Roman Catholic Church seeks to canonize slain Salvadoran bishop, despite controversy

Twenty-three years after he was shot by an unknown gunman as he celebrated Mass, San Salvador's archbishop remains a controversial figure a martyred saint to some, and to others, a politician manipulated by the left.

Monsignor Oscar Romero's voice spread from the pulpit every Sunday in defense of human life and against social injustice as he watched his country divide and head for a prolonged civil war that claimed him among its first victims.

A single bullet fired from a car across the street from a hospital chapel killed Romero on March 24, 1980, a day after he urged soldiers to stop shooting their own brothers. El Salvador's Roman Catholic Church has started the process to show that Romero died a martyr, the first step on the road to sainthood.

But the church must prove to the Vatican that Romero was a pastor and not a politician sympathetic to leftist guerrillas.

It was not difficult for a priest in Romero's days to side with the poor in a country run by military officials and conservative groups who violently silenced any sign of protest or attempts at social reforms. Many priests, against Romero's orders, helped the guerrillas.

"There is some opposition in the Vatican by people who feel that to canonize Romero is to canonize a political cause," Guillermo Gomez, investigator for the canonization office of the archdiocese, told The Associated Press.

Romero was a pastor, not a politician, he said.

"But he was used by both the left and the right," Gomez added. "The left needed symbols, and the right did its best to identify him publicly with the left."

Every Sunday, in a packed cathedral, Romero read lists of people he said had been arrested, tortured or found dead.

He was accused of being a Communist sympathizer, but answered that those who "made possible the horrendous social injustice in which our people live are responsible for the country's problems."

Ana Guadalupe Martinez, former commander of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, said Romero cared about people not political parties.

"Whenever we met with him, he scolded us," Martinez recalled. "We used to tell him his position was naive. He was very sensitive to social problems. We saw him as a protective shield, but he was never our ally."

Churches often offered sanctuary to persecuted leftists. But in several homilies, Martinez criticized the fanaticism and violence of the leftist guerrillas.

Salvadorans believe his death sentence was handed down when he said from the pulpit: "No soldier is obligated to obey a law against the law of God. ... In the name of God and of a people whose lamentations rise to heaven ... I beg you, I order you, stop the repression."

The country's Truth Commission, created by the United Nations after the war to investigate violations of human rights, determined that the late Maj. Roberto D'Abuisson, founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance, ordered the assassination. D'Abuisson's party, also known as ARENA, has been in power since 1989.

ARENA member Walter Jurado, former president of the Salvadoran congress, said some party officials criticized Romero, but he added that the archbishop must be removed "from worldly politics."

"He lives in the hearts of Salvadorans," he said. "There is an improper political use of his figure."

Romero is buried in a crypt in the ample basement of the cathedral, site of several events scheduled this week.

On Wednesday night, Saturnino Rodriguez tuned his guitar to sing with others during an ecumenical service.

"I come every year," said Rodriguez, who lost his father, sister and two brothers in the war. "I met Monsignor Romero in my town. He was a good man."