Pope Francis’ powerful signal to the poor

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

 Raul Reyes

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.

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.

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