by Joseph E. Mulligan, S.J.
In 1971 in Rome, the Synod of Bishops on Justice in the World declared: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”
Six years later, Father Rutilio Grande, S.J., a parish priest in El Salvador, was assassinated along with two co-workers (Manuel Solorzano, 72, and Nelson Rutilio Lemus, 15). He had taken the bishops’ statement seriously, and was supporting the efforts of the poor to organize themselves and to struggle for justice. He was the first of 17 priests to be martyred in his country.
“The world hates me because of the evidence I bring against it that what it does is evil” (John 7:7).
In El Salvador, the Bible was considered a subversive document. Fr. Grande… said: “It is practically illegal to be an authentic Christian in our situation, because the world around us is rooted in an established disorder; confronting that, the mere proclamation of the gospel is subversive.”
In El Salvador, the Bible was considered a subversive document. Fr. Grande, whose assassination had a profound impact on Oscar Romero, the new archbishop of San Salvador, had said: “It is practically illegal to be an authentic Christian in our situation, because the world around us is rooted in an established disorder; confronting that, the mere proclamation of the gospel is subversive.
“I am very much afraid that soon the Bible and the gospel will not be able to enter at our borders, because all its pages are subversive — against sin, naturally. If Jesus of Nazareth returned, coming down from Chalatenango to San Salvador, I dare say he would not arrive, with his preaching and actions, even to Apopa; they would arrest him for being a subversive and would crucify him again.”
Fr. Grande gave this sermon during a Mass on the occasion of the deportation of a Colombian priest from El Salvador. One month later, Fr. Grande and the two laymen were martyred.
His words about the illegality of the gospel brought to mind the story of a St. Irene who was martyred in 304 A.D. at Thessalonica. She was “one of those devoted Christians who at the cost of their lives succeeded in concealing and preserving for posterity copies of the Holy Scriptures and other Sacred Books” under Roman rulers who sought to confiscate such literature.” (The Book of Saints, by the Benedictine Monks of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Ramsgate,NY: Macmillan, 1942)
Artwork at the University of Central America in San Salvador depicts martyred Jesuit priests and the complicity of the nation’s business and political leadership with those murders.
Rutilio Grande was fundamentally a pastor, dedicated to Christ and to proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. Born in 1928, as a teenager he came to know Luis Chavez, the archbishop of San Salvador. Their friendship grew over the years, and in letters and visits the archbishop helped Rutilio to find and respond to his vocation.
As a priest he became a close friend of Oscar Romero, who asked Fr. Grande to be the master of ceremonies at his episcopal consecration. At Fr. Grande’s funeral, Romero, who had just become the archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977, spoke of him as his friend and brother. The martyrdom had a deep impact on Romero, calling him to take a more critical view of Salvadoran society and to speak out prophetically.
Ordained in 1959, Fr. Grande served as prefect of discipline and professor of pastoral theology in the diocesan seminary from 1965 to 1970, where he tried to bring about a greater participation by the seminarians in their own formation.
In 1972 he became pastor of Aguilares and initiated a team effort which involved the formation of Delegates of the Word with a strong social conscience. This led them to participate in peasant organizations striving for land reform; the ensuing opposition by the landed oligarchy resulted in the assassination of Fr. Grande and his two assistants. The pastor always made a clear distinction between the parish and the organizations while supporting their right to struggle for justice. As a member of the priests’ senate from 1974 to the time of his death, he played an active part in the pastoral planning of the archdiocese.
One year an old woman was asked what she remembered most about him. “What I recall most,” she said, “is how one day he asked me what I thought. No one had ever put that question to me in all my 70 years.”
Anniversary celebrations have been held every year on March 12, filled with fond memories of Fr. Grande. One year an old woman was asked what she remembered most about him. “What I recall most,” she said, “is how one day he asked me what I thought. No one had ever put that question to me in all my 70 years.”
The late Fr. José Luis Ortega, S.J., who worked with Fr. Grande, told how they conducted missions in various areas of the parish and gave New Testaments to everyone, even those who could not read. “Every afternoon we had long meetings with the community, including group work, songs, prayers, and bible reflection. It was a tremendous shock for the peasant to speak and to be listened to, to see that his neighbors appreciated and commented on what he said.
“The mission resulted in the formation of a community in which the Delegates of the Word were chosen by democratic vote. For these leaders we organized more thorough formation programs in Aguilares. Once they had opened their eyes by reading the Bible, the peasants always came with the same question: `If this poverty is not the will of God, what must we do?'”
The people remembered a phrase of Fr. Grande in which he expressed the good news: “Happy are you poor: it is God’s will that you stop being poor.” (María López Vigil, Piezas para un retrato, San Salvador: UCA, 1993).
Mourners stand at the gravesite of Fr. Rutilio Grande
In a book about Fr. Grande published by a team of Jesuits just one year after his death, the authors noted that ever since Grande’s pastoral studies at “Lumen Vitae” in Belgium a few years after ordination, “there is one constant element in all his pastoral work: to seek always the greatest possible participation of the people at the base — never to proceed autocratically, but horizontally.”
On March 12, 2002, the 25th anniversary of his death, Mass was celebrated in El Paisnal, with the archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, presiding. In his homily he noted that, when the Salvadoran conference of bishops was formulating a list of 20th century martyrs, the second name which was mentioned by all the bishops, after Archbishop Romero, was that of Fr. Grande. He also spoke of the martyr’s holiness, self-giving and generosity, even to the point of giving his life.
In the afternoon, hundreds of people walked in procession several miles from Aguilares to El Paisnal, stopping at three crosses and a large picture of Fr. Grande on the side of the road, marking the spot where the three were riddled with bullets. A speaker emphasized that we were not there just to commemorate the martyrs but to gain strength to continue their struggle.
In the town square outside the church in El Paisnal where the three are buried, Mass was celebrated at dusk, with Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, presiding. He began his sermon by thanking Christ, “the martyr of Golgotha,” for Fr. Grande and the witness he gave as a martyr. “Let us never forget that witness, and let us work to make his dream a reality.”
The bishop acknowledged that “all the current indicators of conditions for the majority show that El Salvador is going from bad to worse,” but he also asserted that “we will go forth from this celebration with new strength…”
The bishop acknowledged that “all the current indicators of conditions for the majority show that El Salvador is going from bad to worse,” but he also asserted that “we will go forth from this celebration with new strength and hope to work for the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of justice, love and peace.”
What was Fr. Grande’s dream? Several people’s organizations proclaimed it in their own words on a large banner over the stage where the Mass was celebrated: “We continue to struggle for a table for all which no one can monopolize.” The table refers to the land and other resources of El Salvador and of the world.
This was a common theme in Fr. Grande’s sermons. For him, the Eucharist represented “the greatest commitment, the symbol of a shared table, with a seat for each person and tablecloths long enough for all the symbol of Creation, and for this Redemption is needed”(Feb. 13, 1977). What are the main features of the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed? “All of us have one Father in common. Thus it is clear that we are all brothers and sisters, equally. But Cain is an abortion in God’s Plan and a denial of God’s Kingdom, and there are groups of Cains in this country and, what’s worse, they invoke God.
“God gave us a material world — for all, without borders. It is not a matter of someone saying: ‘Since I bought half of El Salvador with my money, I have a right to it, and that’s the end of the discussion!’ It is a right that was bought with money. It is a denial of God! The needs of the majority take precedence over such rights of individuals. So the world is a common table with tablecloths long enough for all, like this Eucharist, with a seat at the table for each one and with enough food for all. And with Christ in the middle, who did not take anyone’s life but offered his own for the noblest cause.
“He said: ‘Raise the cup in a toast of love for me, remembering me and making a commitment to the construction of the Kingdom, which is the brotherhood and sisterhood of a shared table, the Eucharist.'”
On March 12, on the hot and dusty road between Aguilares and El Paisnal, the older folks were walking in honor of their martyrs whom they had known and loved, while the younger people were learning about the martyrs’ struggle for the Kingdom of justice and committing themselves to carry on the work. Hope springs alive, quietly, in those who continue the struggle.
Fr. Joe Mulligan, a Jesuit priest from Detroit, works in Nicaragua with the Christian base communities. His book, The Nicaraguan Church and The Revolution, was published by Sheed & Ward in 1991. In 1994 he published The Jesuit Martyrs Of El Salvador — Celebrating the Anniversaries (Baltimore: Fortkamp), about the six Jesuits and two women massacred at the University of Central America in 1989. Joe may be reached by email at [email protected]
Read Joe Mulligan’s essay Hymns of Struggle in Central America.