Years ago, on days when Alba Azucena López de Rodriguez arrived early at the market in downtown San Salvador, she would weave between the women with their enormous baskets of squash, mangoes, papayas, and pineapples and listen to the singular voice that floated up from all their radios: Archbishop Oscar Romero.
“I met him through his homilies,” said López de Rodriguez, now El Salvador’s consul general in Boston, who said she could walk the countryside or city streets and find radios tuned to his teachings. “In one he said, they may shut my voice, but my words will still be alive.”
On Saturday, the iconic, and at one point controversial, Catholic martyr was beatified, the first step toward canonization, by Roman Catholic officials in San Salvador before a crowd estimated at 300,000. Salvadorans are one of Boston’s biggest immigrant groups, and about 100 people gathered at the nation’s consulate in East Boston to watch a simulcast of the Mass.
“This is a recognition of the wish of the people,” said López de Rodriguez in her Boston office, shortly before the Mass started. “Monsignor Romero became a saint for the people so long ago . . . He offered his life for all the people he was defending. He is the voice of the voiceless.”
Romero was a passionate champion of the poor and an outspoken critic of government violence against civilians during the tumultuous years leading up to El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war. He was shot through the heart by a sniper while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980, just a day after delivering a passionate admonition to the US-backed military: “I beg you, I beseech you, I order you, in the name of God, cease the repression.”
Romero’s beatification was held up for years by church politics until then-Pope Benedict XVI “unblocked” the case in late 2012, after it was determined the archbishop had not been an adherent of revolutionary liberation theology as many had contended. Earlier this year, Pope Francis declared that Romero was martyred out of hatred of his faith, clearing the way for beatification.
Many who came to the Boston consulate to watch the Mass Saturday brought pictures of Romero, slipped into pocketbooks and clasped between folded hands. Teresa Ascencio and her partner tucked images of his face into their clothing over their hearts.
Ascencio was a nurse during the war, she said, and was often taken from her home by government forces to treat the wounded, not knowing if she would return alive.
“I saw, in the time of war, how they leave the human remains, pieces of fingers hanging from wires,” said Ascencio through an interpreter. “The dogs ate the remains.”
For Ascencio, Romero was precious for his fearlessness. Once, she said, there were many people like that, but they were quickly silenced.
“He was not silenced,” she said. “He was a person who would say the truth.”
To see him beatified, she said simply, brought her happiness. The shirt he wore the day he was killed was displayed during the ceremony in El Salvador, and she said she was moved at the sight of the bullet hole. As the shirt was held aloft in San Salvador, a song played in Boston, its chorus written for Romero: “Your kingdom is justice, your kingdom is love.”
On the wall to the left of the screen where the video of the Mass played, a picture of Romero depicted him looking serene, hand raised in a gesture of blessing.
“He is our hero. We will never put him aside. He was part of us. He is part of us,” said Gloria Carrigg, who also attended the viewing of the Mass video in Boston. “We believe this is the event of the century.”
Next Sunday, Cardinal Seán O’Malley will say a Mass for Romero in Most Holy Redeemer Church in East Boston.
For some in attendance Saturday, the pain of Romero’s death was still fresh enough to bring them to tears. López de Rodriguez, the El Salvador consul general, teared up when she remembered what she was doing when she heard the news: studying in college. She remembered crying, she said, and then she recalled the terror when her university was attacked with tanks.
“For a moment, it was so hard, so sad,” said Noel Martinez, consul general of Venezuela, referring to Romero’s assassination and speaking through an interpreter. “Now, he’s part of eternity.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.