SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — It’s been dubbed the “Francis effect.”

In ways large and small, Pope Francis is having an impact on Roman Catholics in Latin America. He’s pushing ahead with sainthood for a controversial martyred prelate in El Salvador. He’s mending fences with proponents of a theology that the Vatican once shunned for its Marxist whiff. And he’s cautiously embraced new, livelier styles of worship that his predecessors had discouraged.

The changes have won Pope Francis grassroots support, even as they have rattled the church’s bishops, most of whom were installed during the tenures of his more conservative predecessors.

Nowhere is that conflict more evident than in this small Central American country, where a generation ago the church was at the center of what would become a civil war that would claim tens of thousands of lives.

It was aboard an Alitalia charter in mid-August that the pontiff announced that he was pressing the Vatican bureaucracy to hurry with the beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, an advocate for the poor and a critic of the Salvadoran military who was slain by a right-wing assassin in 1980.

“It’s very important to move in haste,” Francis told reporters aboard the airliner. “For me, Romero is a man of God.”


El Salvador’s bishops reacted with public delight, but longtime observers said there was anything but glee behind closed doors among those who still view Monsignor Romero as a sympathizer of the political left.

“The beatification of Monsignor Romero will be like a bucket of cold water for them. They neither agreed with him in his life nor after his death,” said Carlos Ayala Ramirez, the director of the radio station at the Jesuit Central American University in San Salvador.

A rifleman in a red Volkswagen shot Romero in the chest as he celebrated Mass in a chapel March 24, 1980. At his massive funeral six days later, explosions and gunshots roiled the huge crowd, which stampeded, leaving some 30 people dead. Romero became a hero to the poor as the nation careened toward a civil war that took 70,000 lives over the next 12 years.

Romero was the most prominent of the 18 priests and four U.S. nuns or lay workers killed from the 1970s till 1989.

“When Romero died, there was silence in the Vatican,” said the Rev. Jon Sobrino, a Spanish Jesuit who teaches theology at Central American University. Under then-Pope John Paul II, the Vatican slowed any move to make the slain archbishop a saint.

“The word was, ‘It’s not an opportune time,’ ” Sobrino said. “Powerful cardinals were enemies of Romero, and the canonization didn’t move forward. Why not? Because it is not easy to canonize Jesus of Nazareth. He was against so many people, the high priests, the wealthy.”


Today, Romero’s image is painted on schools across the country, and the former guerrilla movement known as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, in power since 2009, has renamed the national airport and a highway for Romero.

He’s also taken the stigma away from Liberation Theology, the current that originated in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. It adopted the use of Christianity to fight social injustice, sometimes applying the theory of class struggle.

Detractors viewed the doctrine as Christianized Marxism, and during the 27-year papacy of John Paul II, who rose to prominence battling communists in his native Poland, its proponents were largely silenced.

Francis has taken steps to reverse that. He met with Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest who coined the term Liberation Theology, a meeting, Levine said, that “was a surprise to many in Peru.”

In a little noticed action in August, Pope Francis also lifted a nearly three-decade ban on the priestly functions of Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, a Nicaraguan who became foreign minister in the revolutionary Sandinista government of the 1980s, earning John Paul’s enmity.

Pope Francis also is pressing to find priests who embrace a livelier worship experience to compete with Pentecostal Christians, who’ve made inroads in the last two decades in Brazil, Colombia and Central America with a more emotional approach to religion that includes spirited preaching, popular music and speaking in tongues.


Francis has made it clear that the Vatican doesn’t have doctrinal differences with charismatic Catholics, who also try to emphasize a direct experience of divine power in song and prayer. He met with 50,000 charismatics from 55 nations in Rome’s Olympic Stadium on June 1 and knelt on stage as those present prayed for him, some of them speaking in tongues.

“In the early years of the charismatic renewal in Buenos Aires, I did not have much love for charismatics,” the pontiff said.

But his presence at the meeting indicated change of heart.

“He sees them as the possible future of the Catholic Church in Latin America. They are the energizers. They are missionaries who get people who don’t go to church often to come back,” said Thorsen, the Danish academic.

“The church wants to do whatever it can to make the members of the charismatic movement feel that they have a home in Catholicism,” added Richard Coll, a Latin America policy adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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