SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Bespectacled, smiling and with close-cropped hair, the late Archbishop Oscar Romero’s visage gazes kindly from postage stamps, handmade busts on sale at the San Salvador cathedral, even from a huge black-dot mural on the side of the Foreign Ministry.
On Sunday in the Vatican, Pope Francis will officially make Romero a saint nearly three decades after he was martyred by an assassin’s bullet to the heart. But for many Salvadoran Roman Catholic devotees who already know him as “Saint Romero of the Americas” that will only formalize something they have long known in their hearts.
“He was a great man. He already was a saint,” said Jose David Santos, 73, in a recent interview before travelling to Rome along with 5,000 other Salvadorans to be present for the canonization.
“He was a great example of humility,” Santos added, clad in a white shirt with Romero’s face imprinted on it. “He professed love for the poor man. He denounced injustices. He defended victims. He criticized the violence of the military and of the guerrillas.”
Romero was slain March 24, 1980, a day after he implored the military dictatorship to “cease the repression” against civilians as the country spiraled toward a 12-year civil war.
At the time — and still today — some in conservative sectors loathed him as a “guerrilla in a cassock” for sympathizing with leftist causes. But he was and remains broadly popular among the poor and working class, whom he passionately defended, and many began lionizing him almost immediately.
“A real man of the people. … And so even prior to his canonization, even shortly after his martyrdom, we see this almost kind of folk-saint, popular-saint devotion springing up,” said Andrew Chesnut, chair in Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I’ve found a number of people that have tattoos of his image on their arms … a lot of popular murals and artwork on the streets of the capital,” Chesnut continued. “So yeah, it’s a real, genuine kind of grass-roots, working-class, popular devotion that you don’t often see with a lot of other, European-born Catholic saints.”
The fervour for Romero has grown so much that the cathedral crypt where his remains were interred can barely handle the thousands of pilgrims who arrive to pray in front of his tomb, beseech him for intervention or give thanks. Many also visit the hospital chapel where he was murdered while celebrating Mass.
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