Fr. Rutilio Grande. A Salvadoran martyr

Pope Francis has recently approved a decree proclaiming Father Rutilio Grande a martyr for the Catholic faith, as well as two Salvadorans who were killed along with him. That means they can be beatified. 

 “It is impossible to understand Romero without understanding Rutilio Grande, S.J.,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, postulator of Archbishop Romero’s cause for sainthood, has noted. As a bishop, Óscar Romero had not always advocated for the marginalized in strong social and political terms. That changed on March 12, 1977, when Salvadoran government forces assassinated his confidant and friend Father Grande on a dusty road near the small village of El Paisnal.

In promoting Father Grande for sainthood, the pope is lifting up a model of the servant-leader priest, one who freed himself from the trappings of the elite clergy and served among the marginalized in their struggle against systemic evil. For Francis, it is not only Father Grande’s horrific martyrdom that motivates his elevation to sainthood but a lifetime of living in solidarity with the poor and challenging the forces of oppression that damage their humanity.

Father Grande was born into a family of rural farmers near the same Salvadoran village where he would be killed by his own government 47 years later. At age 12 he enrolled in a minor seminary in San Salvador. There he would embrace a life that reinforced a faith of piety and otherworldly focus. Toward the end of his formation as a Jesuit, however, the Second Vatican Council dramatically altered his trajectory.

Father Grande’s ordination was celebrated with his first Mass in El Paisnal—a community he had left as the son of a very poor family. When he visited El Paisnal, he rejected any special treatment because he wanted to be treated and recognized as he had always been. Members of the community recall that he did not like to be called Don Tilo or Padre Tilo; no, he was always just Tilo.

Father Grande began his ministry as the prefect of discipline at the major seminary in San Salvador, where he was deeply committed to the formation of seminarians.
In the mid-1960s, Father Grande enacted an important experiment in pastoral formation. He gathered groups of seminarians from all over the country during their annual vacation and embedded them in poor communities. In this way seminarians would come into contact with the reality and the peoples they would eventually serve.

Father Grande was a passionate preacher and inspired organizer, who constantly feared the church was not walking with the people but in front of them. His profound self-awareness was evident when he recognized his own shortcomings in his work with poor communities, including moving too fast, not listening carefully enough and imposing solutions from above. His prophetic ability to hear the cry of the poor challenged the government, the military, wealthy landowners and even his own church leaders.

Father Grande eventually left the seminary and traveled to Quito, Ecuador, to the Institute for Pastoral Ministry sponsored by the bishops of Latin America. There he learned how to galvanize poor communities that were oppressed by the social forces around them. What he learned in Ecuador would prove transformative for the rural farming communities around San Salvador.

What Father Grande learned and lived out was a simple truth: Until the marginalized communities he served created their own agency, until they acted upon their own reality as a church community, nothing would change. An outside leader could not come in and transform poor communities.

Only local lay church leaders could encourage communities to become agents of their own change. The role of the Catholic Church, he believed, was to help those leaders emerge, support them, form them and walk with them. Inspired by the Gospel, these community leaders would become the most effective agents for the integrated development of their communities.
For two years Father Grande and his team led a delicate “mission” to very poor communities around his hometown. Through their own reading of Scripture, these communities came to realize that it was not God’s will that they remain poor.

Building the kingdom of God meant they needed to advocate for their communities in ways that were peaceful—but forceful. Throughout Father Grande’s pastoral “experiment” in the rural villages of El Salvador, Archbishop Romero carefully watched his friend and confidant try to apply the social teaching of the church to the reality of poor, oppressed rural communities.

Slowly people began to change their mindset and realize their oppression was not the will of God but actually contrary to God’s love for them. But as their awareness and demands for change grew, so, too, did the danger they faced. Soon threats came in against both Father Grande and the communities he served, mainly from wealthy landowners who felt threatened by the priest’s work encouraging rural farmers to organize for a better life.

Archbishop Romero witnessed the risks taken by Father Grande and saw the road he willingly chose in defense of the people he loved. On March 12, 1977, Father Grande was assassinated by government death squads at the behest of wealthy landowners.

In his homily at Father Grande’s funeral, Archbishop Romero said: “True love is what Rutilio Grande brings with his death, with two campesinos next to him. Like this, the church loves; dying with others and being present with others to the transcendence of the kingdom. The church loves them, and it is significant that while Rutilio walked with his people in order to carry the message of the Mass and salvation, that was where he fell, riddled with bullets. Rutilio was a priest with his people, walking with his people to identify with them, in order to live with them—but not only as a revolutionary inspiration. Brothers and sisters, he was an inspiration of love and precisely because it was for love, he was inspirational.”