SAN SALVADOR — In a Saturday ceremony believed to mark the largest religious gathering in the history of Central America, the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed in 1980 for defending the poor and victims of human rights abuses in El Salvador, was declared a “blessed” of the Catholic Church.

Beatification is the final stage before sainthood. Romero was beatified as a martyr, meaning someone who died giving witness to the Catholic faith, following a decree recognizing him as martyr issued by Pope Francis last February.

The crowd gathered in a downtown San Salvador plaza for the beatification Mass was estimated to be at least 300,000, including scores of pilgrims from outside the country. The crowd included roughly 300 bishops from around the world and nine heads of state, all from Latin America.

“The memory of Romero is still alive and giving comfort to the poor and marginalized,” said Italian Cardinal Angelo Amato, head of the Vatican department for sainthood causes, who celebrated the beatification Mass.

“He was the light of the world and the salt of the earth,” Amato said. “His persecutors have disappeared and been forgotten, but Romero continues to shine a light over the poor and marginalized of the earth.”

Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, sent a personal message to the beatification ceremony.

“In times of difficult coexistence, Romero knew how to lead, defend, and protect his flock,” the pope wrote.

“We thank God because he gave this bishop and martyr the ability to see and hear the suffering of his people,” Francis said. “When it is fully understood, faith in Jesus Christ generates communities of workers of peace and solidarity.”

Amato read the pope’s letter aloud at the beginning of the Vatican ceremony.

US President Barack Obama issued a statement on the beatification, saying he was “grateful to Pope Francis for his leadership in reminding us of our obligation to help those most in need, and for his decision to beatify Blessed Oscar Arnulfo [Romero].”

“Let us hope that Archbishop Romero’s vision can inspire all of us to respect the dignity of all human beings, and to work for justice and peace in our hemisphere and beyond,” Obama said.

Named the archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, Romero quickly became the country’s most outspoken opponent of a U.S.-backed right-wing government with strong ties to the military.

Romero’s final public act, the day before his death, was to beg, even order, soldiers and security forces not to fire upon civilians protesting government policies. The next day, he was shot through the heart while saying Mass in a small chapel on the grounds of a Catholic hospital, which also contained the modest house where he lived.

Although no one has ever been officially charged, a 1992 U.N. investigation concluded the intellectual author of the assassination was a right-wing politician and former army officer named Roberto D’Aubuisson.

Despite the atmosphere of national celebration in El Salvador, the divisions that surrounded Romero in life have also been apparent during his beatification.

“Sure, he’s blessed,” said a Salvadoran woman named Gracie Rivas, whose children attend an elite private school in the national capital. “He’s blessed for anyone who didn’t actually meet him, and for all he did for the guerillas.”

Such reactions were also heard internationally. The former archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela, said “this is a political beatification,” suggesting that it would be manipulated by leftist forces hostile to the Church.

Speaking on Salvadoran television, Monsignor Riccardo Urioste said, “it’s common to hear such opinions in the Church,” but “that doesn’t mean they’re correct.”

Speaking from Rome, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, attempted to play down the split over Romero.

In an interview with the Italian Catholic television network Sat2000, Parolin said the beatification “was a choice of faith, not ideological, and this is a fundamental point in today’s panorama.”

Others expressed objections that weren’t so much political but ascetic and spiritual.

“Romero would be rolling over in his grave for being used as a cheap form of advertising for the government and the city,” wrote Francesco Pilenga, a Salvadoran, in a grumpy Saturday morning tweet.

Such sentiment, however, was not in evidence at the beatification Mass. When Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who championed Romero’s cause in the Vatican, said before the Mass that Romero’s memory is “revered by all Salvadorans,” he drew sustained applause.

On the whole, the atmosphere surrounding the beatification was strongly upbeat.

One leading Salvadoran newspaper devoted a full third of its 92-page Saturday edition to beatification coverage, while the national government festooned the streets of San Salvador with posters celebrating “the saint of America.”

Most Salvadorans expressed delight in the beatification, even those who belong to the country’s burgeoning Evangelical Christian churches that’s often seen as a rival to the Catholic Church.

“Romero was an example to follow, who fought and preached God’s word,” said Jonathan Rivas, an Evangelical Christian.

“He fought for those most in need, the poor, during a time of war,” Rivas said. “This beatification is a big celebration for a large part of the population, but the real celebration will be when El Salvador is at peace with no more gangsters and no more death.”

Margarita Hernandez, a Catholic, agreed.

“As Salvadorans, we should all feel proud because Romero was a person who until the very end defended his ideals for the benefit of the people.”

“The only sad thing,” Hernandez said, “is that he’s no longer with us.”