VATICAN CITY — Slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero has moved one step closer to beatification.

Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, reported Friday that a committee of theologians had confirmed that Romero died as a martyr. The designation means he can be beatified without having a miracle attributed to his intercession. A miracle is needed, however, for him to be made a saint.

Romero was gunned down by a right-wing death squad in 1980 while celebrating Mass. He had spoken out against repression by the Salvadoran army at the beginning of the country’s 1980-1992 civil war between the right-wing government and leftist rebels.

A commission of cardinals and bishops must now sign off on the martyrdom designation and pass it on to Pope Francis for final approval. If approved, the long-awaited beatification could take place this year.

Francis, who has made clear he wants to see Romero beatified, has said he plans to visit three unnamed Latin American countries in 2015, with El Salvador often cited as a contender. A Salvador trip would enable Francis to personally beatify the hero of many Latin American Catholics in his native land.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, declined to confirm or deny the Avvenire report, citing his practice of not commenting on intermediate steps of saint-making cases. But he noted that Francis recently cited Romero during a general audience, “meaning he is following the cause with attention and interest.”

Romero’s saint-making case had been stalled in the Vatican for years because of his support for liberation theology. It has charged ahead under the first Latin American pope.

The Salvadoran government said it was overjoyed with the news. President Salvador Sanchez Ceren said a big celebration, with Latin American leaders invited, was planned for the beatification.

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