VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The president of El Salvador met Pope Francis on Thursday to urge his fellow Latin American to put Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered by a right-wing death squad in 1980, on the road to Roman Catholic sainthood.
The sainthood process for Romero was effectively stalled under former popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI because they saw him as too close to Liberation Theology, a radical movement which emphasized helping the poor and opposing injustice.
President Mauricio Funes said before leaving for Rome the main purpose of his visit was to appeal to the pope to move forward with Romero’s beatification, the penultimate step before sainthood.
Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was shot dead on March 24, 1980, as he celebrated mass in a hospital chapel. He had often denounced repression and poverty in his weekly homilies.
The murder was one of the most shocking of the long conflict between a series of U.S.-backed governments and leftist rebels in which thousands of people were killed by right-wing and military death squads.
No one was ever brought to justice for the murder although former army major Roberto D‘Aubisson, who died in 1992, is generally believed to have been behind it.
Previous right-wing Salvadorean governments frowned on the possibility that Romero, an icon for Latin American liberation movements, could become a saint. But the leftist Funes made a state apology for the assassination on the 30th anniversary in 2010.
On Thursday, Funes gave Pope Francis an ornate reliquary holding a piece of the vestment Romero was wearing when he was shot. The reliquary, with the fragment of the blood-stained garment, read: “Oscar Romero, spiritual guide of Salvador”.
A Vatican statement said the pope and Funes spoke at length about Romero and “the importance of his witness for the entire nation”.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the main postulator, or promoter, of Romero’s sainthood cause and an expert on his life, said last month that Pope Francis had told him he had decided to unblock the process.
The civil war, one of the Cold War’s most brutal conflicts, claimed some 75,000 lives before it ended with a peace agreement in 1992.
Times have changed in both El Salvador and the Vatican.
Funes and other members of the government are leftists with origins in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which fought the military during the war. His election in 2009 ended two decades of rule by the right-wing ARENA party.
For his part Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, is an outspoken defender of the poor and is known to be an admirer of Romero.
Roman Catholic sainthood requires that two miracles be attributed to those who are being made saints - one before beatification and another before canonization.
A miracle is usually the inexplicable healing of a sick person who prayed to a holy person who has died to interceded with God for a cure.
But if the Vatican declares Romero a martyr, the requirement for the first miracle would be waived because he would have been killed “in hatred of the faith”.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Angus MacSwan