ROME — In a signal that sainthood for Latin America’s most famous contemporary martyr may not be far off, Pope Francis on Friday praised El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero and said his suffering continued after his 1980 assassination in the form of unjustified “slander.”

“He was defamed, slandered, his memory despoiled, and his martyrdom was continued, even by his own brothers in the priesthood and the episcopacy,” Francis said, in unusually blunt remarks to a delegation from El Salvador visiting Rome.

Romero was shot to death in 1980 while celebrating Mass, during a period of social revolt fueled by poverty and abuses of power. He was beatified in May 2015 in San Salvador, in one of the largest religious gatherings in the history of Central America.

Romero’s death helped trigger a bloody civil war that went on from 1980 to 1992, with fighting between Communist guerrillas and a US-backed right-wing military government, reaching a death toll of more than 75,000 people.

In the years since his death, many critics, including some senior Latin American prelates and Vatican officials, argued that Romero wasn’t killed for his faith but for political reasons, pointing to his opposition to a right-wing Salvadorian government accused of widespread human rights abuses.

On Friday, Francis said he had heard such objections himself over the years.

“It’s nice to also remember him like this: a man who continues his martyrdom,” Francis said, straying from his prepared remarks. “[Romero is] a man who, after having given his life, [was] continuously whipped by incomprehension and calumnies.”

“How many times those who have given their lives continue being struck with the hardest stone there is: The tongue!” the pope said, before leading the group in a prayer.

No one has ever been prosecuted for Romero’s assassination, but in 1993 a United Nations investigation concluded a right-wing politician with links to El Salvador’s military orchestrated the attack.

Referring to El Salvador’s continuous violence, fueled now not by paramilitary groups and guerrillas but by organized crime and drug-traffickers, Francis said Romero longs to see it end.

Francis said he looks forward to the moment in which the “terrible tragedy of the suffering of so many of our brothers as a result of hatred, violence, and injustice” comes to an end.

Known as “maras,” local gangs are responsible for the country’s unusually high homicide rate that, according to the World Health Organization, exceeds that of most war zones.

In January, Pope Francis formally recognized Romero as a martyr, clearing the way for his immediate beatification, as miracles are not required at that stage for those who died for the faith.

Church rules state that martyrs need a miracle in order to be canonized, meaning formally declared a saint.

At the moment, devotees of Romero are encouraging Catholics around the world to pray in his name for a miraculous intervention that could later be certified by Vatican panels of both scientists and theologians.

On the other hand, Pope Francis could decide to waive the miracle requirement in something called an “equipollent” canonization, meaning the pope invokes his personal authority to set aside the formal process, usually in response to intense local devotion among believers.

That was the case, for instance, when Pope Francis canonized St. Junípero Serra, an 18th century Spanish missionary who worked on the West Coast, during his recent trip to the United States.