VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Sunday praised two towering figures of the 20th-century Catholic Church as prophets who shunned wealth and looked out for the poor as he made saints of Pope Paul VI and martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Francis canonized two men at a Mass in St. Peter’s Square before some 70,000 faithful, a handful of presidents and 5,000 Salvadoran pilgrims who traveled to Rome to honor a man considered a hero to many Latin Americans.
Tens of thousands more Salvadorans stayed up all night at home to watch the Mass on giant TV screens outside the San Salvador cathedral where Romero’s remains are entombed.
In a sign of the strong influence that Paul and Romero had on the first Latin American pope, Francis wore the blood-stained rope belt that Romero wore when he was gunned down by right-wing death squads in 1980, and also used Paul’s staff, chalice and pallium vestment.
Paul, who was pope from 1963-1978, presided over the modernizing yet polarizing church reforms of the 1960s. He was the pope of Francis’ formative years as a young priest in Argentina and was instrumental in giving rise to the Latin American church’s “preferential option for the poor” that Francis has made his own.
Francis also has a close personal connection to Romero, and like him lived through the terror of right-wing military dictatorships when Francis was in Argentina. Francis was responsible for eventually declaring Romero a martyr for his fearless denunciations of the military oppression at the start of El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war.
In his homily, Francis called Paul a “prophet of a church turned outwards” to care for the faraway poor. He said Romero gave up his security and life to “be close to the poor and his people.”
And he warned that those who don’t follow their example to leave behind everything, including their wealth, risk never truly finding God.
“Wealth is dangerous and — says Jesus — even makes one’s salvation difficult,” Francis said.
“The love of money is the root of all evils,” he said. “Where money is at the center, there is no room for God or for man.”
For many Salvadorans, it was the culmination of a fraught, politicized campaign to have the church formally honor a man who spoke out for the rights of landless peasants and the poor at a time when the U.S.-backed right-wing government was seeking to quash a leftist rebellion.
“We couldn’t stay home on this historic day,” said Jose Martinez, who with his wife and two young children joined the crowds outside the San Salvador cathedral. “I want my children to know Monsignor, our saint, that he was a great man who raised his voice to defend his pueblo, and for that they killed him.”
Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, was murdered as he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980, in a hospital chapel. A day before he was killed, he had delivered the latest in a series of sermons demanding an end to the army’s repression — sermons that had enraged El Salvador’s leaders.
Almost immediately after his death, Romero became an icon of the South American left and is frequently listed along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi as one of the world’s most influential human rights campaigners. The United Nations commemorates the anniversary of his death each year.
But his popularity with the left led to a decades-long delay in his saint-making cause at the Vatican, where right-wing cardinals led by Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo warned that his elevation would embolden Marxist revolutionaries.
Eventually Pope Benedict XVI unblocked the cause and Francis saw it through to its conclusion Sunday.
Romero’s influence continues to resonate with El Salvador’s youth as the country endures brutal gang violence that has made the Central American nation one of the world’s most violent.
“He is my guide, and from what I have read about his life, I want to follow in his steps,” said Oscar Orellana, a 15-year-old who joined the San Salvador procession wearing a white tunic like the one Romero used to wear.
Paul VI, for his part, is best known for having presided over the final sessions of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 church meetings that opened up the Catholic Church to the world. Under his auspices, the church agreed to allow liturgy to be celebrated in the vernacular rather than in Latin and called for greater roles for the laity and improved relations with people of other faiths.
Paul is also remembered for his two most important encyclicals, or teaching documents, which have had a profound effect on the church: One denounced the mounting inequality between rich and poor, and the other reaffirmed the Catholic church’s opposition to artificial contraception.
The stark prohibition against contraception like birth control pills or condoms empowered conservatives but drove progressives away. Even today, studies show that most Catholics ignore that teaching and use contraception anyway.
Francis has also adopted the “church of the poor” ethos that Paul embodied when Paul formally renounced wearing the bejeweled papal tiara.
Paul is also very important to Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, whom Paul made a cardinal in 1977. Officials said the 91-year-old Benedict was too weak to attend Sunday’s canonization, so Francis paid him a visit on the eve of the Mass.