ROME — Pope Francis advanced the sainthood causes of nine men and women, including a Franciscan priest who championed the land rights of farmers in Guatemala.

During an Oct. 10 audience with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Saints’ Causes, the pope recognized the martyrdom of Italian Father Tullio Merluzzo, a Franciscan priest who died alongside Luis Obdulio Arroyo Navarro, a Guatemalan layman who belonged to the Third Order of St. Francis.

A recognition of martyrdom means the two can be beatified, a step toward sainthood, without a miracle attributed to their intercession.

Born in Vicenza, Italy, in 1929, Merluzzo was ordained in 1953 by Cardinal Giuseppe Roncalli, the future St. John XXIII.

Seven years after his ordination, Merluzzo was sent to the Guatemalan department of Izabal, where he helped run several schools and hospitals as well as served as pastor in several parishes.

Many priests and religious in Guatemala became targets during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war as government forces cracked down on leftist rebels supported by the rural poor.

Merluzzo sought to help poor farmers regain property they were forced to abandon. However, this angered the local military, which accused the priest of collaborating with rebel forces and threatened his life.

His superiors, fearing for his life, relocated the priest to another parish, in Quirigua. However, he was ambushed and murdered along with Arroyo Navarro after returning from an evening catechism class July 1, 1981.

Merluzzo and Arroyo Navarro’s deaths occurred several weeks before the martyrdom of Blessed Stanley Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, the first martyr born in the United States. Beatified Sept. 23, Rother was gunned down July 28, 1981, in the rectory of his church in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.

The pope also signed decrees acknowledging the heroic virtues of four men and three women, including Brazilian Father Donizetti Taveres de Lima, who was known for his holiness and service to the poor and the sick, and Polish Sister Elizabeth Rose Czacka.

Despite losing her sight at the age of 22, Sister Czacka founded the Franciscan Sisters Servants of the Cross and dedicated her life to helping the visually impaired.

If the pope also recognizes a miracle attributed to their intercession, they would be beatified. Another miracle is needed for canonization.

The other decrees approved by Pope Francis Oct. 10 recognized the heroic virtues of:

— Ukrainian Capuchin Father Seraphim Kaszuba, 1910-1977.

— Spanish Father Magin Morera Feixas, 1908-1984, former superior general of the Congregation of the Sons of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

— Spanish Sister Maria Lorenza Longo, founder of the Capuchin Poor Clares. She also founded the Hospital for the Incurables in Naples, Italy. She was born in Spain in 1463 and died in Naples in 1539.

— French Sister Frances of the Holy Spirit, 1820-1882, founder of the Franciscan Sisters of the Holy Spirit.

— Francesco Paolo Gravina, 1800-1854, an Italian prince who founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent.