They’re calling it a gift from St. Oscar Romero.

Pablo and Alina Morales, a couple from Surrey, B.C., were surprised and thrilled to receive round-trip tickets to Rome for the Oct. 14 canonization of the Archbishop of San Salvador.

“It’s a miracle for us,” said Pablo, who received the tickets as a gift from Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Surrey and Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Vancouver. “It was God’s gift from Oscar Romero.”

Pablo knew the saint better than most. He was Archbishop Romero’s personal driver for five years, and had been with him two hours before the archbishop was killed while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel March 24, 1980.

“People always ask me: ‘Do you like the movie about Oscar Romero?’ I say: ‘Not really, because it’s not like real life,’” he told The B.C. Catholic.

Pablo first met one of El Salvador’s most influential figures when he was 10 years old and living on the grounds of a seminary, where his father worked as a hired hand.

Archbishop Romero, who visited the seminary often, treated Pablo like a younger brother. He taught him to pray the Rosary, gave him a Bible and Rosary beads, and brought him along for long drives to rural churches to celebrate weddings, funerals, and baptisms.

At age 16, Archbishop Romero hired Pablo as his driver.

“He was very close to God. Every day I saw him read the Bible and pray while I was driving for him. He was praying all the time, trying to keep relaxed for a few moments inside the car,” he said.

Soon, Pablo also held the keys to Archbishop Romero’s office and would act as a quasi-security guard and deliver important mail personally to the archbishop’s home.

Seventeen-year-old Pablo Morales (right) sits on the side of the road eating lunch with Archbishop Romero and others in a photo. The headline says: "The Church of the poor." (BCC file photo)

With El Salvador on the brink of civil war, its citizens were afraid to speak publicly about oppressive political systems, local human rights abuses, and the plight of the poor. So, Archbishop Romero raised his voice.

“Poor people didn’t have a voice. So, Oscar Romero spoke for them,” said Pablo. “When Jesus wanted to talk to the people, too many people were waiting for a long time. The same happened to him.”

Large crowds would come out, sometimes standing in line for hours, to hear Archbishop Romero speak. But, it was dangerous work. The archbishop’s friends and fellow priests speaking on behalf of the poor were assassinated; people who led Bible studies or Catholic youth groups were suddenly going missing.

“Too many times I saw a letter (to Archbishop Romero) that said: ‘You want to continue to speak like this? I will kill you.’ Almost every day,” said Pablo.

Despite his boss’ dangerous actions in a country rife with violence, Pablo says he didn’t fear for his life.

“He asked me if I was scared. I said: ‘No, I don’t feel scared. I feel comfort.’ I know it was dangerous, but never did anyone harm me. I was always working alone after driving him and going back to the house. But God protected me.”

Pablo was only 21 years old when he drove Archbishop Romero to the hospital chapel where, within two hours, the archbishop would become a martyr.

“He spoke the truth. That’s why they killed him,” said Pablo’s wife, Alina.

A judge in El Salvador was assigned to investigate the murder, but suffered an assassination attempt three days later and disappeared.

After the death of the famous archbishop, Pablo said various political groups would use his name to promote their own agendas. He believes if the archbishop was alive, he wouldn’t side with any of them. “He never was in one group or another group. He was just doing his job like a pastor for the church. I trust him, because I never saw a different thing.”

More than 100,000 people attended Archbishop Romero’s funeral at the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador. It was still unsafe to associate with his values of speaking out for the poor and promoting justice; bombs and gunfire were aimed into the crowd during the ceremony. Dozens were killed.

Violence erupts during the funeral of Archbishop Romero in 1980. (CNS photo/Ulises Rodriguez, Reuters)

Pablo and Alina had both witnessed the funeral and the massacre. When she heard gunshots, Alina dropped to the ground and covered her head. She was trampled underfoot by escaping mourners and calls it a miracle that she survived.

Now, the Morales pair believes St. Romero is still watching over and protecting them.

“We are very, very happy,” said Alina ahead of their trip to Rome. “It is a big gift from heaven.”

St. Romero left his country with a visible sign of the importance of prayer, the value of hope, and the strength of belief in God, said Pablo.

“His body is dead, but his spirit is still alive.”