VATICAN CITY — Six months after becoming the first Latin American pontiff, Pope Francis invited an octogenarian priest from Peru for a private chat at his Vatican residence. Not listed on the pope’s schedule, the September 2013 meeting with the priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez, soon became public — and was just as quickly interpreted as a defining shift in the Roman Catholic Church.
Father Gutiérrez is a founder of liberation theology, the Latin American movement embracing the poor and calling for social change, which conservatives once scorned as overtly Marxist and the Vatican treated with hostility. Now, Father Gutiérrez is a respected Vatican visitor, and his writings have been praised in the official Vatican newspaper. Francis has brought other Latin American priests back into favor and often uses language about the poor that has echoes of liberation theology.
And then came Saturday, when throngs packed San Salvador for the beatification ceremony of the murdered Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero, leaving him one step from sainthood.
The first pope from the developing world, Francis has placed the poor at the center of his papacy. In doing so, he is directly engaging with a theological movement that once sharply divided Catholics and was distrusted by his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Even Francis, as a young Jesuit leader in Argentina, had qualms.