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Oscar Romero, a martyr for social justice and the newest Catholic saint, explained

What the slain archbishop’s canonization and sainthood mean for Pope Francis.

Oscar Romero, the year before his death.
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A murdered Salvadoran archbishop associated with social justice and progressive theology was canonized over the weekend.

The martyred Oscar Romero, former archbishop of San Salvador, was made a saint on Sunday morning, alongside six other canonized church figures, including Pope Paul VI. The canonization of Romero — whose Latin American origins and commitment to social justice mirror that of the current pontiff, Pope Francis — is a powerfully symbolic reaffirmation of Francis’s own long-held dedication to eradicating wealth inequality.

Because Romero’s politics have long been controversial — critics have denigrated him as a dangerous Marxist — his canonization is especially significant as Francis faces internal, highly politicized Vatican challenges to his papacy in the aftermath of the recent resurgence of the clerical sex abuse crisis. Francis’s celebration of Romero represents a full-throated affirmation of his anti-capitalist values, which, in turn, have made Francis a controversial figure in the church.

Oscar Romero is associated with liberation theology — as is Pope Francis

Romero, a beloved figure in Latin America for his commitment to social justice and combating poverty, was executed on a church altar by a right-wing militia in 1980 after vocally disparaging the military dictatorship then in power. The Revolutionary Government Junta of El Salvador, which was in power from 1979 to 1982, frequently engaged in mass murder and torture of its citizens.

A day before his assassination, Romero gave a sermon condemning the dictatorship’s violence, telling his listeners, many of whom had been conscripted by the military junta, that “no soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God.”

Romero is frequently associated with a Latin American school of thought known as “liberation theology.” Influenced by Marxist thought, liberation theology sees the mission of the church as not only saving souls for Christ, but also dismantling oppressive and exploitative power structures, bringing the “kingdom of God” to Earth.

During the canonization ceremony, Francis highlighted the connections between Romero’s theology and his own. As NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli reported, Francis wore the bloodstained rope belt that Romero had been wearing during his assassination, and highlighted in his homily the “radical” nature of Jesus Christ. “Jesus is radical,” Francis said. “He gives all and he asks all: he gives a love that is total and asks for an undivided heart.”

While Francis did not refer to Romero by name in his homily — instead praising all seven canonized individuals collectively — he did make pointed criticisms of wealth inequality. “Let us ask for the grace always to leave things behind for love of the Lord,” Francis said. He told listeners at St. Peter’s Square “to leave behind wealth, the yearning for status and power, structures that are no longer adequate for proclaiming the Gospel, those weights that slow down our mission, the strings that tie us to the world.”

Romero is one of 892 people canonized by Francis during his papacy (granted, most of these comprised more than 800 martyrs from the 15th century who were killed by invading Ottomans). But Romero’s historical significance, controversial politics, and specific affiliation with Francis make him one of Francis’s most significant and high-profile canonizations.

Romero’s canonization has been a long time coming

While Romero’s canonization comes at a symbolically important time as Francis navigates the future direction of his embattled papacy, it’s actually the culmination of a much longer process that Francis initiated shortly after becoming pope.

First, the Vatican must wait at least five years from a perceived holy person’s death to begin the canonization process. This can be waived in some instances, such as when Pope Benedict XVI waived the waiting period for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Then, the Vatican must set up a tribunal to gather information about the individual in question, including their conduct in daily life. This tribunal is customarily set up by the bishop of the archdiocese in which the person died. Once a person passes this stage of inquiry, they are referred to by the honorific “venerable.”

In order to reach the next stage, beatification, the tribunal must show that at least one miracle has taken place as a result of prayers offered up to the individual after their death, or else that the individual died as a martyr for their faith. Francis declared Romero a martyr in 2015, and Romero was beatified that same year.

Canonization, the last step in the process, requires proof of two miracles (or one in the case of a martyr). In Romero’s case, the miracle was the healing of Salvadoran woman Cecilia Marabel Flores, whose husband prayed for the intercession of Romero when she had life-threatening complications from a cesarean section in 2015.

Within the Catholic tradition, the idea that saints can intercede to God on one’s behalf makes saints particularly important and the object of folkloric veneration in their own right. Saints associated with particular groups of people — such as St. Maria Goretti, the patron saint of sexual assault survivors, or St. Gerard Majella, the patron saint of pregnant women — often inspire a particular degree of devotion (the association of patron saints with populations tends to develop organically, rather than be formally chosen by the church).

Romero’s canonization is particularly significant for the people of El Salvador, many of whom revere him politically and spiritually, especially as an icon of the religious left. Romero is El Salvador’s first saint, and thousands of Salvadorans gathered at that country’s cathedral in the middle of the night to watch the Vatican’s canonization ceremony streamed live.

As a saint, he is likely to be a particularly powerful and symbolic figure not just for Latin Americans, but for the world’s poor more generally.

Romero isn’t the only symbolically important figure to be canonized this weekend

While Romero was the highest-profile person canonized this weekend, he’s not the only one. Pope Paul VI (1897–1978) is also symbolically important to Francis, in part because of his outspoken views on birth control and abortion. In 1968, Paul authored the influential encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), which reaffirmed the Vatican’s opposition to birth control.

This, too, reflects Francis’s wider theological and social goals. As I wrote last week, to understand Pope Francis purely as a progressive is to understand only part of his grasp of Catholic social teaching. Francis’s opposition to birth control, abortion, and capitalism come from the same ideological place: a willingness to critique what he has frequently called a “throwaway culture” that minimizes the dignity of individual human lives.

Taken together, these two canonizations reflect a vital reaffirmation of Francis’s core beliefs. They come at a watershed moment for Francis’s papacy.

Francis’s pontificate — which had already attracted the ire of several hardline Vatican conservatives who saw his attacks on capitalism as misguided and dangerous — has become increasingly embattled since an arch-conservative former Vatican official, Carlo Maria Viganò, accused Francis of helping cover up the transgressions of former DC Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick is accused of sexually harassing adult seminarians under his authority over a period of decades (McCarrick has also been accused of molesting two minors, although Viganò has never suggested that Francis knew about these incidents).

We should not overstate the significance of Francis’s choice to start the canonization process for these particular saints — after all, he’s canonized 892, plenty of whom don’t have strong symbolic importance for his papacy.

Still, it’s possible to see in the canonization of both Romero and Paul VI a reaffirmation of Francis’s core values, and a powerful expression of how he sees the legacy of his papacy going forward.

Oscar Romero may not formally be the patron saint of abolishing capitalism. But for so many who venerate him, he might as well be.