Pope Francis has raised slain Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI to sainthood in a ceremony in Saint Peter's Square attended by tens of thousands of people.

"We declare and define Paul VI and Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdamez... to be saints and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole church," Pope Francis said, before the crowds broke into wild applause.

The pope declared the two men saints along with five other lesser-known people who were born in Italy, Germany and Spain in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Both Romero, who was shot by a right-wing death squad while saying Mass in 1980, and Paul, who guided the Church through the conclusion of the modernising 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, were contested figures within and without the Church.

Both were thrust to the forefront of history by the convulsive political and social changes of the 20th century and both had a lasting influence on the current pontiff, Francis, Latin America's first pope.

Romero, who had often denounced repression and poverty in his homilies, was shot dead on 24 March 1980, in a hospital chapel in San Salvador, the capital of the impoverished Central American country of El Salvador.

Romero's murder was one of the most shocking in the long conflict between a series of US-backed governments and leftist rebels in which thousands were killed by right-wing and military death squads.

It was widely believed to have been ordered by Roberto D'Aubuisson, an army major and founder of the right-wing ARENA party. He died of cancer in 1992.

Romero consistently denounced violence by the Salvadoran military and paramilitary against civilians, and urged the international community to stop the oppression.

In his final homily, minutes before he was shot in the heart, Romero spoke of spreading "the benefits of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom across the earth ...."

The 1980-1992 war in El Salvador between the US-backed army and the Marxist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which later became the ruling party, left 75,000 dead and 8,000 missing.

Romero became an icon for Latin America's poor, appearing on T-shirts similar to those bearing the image of Che Guevara, but his sainthood cause ran into stiff opposition in the Vatican and among powerful conservatives in the Latin American Church.

Both feared that Romero had become too political in life and even more so in death.

The process languished for decades.

Francis sped it up after his election in 2013 and in 2015 the Vatican declared that Romero had died a martyr, killed out of hatred for the faith.

Paul VI guided the Church through the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, which had started under his predecessor, and the implementation of its reforms. He was elected in 1963 and died in 1978.

Francis often quotes Paul, showing that he is committed to the reforms of the Council, which allowed the Mass to be said in local languages instead of Latin, declared respect for other religions, and launched a landmark reconciliation with Jews.

Still today, ultra-conservatives in the Church do not recognise the Council's teachings and blame Paul for starting what they see as a decline in tradition.

Paul reigned in the 1960s when many men left the priesthood and vocations fell sharply in a turbulent era of social change that coincided with the sexual revolution and the widespread availability of the birth control pill.

Despite his many reforms, Paul is perhaps best known for his 1968 encyclical Humane Vitae (On Human Life), which enshrined the Church's ban on artificial birth control, saying nothing should block the possible transmission of human life.

The ban, which Paul issued against the advice of a papal commission, became the most contested Church ruling of the 20th century and is still widely disregarded by Catholics.