Romero, assassinated hero of the Latin American left, and Paul, who cemented church’s opposition to contraception, among seven new saints
Pope Francis has made saints of two of the most contentious Roman Catholic figures of the 20th century – the murdered Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero and Pope Paul VI, who reigned over one of the church’s most turbulent eras and enshrined its opposition to contraception.
In a ceremony before tens of thousands of people in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Francis declared the two men saints along with five other lesser-known people who were born in Italy, Germany and Spain in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Both Romero, who was shot by a rightwing death squad while saying mass in 1980, and Paul, who guided the church through the conclusion of the modernising 1962-65 second Vatican council, were controversial figures both within and outside the church. Both had a lasting influence on the current pontiff, Francis, Latin America’s first pope.
In his homily, Francis called Paul “a prophet of an extroverted church” who opened it up to the world. He praised Romero for disregarding his own life “to be close to the poor and to his people”.
Romero, who had often denounced repression and poverty in his homilies, was shot dead on 24 March 1980, in a hospital chapel in San Salvador.
Romero’s murder was one of the most shocking in the long conflict between a series of US-backed governments and leftist rebels in which thousands were killed by rightwing and military death squads.
Romero consistently denounced violence by the Salvadoran military and paramilitary against civilians, and urged the international community to stop the oppression.
The 1979-1992 war in El Salvador between the US-backed army and the Marxist guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which later became the ruling party, left 75,000 dead and 8,000 missing.
Romero became an icon for Latin America’s poor, appearing on T-shirts similar to those bearing the image of Che Guevara, but his sainthood ran into stiff opposition in the Vatican and among powerful conservatives in the Latin American church.
Both feared that Romero had become too political in life and even more so in death.
The process languished for decades. Francis speeded it up after his election in 2013, and in 2015 the Vatican declared that Romero had died a martyr, killed out of hatred for the faith.
Paul VI, a shy man described by biographers as a sometimes indecisive figure, guided the church through the conclusion of the second Vatican council, which had started under his predecessor, and the implementation of its reforms. He was elected in 1963 and died in 1978.
Francis often quotes Paul, showing that he is committed to the reforms of the council, which allowed mass to be said in local languages instead of Latin, declared respect for other religions and launched a landmark reconciliation with the Jewish people.
Ultra-conservatives in the church do not recognise the council’s teachings and blame Paul for starting what they see as a decline in tradition.
Despite his many reforms, Paul is perhaps best known for his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), which enshrined the church’s ban on artificial birth control, saying nothing should block the possible transmission of human life.
The ban, which Paul issued against the advice of a papal commission, became the most contested church ruling of the 20th century and is widely disregarded by Catholics.
Paul is the third pope made a saint by Francis since his election in 2013. The others are John XXIII, who died in 1963, and John Paul II, who died in 2005.