We need more dangerous saints
This is shaping up to be a historic week in El Salvador, one filled with the resurrection of painful memories but also with joyous celebrations marking the strength, resilience and faith of the Salvadoran people. Thirty years ago this week, on Jan. 16, 1992, representatives of the Salvadoran government and of the FMLN insurgency in El Salvador signed the Chapultepec Peace Accords, bringing an end to that country’s long and brutal civil war. Over 75,000 people had died—with thousands more simply “disappeared”—and over a million Salvadorans had fled the country, but the peace accords offered hope for a new future for El Salvador.
Among those killed in the war by government forces and paramilitaries were a number of Catholic priests, men and women religious and lay missionaries, including Rutilio Grande, S.J. He will be beatified this coming weekend in San Salvador.
The people of El Salvador will celebrate the beatification of one of their own on Jan. 22, their beloved ‘Father Tilo.’ Let us join with them in crying out ‘¡Presente!’”
Father Grande and his two traveling companions, 15-year-old Nelson Rutilio Lemus and 72-year-old Manuel Solórzano, were murdered outside of the small town of El Paisnal on March 12, 1977. In addition to Father Grande’s witness as a martyr, wrote Ana Maria Pineda, R.S.M., in America last week, he is remembered by the people of El Salvador for his “personal contributions to the poor of his beloved country, his commitment to the church and the Jesuit community, his love for the people that he generously served [and] his love for his many friends and family.”
It was my great privilege to attend the beatification of Archbishop (now Saint) Óscar Romero in San Salvador in May 2015; if that celebration is any indication, Father Grande’s beatification will be a joy-filled and raucous occasion, putting to shame the more staid ceremonies one might find in Vatican City or elsewhere. The people of El Salvador, Pineda wrote, “will celebrate the beatification of one of their own on Jan. 22, their beloved ‘Father Tilo.’ Let us join with them in crying out ‘¡Presente!’”
Outside of El Salvador, Pineda noted, “Father Grande is primarily remembered as a close friend of Archbishop Óscar Romero. Often overlooked is the fact that at the outset of the civil war in El Salvador, Father Grande was the first priest killed. Indeed, he was the first-born of the martyrs of this new era.” His prophetic stance and his solidarity with the poor of his native country, she wrote, “led directly to his death. His influence on the church of El Salvador and those who followed him on the road to martyrdom merits profound consideration.”
Father Grande’s murder came just three weeks after the installation of Óscar Romero as Archbishop of San Salvador; Romero would join his longtime friend in martyrdom just three years later, murdered while saying Mass. Many other martyrs would follow, including ones well-known to America readers, like the “Churchwomen of El Salvador” in 1980 and the Jesuit martyrs from the University of Central America in San Salvador in 1989. In 2018, America reviewed Revolutionary Saint: The Theological Legacy of Óscar Romero by Michael E. Lee. In his review, Roger Haight, S.J. (someone who knows a thing or two about theology), noted that Lee did not seek simply to describe “Romero’s life story or the social and political forces that so distinctively shaped it.” Instead, he sought “to trace the way Romero understood his Christian faith in the midst of change, crushing social injustice, ecclesial upheaval and the self-interested political uses of power.”
We need more dangerous saints.
Lee noted in Revolutionary Saint that for many years, church officials had used traditional interpretations of martyrdom to disqualify Romero from consideration for martyrdom or sainthood. “But the argument to isolate the ‘martyr’ by canonical definition to a witness who dies for doctrinal truths pales when compared with a full life lived in witness to the values of the rule of God that Jesus too preached in the face of opposition,” Haight wrote. “Here again the life and motivation of the minister of God’s word break open the traditional language and let the substance emerge. Romero changed a restricted meaning of martyrdom by his lived commitment.”
In her 2016 review in America of Eileen Markey’s A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura, Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill made a similar point about the martyrdom of Maura Clarke, M.M., a Maryknoll sister murdered in El Salvador the same year as Romero along with Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, M.M., and Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. The word “martyr,” Kirkland Cahill wrote, “has perhaps lost its power to move us. It is either rendered ridiculous through misapplication to minor situations or seems so sublime that our paltry mortal minds cannot grasp its meaning.” But in Markey’s account of the life and death of Maura Clarke, Kirkland Cahill found a martyr who had been “reclaimed from the remoteness of the pedestal.”
Writing with a reporter’s eye for detail (The book begins with “The grave was fresh,” and the final chapter opens with “The death squads came in the night.”), Markey told a story that “resounds in the reader’s heart as a deeply felt and profoundly stirring affirmation of life, of a singular life,” Kirkland Cahill wrote. “She succeeds brilliantly at transforming the martyr Maura, symbol of ultimate Christian commitment, into a recognizable human being—incarnate, immediate and arresting in her individuality. And in doing so, Markey opens up all sorts of possibilities for us. Because if Maura, the martyr, is like us—imperfect, thirsty for God, responding to the challenges of her time and place as best she could—then perhaps we can be like Maura.”
I had a spiritual director many years ago who lamented that so many of El Salvador’s martyrs—including tens of thousands of disappeared lay people—would never be recognized by the church. Óscar Romero, he said, would have to stand in as the representative for all who paid the ultimate price over the years; while Romero was certainly a deserving candidate, “once we make them saints, they are no longer dangerous to us.”
Óscar Romero was finally canonized in Rome in 2018; it looks more and more likely that Father Grande will one day be declared a saint as well. Hopefully Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel will be too—we need more dangerous saints.
If you noticed these past few weeks that we have taken a bit of a deeper dive than usual into one author or theme, you’re a close reader of America’s literary criticism. In this space every week, we will feature reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
More Catholic Book Club columns:
- Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations
- John Updike: Suspicious of Santa, but fond of Christ
- Wendell Berry: the cranky farmer, poet and essayist you just can’t ignore
James T. Keane