Pope Francis' powerful signal to the poor

Salvadoran Archbishop beatified
dnt darlington archbishop romero_00004814

    JUST WATCHED

    Salvadoran Archbishop beatified

MUST WATCH

Salvadoran Archbishop beatified 02:31

Story highlights

  • Raul Reyes: Beatification of slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero signals Pope Francis nudging church toward focus on the poor
  • He says Romero's liberation theology is scorned by conservatives; it addressed poverty, justice in Latin America over elites' interests

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On Saturday, thousands gathered in El Salvador to celebrate a jubilant moment in their country's history. In a special ceremony held in the capital city of San Salvador, former Archbishop Oscar Romero was beatified, putting him one step closer to sainthood.

Raul Reyes
It is unfortunate that many Americans have probably never heard of Romero. Like Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he was a believer in nonviolence and the innate dignity of all people. Sadly, just like Gandhi and King, Romero died a violent death. A champion of the poor, Romero was shot and killed while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel 35 years ago. He was 62.
The beatification of Romero is welcome news for El Salvador, Latin America and the Roman Catholic Church. It is overdue recognition of a humble man who was not afraid to speak out on behalf of oppressed people. Plus, it is further evidence of Pope Francis' commitment to reforming the church.
    Romero was an unlikely social crusader. He had a middle-class upbringing and was regarded as conservative when he became archbishop. But after a Jesuit colleague was killed by a death squad in 1977, Romero became outspoken against the country's repressive regime.
    Pope confers sainthood on two Palestinians nuns
    lok nadeau vatican pope saints_00005103

      JUST WATCHED

      Pope confers sainthood on two Palestinians nuns

    MUST WATCH

    Pope confers sainthood on two Palestinians nuns 02:44
    He often ended his homilies, which were broadcast on the radio, with a recitation of the week's disappearances, decapitations and murders. One month before he was killed, Romero wrote to then-President Jimmy Carter and asked him to stop supporting El Salvador's government. On the day before he was killed, he appealed to Salvadoran soldiers to stop killing their fellow citizens.
    Such acts led the political establishment to unfairly label Romero as a revolutionary and a radical. Then on March 24, 1980, he was murdered. His death helped propel the country into a civil war that lasted for 12 years and claimed the lives of over 75,000 civilians.
    Now Romero's beatification serves as a rebuke to charges by El Salvador's elites that that he was a subversive, a communist or a Marxist.
    Romero was none of these things. He was a man who lived his conscience by speaking out against injustice. His impassioned calls for peace are still relevant in the age of ISIS and Boko Haram. And his activism could serve as an inspiration to people of all faiths who are fighting for human rights, whether they are in Central America, Ferguson or Baltimore.
    The fact that Pope Francis facilitated Romero's beatification is notable.
    In the Roman Catholic Church, a person was traditionally declared a martyr if they died for refusing to renounce their faith. But earlier this year, Francis declared Romero a martyr for dying "in hatred of the faith." The Pope said, in effect, that a person could become a martyr for dying because of others' hatred for their Gospel-inspired work. This move cements Romero's legacy as a spiritual -- rather than political -- figure.
    Romero's beatification also reflects Francis' interest in creating "a church that is poor and for the poor." Consider that he has revived interest in "liberation theology," a Latin American movement that places special emphasis on serving the poor. Or that the beatification process has started for Latin Americans such as Father Rutilio Grande, whose killing inspired Romero's social justice work, and Bishop Enrique Angelelli, who died in a suspicious car crash in Argentina.
    These moves make sense at a time when the church is losing ground in Latin America. Perhaps Francis will bring the Roman Catholic Church closer to the poor in a part of the world where it has often been closest to wealthy elites.
    The renewed attention on Romero highlights the fact that justice and peace are elusive goals in his home country. No one was ever tried for Romero's assassination. A 1993 United Nations Truth Commission determined that former Army Major Roberto D'Aubuisson had ordered the killing. But D'Aubuisson died in 1992 without facing charges for his alleged crime.
    Meanwhile, El Salvador remains wracked by poverty and violence.
    In April, the country saw its deadliest month in 10 years. After ranking fourth last year on a U.N. list of countries with the highest murder rate, El Salvador is on track to become the deadliest peacetime country in the world. Were he alive, surely Romero would be anguished by this reality. It is just as certain that he would not have given up his fight for a better future for the Salvadoran people.
    Romero exemplified the best of Christian values. His social justice work was admirable and courageous.
    Most importantly, his words "No se mata la justicia"-- justice cannot be killed -- ring as true today as they did decades ago.