Padre Tío Tilo: Rutilio Grande’s niece talks about her childhood with her martyred uncle
Ana Gladys Guzmán Grande was only 7 when she decided to confront Rutilio Grande, S.J.
“I want you to tell me, are you my uncle or are you a priest?” the young Gladys asked him one afternoon in her grandmother’s house.
He laughed. “I’m both!”
“O.K.,” she said. “So what do I call you? Padre Tío Tilo?”
“Yes, that will be fine.”
Ms. Guzmán Grande, who now lives in Los Angeles, will be present during her uncle’s beatification on Jan. 22 in San Salvador. Father Grande is being beatified alongside Manuel Solózano and Nelson Rutilio Lemus, who were traveling with the priest when they were all murdered on March 12, 1977. Cosme Spessoto Zamuner, O.F.M., another Salvadoran martyr who died during El Salvador’s long civil conflict in the 1970s and ’80s, will also be beatified.Ms. Guzmán Grande used to play with Nelson when they were both children, and she knew Don Manuel. She spoke at length about her uncle, “Padre Tilo,” in an interview with America.
“He liked to talk with children,” she said. “That was a privilege for me and I didn’t even realize. I loved speaking with him. I loved speaking with him because he listened to me. He heard me and he counseled me.”
During the week, she lived in San Salvador with her parents. But on many weekends, she would stay with her great grandmother and grandmother in El Paisnal, a rural town several miles outside of Aguilares.
Padre Tilo, who was stationed in Aguilares, would walk to El Paisnal to celebrate Sunday Mass each week. And he always stopped by his aunt’s home, his Tía Mere, Ms. Guzmán Grande’s grandmother. Tia Mere would serve him a hot drink made of corn and cinnamon. To eat, he would often have chicken soup with roasted chicken breast.
“He ate so little, and he was really so gentle,” Ms. Guzmán Grande said. “They would serve him a lot, and then serve me just a little. Soup with a little chicken wing or leg or something.”
When he would begin to protest he had been served too much, the young Gladys would stop him. “Don’t say anything,” she told him. “What you don’t eat you can give to me!”
And he would laugh. She was always sure to be near when her uncle might come by because she knew she would get a chance to eat, she said.
“I’m telling you this so you know the quality of his heart,” she said. “What was he doing with this little pest, attending to her, listening to her, when he had so much work?”
Years later, she remembers noticing his shoes. They were well kept and shined, but heavily worn, she said. “But Padre Tío Tilo, those shoes are old!” she told him. “Don’t you have any other ones?”
He did not. “Well, why don’t you buy yourself some new ones?”
He explained that he did not have money for that. “Well, so why don’t you take some money from the collection basket and get yourself some new shoes?”
“No, I couldn’t do that!” he told her.
“I realize now how humble he was and how he simply didn’t care about his shoes or whether he had enough to buy new ones,” Ms. Guzmán Grande said. “That wasn’t his job. His job was arduous and tiresome and he would walk and walk.”
She recalled numerous times seeing him walking the road between Aguilares and El Paisnal and his mother or aunt would offer him a ride in the car. “He would always say, ‘N thanks. It helps me to walk,’” she said.
"I loved speaking with him because he listened to me. He heard me and he counseled me.”
“Once I remember overhearing him tell my mother that he always wanted to be walking alone, not accompanied by anyone. Later, I understood why,” she said, explaining that he knew his life was in danger and he did not want others to be hurt if something happened to him.
A gentle priest for the marginalized
Padre Tilo would always be in the confessional in Paisnal well before celebrating Mass.
“I would say, ‘Oh why is he in there?’” Ms. Guzmán Grande recalled. “I was always following him, boxing him in. But when he was in the confessional, I couldn’t speak with him.”
So one day she decided she would get in line for confession. After all, she thought, everyone who got in line for confession would end up receiving Communion. So why not?
When she went in, Padre Tilo began by saying, “Ave Maria Purisima,” or “Hail Purest Mary,” a way for a priest to begin a confession.
“What?” the young Gladys said in response.
“Ave Maria Purisima,” Padre Tilo repeated.
So Padre Tilo pulled aside the confession curtain, saw his niece, smiled and explained that her response was, “sin pecado concebida,” or “conceived without sin.”
“Oh! O.K. Sin pecado concebida.”
“Are you here to confess your sins?” he asked.
So Padre Tilo walked his niece through her first confession, asking her a few questions about how she got along with family members and other people in her life. He gave her counsel that has remained with her all these years.
During Mass, she got in line to make her first Communion. Padre Tilo told her as she approached to receive, “You should never ever forget what you are receiving today. This is the body of Christ.”
People in the town would give Padre Tilo many things when he would arrive, Ms. Guzmán Grande said. They would bring fresh cheese and tortillas, eggs, hens and fruits. He would take what he received and would give it to others, giving specific instructions on who would receive what, Ms. Guzmán Grande said, explaining that he knew who was in need.
She said her uncle was a big reason why she went to Catholic school as a child, advocating for her enrollment with her family. He told her, “This is the way you are going to continue growing in your faith.”
Padre Tilo would make the journey into the Salvadoran mountains to celebrate Mass for those in more remote areas. He would bring Bibles, food, medicine and other items that were needed. Many would carry the items on horses, but Padre Tilo would walk.
“I realize now how humble he was and how he simply didn’t care about his shoes or whether he had enough to buy new ones.”
During the Mass, Ms. Guzmán Grande recalls, they would ring an old hub cap for the bell. She still remembers the “tang, tang, tang,” of the clanging metal. The people would either bring wooden stools or sit on the ground.
On these trips, Padre Tilo was always sure to bring books for learning to read. He had assembled a team of young people who would be in charge of giving classes to children from the hills and ranches who could not make it to school.
As a child, Ms. Guzmán Grande recalls once being asked to help a man who could not read. Years later, as a teenager, she saw the same man giving catechism classes and reading from the Bible.
“He learned how to read the Bible with Padre Tilo,” she said. “He became a great catechist.”
Her uncle had a gift for speaking, she said. During his homilies, he would start with his gentle voice, saying something like “Beloved brothers and sisters, we are gathered here to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord,” and then he would raise his voice, “But what happens if we do not listen to God’s word!” And then his voice would become gentle again. It helped keep everyone’s attention, she said.
“You should never ever forget what you are receiving today. This is the body of Christ.”
Even on his weekly visits to El Paisnal, she recalls her uncle carrying simple medicine, like aspirin or mixtures for an upset stomach, along with Bibles for the townspeople. He would bring books and notebooks and pencils for the children to learn to read and write.
“He was intentional about approaching and being close with people,” she said. “He would concern himself with those who were more distant, with those for whom it was more difficult to get things from the city. He was intentional about reaching those on the margins.”
Ms. Guzmán Grande also recalls Padre Tilo working with a bank to secure loans for workers to rent farm land from landowners. The money would also be used to buy fertilizer and seeds.
“I would ask him why he got involved with all of that,” she said.
“Well, why are you not concerned with it? Because you have something to eat, right?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, they don’t have food.”
“He was intentional about approaching and being close with people.”
Her mother told her of a time when some family members wanted to leave an inheritance to her uncle. He told them he could not accept it. “It is not for me to have property or wealth,” he said. “Look for those in need and give it to them.” (Jesuits take a vow of poverty, and any such gifts or inheritances would normally be given over to a Jesuit’s local province.)
As a teenager, Ms. Guzmán Grande said Padre Tilo would often ask for “La Vida Sigue Igual,” by Julio Iglesias, to be sung at the end of Mass. It is not a religious song, she said, but it has a lot of truth.
To paraphrase some of the song’s lyrics: There is always a reason to live, always a reason to struggle. There is always someone for whom to suffer and someone to love. In the end, while people may depart, their works remain. Others will come to continue the work. Life goes on the same.
Following in their uncle's footsteps
Ms. Guzmán Grande’s niece, Ana Grande, said many members of the Grande family have carried on Padre Tilo’s legacy. She herself is the associate executive director of the Bresee Youth Center, which seeks to empower families and young people in Los Angeles struggling against poverty.
Ms. Grande first remembers hearing about her uncle when she was a child. In the 1980s, Blessed Sacrament Parish converted an old convent to welcome refugees, renaming it Casa Grande after Padre Tilo. During a solidarity movement event, Ms. Grande’s aunt saw her looking at a picture of the priest.
“You know that’s your uncle,” her aunt told her. “This is our family member who was killed because he believed in the goodness of people.”
Later, Ms. Grande met Amanda Romero, who used to work with Padre Tilo in El Salvador. She told the young Ana that she had some of her uncle’s mannerisms. Getting to know Salvadoran refugees at the center at Blessed Sacrament inspired Ms. Grande to pursue the kind of work she does today.
“You know that’s your uncle. This is our family member who was killed because he believed in the goodness of people.”
“It’s not just carrying out his legacy, but it’s the love of people, it’s the belief in a better tomorrow that inspires the work that we do,” she said. “We need to be a church in action. And I think my uncle did that. He wasn’t always applauded for what he did. But he wasn’t a person that had a fear of dialoguing with persons with different points of view.”
Recently, at a church gathering in Los Angeles, Ms. Guzmán Grande shared with a group photos from her home parish in El Paisnal. The parish is preparing to celebrate the lives of Padre Tilo, Don Manuel and Nelson. One person reacted to the image and said, “They say that priest was with the FMLN,” referring to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, a paramilitary insurgency established by the Democratic Revolutionary Front in 1980. FMLN eventually became a political party in El Salvador.
While her uncle was never a part of the front—he died three years before it was established—it hurt Ms. Guzmán Grande deeply to hear him associated with it because, she said, he was not political. She believes it is important that people know this about him.
“You cannot hide the things some want hidden,” she said. “In life, we have to speak of what is really happening. And if by doing that you get into trouble, well, you still have to speak. There needs to be justice.”
But she distinguishes standing for justice from other movements in El Salvador at the time. While at college, she was approached to join a political group. They gave her the writings of Mao Zedong and Karl Marx. But she told them she did not want any part of it.
“We have to overcome this as a family and move forward. That’s how we rise up as a people,” she said. “My uncle wasn’t a revolutionary. He gave food to eat to the person who was hungry. He gave water to the person who was thirsty. That’s what my uncle did. He himself said, ‘Having a Bible is being revolutionary.’”