving his hand and walking away.
Filmmaker Gerardo Muyshondt's father was a friend of the now-deceased death squad commander, Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson, who was accused by the United Nations and many others of being the man who ordered the assassination. Muyshondt grew up hearing nothing good about Romero but now believes his image was misused for ideological purposes.
"We have to stop using his image in a political way" or else Romero will remain a divisive figure, said Muyshondt, whose documentary trilogy "El Salvador: Lost Archives of Conflict" examines the 1980-92 civil war.
Romero's beatification was held up for years by church politics, questions about his orthodoxy and concerns it could encourage liberation theology clerics who maintain that faith requires followers to fight for social and economic justice.
In late 2012 Pope Benedict XVI, who as a cardinal had launched a crackdown on liberation theology, "unblocked" the case by moving it to the Vatican's saint-making office from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where it had languished.
The Jesuit-trained Francis, known as the "slum bishop" for his work in Buenos Aires' poorest neighborhoods before he became pope, declared in February that Romero was slain out of hatred for the faith, approving a martyrdom decree that cleared the way for beatification.
With Francis sharing Romero's concern for the impoverished, it is fitting that Romero would come up for beatification now. A beatification process has also begun for Romero's slain friend, Rev. Rutilio Grande.
Benedict has said a critical turning point for Romero's beatification was the 2005 book "Primero Dios: The Life of Oscar Romero," which argued that the archbishop's writing and preaching were fully in line with Catholic doctrine. Romero was not a proponent of revolutionary liberation theology as many claimed, but rather merely sought justice for El Salvador's oppressed, the book said.
"In terms of the church itself, (Romero's beatification) signifies something of an end to an unpleasant, controversial time when Oscar Romero and people like him on the left were vilified and downgraded and distrusted because they were seen as being too close to the real enemy, which was international communism," said Tom Quigley, Latin America policy adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops until his retirement in 2007.
"So that internal debate within the Catholic Church is, I think, over," added Quigley, who was with Romero at the last Sunday Mass before his assassination. "He's clearly been approved of by the pope, and you can't go any higher than that."
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Mexico City and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.