LOS ANGELES — While Pope Francis may be the one who finally canonizes Blessed Óscar Romero, Cardinal José Gregorio Rosa Chávez — Romero’s one-time close friend — says he believes the late El Salvadoran martyr will be known as “the saint of four popes.”

Rosa, who was named El Salvador’s first ever cardinal last June by Francis, said that there are elements of Romero’s life that were shaped by, or influenced by, Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.

His remarks came in an interview with Crux during the 2018 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, where Rosa spoke on justice and forgiveness — themes that have defined much of the Romero legacy since he was assassinated while celebrating Mass in 1980.

As Archbishop of San Salvador, Romero was an outspoken social justice advocate who championed the poor and denounced government corruption. He has long been held as a hero in his homeland and beyond for serving as a voice for the marginalized. Yet due to what some perceived as a political abuse of his legacy, his path to sainthood was slowed down or blocked at various points.

In 2012, however, Benedict XVI cleared the way for his cause for canonization, noting that he had no doubt that Romero deserved it, and soon after his election in March 2013, Francis fast-tracked the cause.

“Each one of  [the four popes] had a very important part in the process,” Rosa told Crux. “Francis just pushed it forward. Romero is the icon of the Church that Francis wants to be, and the type of pastor he wants.”

Since Francis’s announcement earlier this month that Romero is to be made a saint, there’s been much speculation as to when and where the canonization will take place.

By some accounts, the logical time is a dual canonization with Pope Paul VI this coming October in Rome following the Synod of Bishops, when many of the world’s prelates will already be in Rome for the occasion, though combining a pope with someone who wasn’t a pope would perhaps be seen as bad form in some quarters.

Others have pushed for Francis to do it when he travels to Panama in January 2019 for World Youth Day, perhaps by adding a stop in El Salvador.

Rosa told Crux that since there’s been no official announcement, the El Salvadoran church is expecting it to take place in October — yet they have also made a request for Francis to stop by El Salvador en route to World Youth Day so that it can take place on Romero’s home turf.

At the five-year mark of Francis’s papacy and on the eve of his friend’s canonization, Rosa is still marveling at this unexpected turn of events, both for himself personally and for the Church at-large.

Rosa, who ran the diocese of San Salvador’s communications office under Romero and was later named an auxiliary bishop of the diocese in 1982, never expected that he would one day receive a red hat, especially since he was the first auxiliary bishop ever to be given one.

When he was named cardinal, he dedicated his appointment to Romero, who he believes continues to watch over his beloved homeland.

He told Crux that Romero’s intercessions have been critical in the country’s ongoing peace efforts. Due to a civil war from 1979 to 1992, the country has been left bitterly — and violently — divided, but Romero has been a means of a much sought-after peace for many Salvadorans.

“There’s a new phenomenon of trying to reconcile through and with Romero,” Rosa said. “People go ask for forgiveness to the priest and then they go to the tomb to ask for forgiveness to Romero, so I call him a spiritual earthquake.”

That description of a “spiritual earthquake” is one he’d also apply to the man who made him cardinal, for whom he has nothing but praise to offer.

“He’s an exceptional man, he’s a man of peace, a free man, and he knows where the Church should be going and he goes forward in that route,” Rosa told Crux. “It’s like Jesus coming down to earth.”