El Salvador president to meet Pope Francis amid beatification hopes for slain archbishop

El Salvador's president meets with Pope Francis on Thursday amid mounting indications that the stars have finally aligned to move slain Archbishop Oscar Romero onto the first key stage on the path toward possible sainthood.

The Central American country now has a government made up of former guerilla fighters who battled the same military hierarchy that Romero denounced and support his beatification. The Vatican now has a Latin American pope who channels many of Romero's concerns for the poor and marginalized. And a generation of Salvadorans who would have been vehemently opposed to a church honor for Romero has passed.

President Mauricio Funes' "principal objective" in his one-day trip to see Francis is to encourage "a push" for Romero's beatification and to thank Francis for the support he has already shown, El Salvador's ambassador to the Holy See, Manuel Lopez, told The Associated Press.

"The fact that we have a Latin American pope, who knows our idiosyncrasies, our devotion ... represents a new impulse to the cause," Lopez said this week in an interview inside El Salvador's embassy to the Holy See, the entry hall of which is decorated with photos of Funes, Francis and Romero.

Helping matters is that Funes' government of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front — the rebel group-turned-political party — is far more sympathetic to Romero than its conservative predecessors whose 20-year reign ended in 2009.

Romero, a human rights proponent who spoke out for the poor and against repression by the Salvadoran army, was gunned down in 1980 as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. He was killed by right-wing death squads loyal to the military hierarchy, a killing that presaged a civil war that killed nearly 75,000 over the next 12 years.

The government and guerrillas reached a peace treaty in 1992, and five years later the Vatican opened a sainthood case for Romero, who is considered a martyr for the faith. Beatification is the first major step in the path towards being declared a saint.

But the cause stalled under two successive popes who were hostile to liberation theology, the Latin American-inspired view that Jesus' teachings imbue followers with a duty to fight for social and economic justice. Some say El Salvador's conservative government headed by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance party blocked the cause, but Lopez would only say that the current government was very much in favor of it.

In 2010, Funes publicly apologized on behalf of the state for the assassination. That same year, the government opened its first embassy to the Holy See in Rome — a clear indication that it wanted better, closer ties with the Vatican and a sign of intent and interest in Romero's cause. Previously, the country's representation had been handled by its ambassador in London — something of an anomaly given it's a staunchly Roman Catholic country and that most other Central American countries had Rome-based ambassadors, Lopez said.

Recently, the embassy distributed an hour-long documentary on Romero to Vatican officials, ambassadors and journalists.

Lopez said that when he greeted Francis the week after his election, during an audience of ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, Francis told him: "'I hope that under this pontificate we can beatify him.'"

Francis was no fan of liberation theology, but his sympathies — concern for the poor and for social justice issues — are very much in line with Romero's.

Recently, the Vatican official spearheading Romero's cause, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, announced after meeting with Francis that the process had been "unblocked."

The Vatican must certify that Romero was indeed killed as a martyr — out of hatred for the faith — in order for him to be beatified. Normally, the Vatican must certify that a miracle attributed to the candidate's intercession occurred in order for the person to be beatified. That requirement, however, is waived in the case of martyrs, though a miracle is needed for canonization.

Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, a Rome-based historian who wrote the 2005 book "Primero Dios: The Life of Oscar Romero" said he was "optimistic" that Romero's case would now be moving along.

While stressing that it's a matter for the Vatican's saint-making office to pursue, he said the documentation is complete and that it's only a matter for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to study the papers and make a recommendation to the pope.

"The climate is favorable," Morozzo della Rocca said in an interview. "The pope is Latin American, so he understands the problems, he knows the history. He was sympathetic to Romero."

He said that in the past, the Vatican sensed the "weight" of the divisions between left and right in Central America as a whole and El Salvador in particular, and that this may have influenced the decision not to proceed with the case.

"But it seems the political situation is different. The time is different than when Romero died. Some protagonists of the Cold War — and the true civil war — aren't around anymore," he said.

In 1993, a U.N.-sponsored truth commission determined that the assassination had been ordered by a former army major and Maj. Roberto D'Abuisson, the founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance Party, or Arena. D'Abuisson had died years before. An amnesty law was passed shortly before the findings were made public.

Arena never accepted the results of the commission's investigation.


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