Beatifications and canonizations can be signs of the direction of the Church. On January 22, 2022, Jesuit Rutilio Grande, his two companions Nelson Rutilio Lemus and Manuel Solórzano, and Franciscan Cosme Spessotto were proclaimed blessed as martyrs in the Central American state of El Salvador. They embody the new ferment in the Latin American Church following the Second Vatican Council; they are symbols of a missionary and persecuted Church that has produced many martyrs for faith and justice.
At the Second Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellín in 1968, the Council was creatively adapted to the context of Latin America. There, the bishops recognized that the most important sign of the times was the poverty of the subcontinent, a poverty that cried out to heaven. Inspired by the Gospel and by the theology then emerging, they took as the program for the Church the preferential option for the poor. Rutilio Grande placed this option at the center of his new concept of rural missionary ministry. We have spoken about him at length in our magazine, but on the occasion of his beatification it is good to recall some aspects of his significance.
Born in 1928 to a poor family in the small village of El Paisnal, El Salvador, Rutilio entered the Jesuits in 1945. He followed the usual philosophical and theological formation provided by the Society in Venezuela, Ecuador, Spain, France and Belgium. Until 1972 he was involved in the formation of priests in the national seminary in the capital, San Salvador, where he tried to introduce the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and the Medellín Bishops’ Conference. His biographer, Rodolfo Cardenal, writes that “Rutilio’s concern was to form priests to be at the service of the people.” In the fall of 1972, Rutilio chose to devote himself directly to parish work in the community of Aguilares, to which his home village belonged.
The vast majority of people there lived in the direst poverty. The land was in the hands of a few owners. It was clear to Rutilio that God was not indifferent to this situation. Often in his sermons he would say: “God is not lying in a hammock up there in heaven, but is in our midst. He cares whether the poor people down here are doing well or not.” Thus, together with a group of Jesuits and religious, he began to implement a pastoral strategy that would bring about the Church’s shift to the side of the poor, as had been decided at the Episcopal Conference of Medellín. Moreover, in 1973, along the same lines, the Society of Jesus had redefined its mission in today’s world to establish the inseparable relationship between the proclamation of the faith and the struggle for justice.
In his pastoral approach, Rutilio started from popular piety. This corresponded to the “theology of the people” developed in Argentina by Lucio Gera, who was also a strong influence on Pope Francis. Rutilio knew well that popular piety also needed to be freed from magical elements and to be shaped by the gospel. At the same time, by relaunching the Feast of Corn, he recognized the value of ancestral indigenous traditions in the spirit of inculturation of the Christian faith.
An essential part of his pastoral vision was the active participation of the faithful. The secret and seed of the new path was found in communities reading the Bible together. The aim was to connect the word of God with people’s lives. To this end, the groups followed the methodology of the three stages – see, judge, act – which came from the Christian Worker Youth movement. With his pastoral team of men and women, Rutilio created the Delegados de la palabra, the ambassadors of the Word, who set out to start new groups. Aguilares outlined the task. When by this method the peasants of El Salvador judged their own vital situation in the light of the Word of God, they reached true enlightenment. In this way they discovered that poverty and oppression were themes that recurred throughout the Bible. Thus, through the prophets and Jesus, God took the side of the victims.
Along this path, they developed faith-inspired social and political action. Grande encouraged the peasants to organize themselves into unions and to claim their right to a decent life and a fair wage. Other priests also followed his example. Because of this the landowners saw their interests threatened. The persecution of the Church in El Salvador began. Above all, foreign priests and Jesuits were accused of sowing disorder and spreading communism. At the beginning of 1977 the first priests were tortured and expelled, among them the Colombian Mario Bernal, parish priest of Apopa, near Aguilares.
On February 13, a protest demonstration against Bernal’s expulsion took place in Apopa, attended by over 6,000 people. At the concluding Mass, Grande delivered a fiery homily; he boldly stated: “It is dangerous for us to be Christians! It is really dangerous to be Catholic! It’s basically illegal to be a Christian, in our country!” He cited statistics about injustice and poverty in El Salvador. He continued, “We cover all this with false hypocrisy and lavish works. Woe to the hypocrites, who call themselves Catholics without believing, while they are full of unclean wickedness! They are Cains and they crucify the Lord, who is called Manuel, Luis, Chavela, the Lord who bears the name of the simple worker of the fields!”
The homily culminated in the image of Jesus’ return to El Salvador: “I am very much afraid, my dear brothers and friends, that very soon the Bible and the Gospel will not be able to enter our borders; only the covers will get there, because all their pages are subversive, subversive against sin, of course… I am very afraid, brothers and sisters. if Jesus of Nazareth came back and, as at that time, went down from Galilee to Judea, that is, from Chalatenango to San Salvador, I dare say that with his preaching and his works he would not reach as far as Apopa. I believe that he would be stopped at Guazapa. There he would be arrested and thrown in jail. They would bring him before some Supreme Court, accusing him of breaking the Constitution, of being a subversive. The Son of Man, the prototype of man, would be accused of being a revolutionary, a Jewish foreigner, a plotter with strange foreign ideas against democracy, that is, against the minority, ideas contrary to God, because they are those of the tribe of Cain. No doubt, my brothers, they would crucify him again.”
It is possible that it was this sermon that led to Rutilio’s death sentence. On March 12, 1977, traveling with two companions on his way to celebrate Mass – 70-year-old Manuel Solórzano and 15-year-old Nelson Rutilio Lemus – he was ambushed and killed by members of the National Guard. The instigators were the landowners. Wrapped in linen cloths, the three bodies were laid in front of the altar in the church of Aguilares. Late in the evening, Oscar Romero, who had recently been appointed archbishop, arrived.
Rutilio and Romero
Although Grande was a friend of Romero, at times the latter had been opposed to his pastoral project in Aguilares. A note to this effect is found in a report by Romero to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America in Rome. But when he stood before Grande’s body, Romero was shaken to his core. He had the priest’s simple room shown to him and, speaking to himself, said, “He lived as a truly poor man.” Romero then decided to celebrate Mass in the middle of the night. As a biblical text he chose the text from the Gospel of John: “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13).
The three bodies were transported to the capital, where on March 14 Romero celebrated the funeral Mass in the cathedral, which was broadcast on the radio. Realizing that from their hiding place the murderers were listening to the transmission, the archbishop addressed them with these touching words: “We would like to say to you, my homicidal brothers, that we love you and that we pray to God that you repent from the heart, because He is not capable of hating and knows no enemies.”
The murder of Rutilio and his companions produced a profound transformation in Romero. With hindsight, he himself describes his transformation in front of Rutilio’s body as follows: “If they killed him for what he did, then I must go down the same path. Rutilio opened my eyes.” Romero reacted to Rutilio’s assassination by announcing that he would no longer participate in any official act of government until the crime was cleared up. He gave another sign on March 20. He wanted a single Mass to be celebrated for the entire archdiocese in the cathedral of San Salvador. In that tense situation, the military regime feared a large gathering of people and tried to prevent that celebration by any means. The nuncio also opposed it, but Romero did not give in. More than 100,000 people gathered. In his sermon, the archbishop clearly stated: “Whoever touches one of my priests, touches me.” In the Catholic schools, instead of normal lessons, texts from the Bible, the Second Vatican Council and Medellín were read to the students.
For Pope Francis, the beatification of Rutilio was always a special concern, as was the canonization of Romero in 2018. As provincial of the Argentine Jesuits, he had followed their history closely. In a lecture given to the bishops of Central America during World Youth Day in 2019 in Panama, Francis presented Romero as a model of a bishop who gave his life for his sheep. He had learned about Rutilio’s biography through a book by Rodolfo Cardenal, which was published soon after his murder. In 2015, he told Cardenal during a meeting that took place in Rome, “The great miracle of Rutilio Grande is Monsignor Romero.”
An era of transformation in the Latin American Church
Rutilio’s beatification comes at a time of new movements and transformations in the Latin American and Caribbean Church, which can be compared to the ecclesial ferment that followed the Medellín Episcopal Conference. In 2019, the Amazon Synod took place in Rome, which in its vision of a Church with an Amazonian face was to open new paths for the Church. An important step forward was taken with the establishment of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon, CEAMA, with the aim of putting into practice the conclusions of the Synod. Bishops, priests, deacons and members of the indigenous peoples of all nine states of the Amazon are represented in the new Conference. A major innovative event took place in Mexico from November 21-28, 2021, the first Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean. In fact, in the series of major Latin American Episcopal Assemblies, after Aparecida in 2007 this was to be the sixth. However, Pope Francis explicitly desired that it not be an assembly of bishops, but an ecclesial assembly, involving priests, religious and laity.
Much of what is on the agenda for the renewal of the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean today was already anticipated by Rutilio Grande in his project for rural missionary pastoral work in Aguilares: the new missionary impetus, the new participation of the laity, the recognition of indigenous traditions, the prophetic contribution of the Church to political and structural transformations. Thus, the beatifications of January 22 were a signal that encourages the Church to walk a path of social, cultural, ecological and synodal conversion.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.3 art. 1, 0222: 10.32009/22072446.0322.1
. Cf. J. M. Tojeira, “Il martirio di Rutilio Grande”, in Civ. Catt. II 2015 393-406.
. The Assembly took place in a hybrid form due to the Covid-19 pandemic: in attendance there were about 80 participants in Mexico, while also involved there were about another 1,000 participants from the entire continent: 200 bishops, 200 priests, 200 religious and 400 lay people. This was preceded by an extensive consultation process, based on a preparatory document with the programmatic title: “We are all disciples going forth.” From the 70,000 contributions that had been received from individuals and groups, a “Narrative Synthesis” was born, which in turn formed the basis for consultations in Mexico and throughout the continent. The Church Assembly approved a concluding statement, defining 12 urgent needs for the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean. See the article by Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno and Mauricio López Oropeza [forthcoming in the La Civiltà Cattolica English Edition].