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Colleen DulleJanuary 21, 2022
A painting of St. Oscar Romero and Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande is seen in the rectory of San Jose Church in Aguilares, El Salvador. Four Salvadorans, including a teenage boy, Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande and Franciscan Father Cosme Spessotto, will be beatified in El Salvador Jan. 22, 2022, a Salvadoran bishop has confirmed. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

By the time Archbishop Óscar Romero was canonized by Pope Francis in 2018, his story was well known: An outspoken advocate of the rights of El Salvador’s farm workers, Archbishop Romero was gunned down by a right-wing death squad while celebrating Mass in 1980.

On Jan. 22, Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez of El Salvador will celebrate the beatification ceremony for Rutilio Grande, S.J.—the Jesuit priest whose assassination, also by a right-wing death squad, is said to have sparked Archbishop Romero’s bold stance against El Salvador’s government, military and wealthy elites.

“Pope Francis told me that the great miracle of Rutilio was Monsignor Romero,” said Rodolfo Cardenal, S.J., a friend of Rutilio Grande and the author of the biography, The Life, Passion, and Death of the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, published in 2020.

So who is this lesser-known Jesuit, and what factors led him to become the first priest murdered in the lead-up to El Salvador’s civil war?

On this deep dive episode of “Inside the Vatican,” we examine the story of Rutilio Grande through the eyes of his friends, family and scholars of his legacy. We revisit the political, economic and social conditions that surrounded Father Grande and his ministry and led to his death. And we look at what Father Grande’s beatification means for the church, particularly in El Salvador, today.

A humble Jesuit

Rutilio Grande was the youngest of seven children, born into a poor family in El Paisnal, the same Salvadoran city where he would later serve as a priest. His parents separated, and his father went to look for work on a banana plantation in Honduras, leaving him to be raised by his mother and, later, his grandmother.

Although he was a pious child who liked to pretend to celebrate Mass, it is unlikely he would have had the opportunity to become a priest had it not been for his local bishop, Archbishop Luis Chávez y González, who prioritized recruiting priests from poor backgrounds. It was Archbishop Chávez y González who invited young Rutilio to attend the high school seminary, after which he began formation with the Jesuits.

Ana María Pineda, R.S.M., a Sister of Mercy and distant relative of Father Grande who has recently completed a collection of remembrances by his family and friends, said that when Father Grande was working briefly in Panama as a young Jesuit, the Jesuits “find him one morning sitting there in a catatonic state, and he couldn’t respond to anybody. And the Jesuits didn’t quite know what to do with him.” Eventually, according to Father Cardenal’s biography, Rutilio was admitted to a clinic where he received treatment for catatonic schizophrenia and recovered.

“He loves where he comes from. He never forgets the poor little place of El Paisnal,” said Sister Pineda, a distant relative of Rutilio Grande.

Sister Pineda said Father Grande struggled with depression and self-doubt throughout his life and learned ways to help himself by avoiding isolation, exercising, taking naps and getting fresh air.

[Read more: Father Rutillo Grande: the (future) patron saint of breaking mental health stigma]

During his Jesuit formation, Rutilio studied in Venezuela, Ecuador, Spain and Belgium. But no matter where he went, he always remembered his roots.

“He loves where he comes from. He never forgets the poor little place of El Paisnal,” Sister Pineda said. “He never disconnects from that reality, even though he gets a lot of privileges and opportunities being a Jesuit.”

The call of Medellín

Rutilio’s rootedness was particularly important when he began studying the Latin American bishops’ Medellín documents, which laid out how the bishops hoped to respond to calls of the Second Vatican Council.

“The Medellín document really speaks specifically and extensively about economics, about land reform, about poverty, about power, about militarism, about respect for human rights,” said Eileen Markey, author of A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura, a biography of an American nun who was murdered by a death squad in El Salvador three years after Rutilio Grande.

For Father Grande—now working in a poor parish in Aguilares, near his home town—implementing the vision of Medellín meant helping the campesinos, or farm workers, organize for better living and working conditions.

One of his parishioners, Antonio Rivas, remembers it this way: “Father Grande told us there was a question that we never understood. As Christians, we were accustomed only to looking down at the soil, he said. But from time to time, we should also look up to see whose shoe is pressing on the back of our necks.”

"As Christians, we were accustomed only to looking down at the soil, [Father Grande] said. But from time to time, we should also look up to see whose shoe is pressing on the back of our necks."

Priests and nuns across the country had undertaken similar missions as their small Scripture discussion groups with parishioners revealed the injustices they were living with. As Ms. Markey said, “You hear things with new ears in different contexts, down on your dirt floor with your neighbors, hearing the story of the loaves and the fishes when you’ve been hungry your entire life.”

In response, dioceses set up pastoral centers that educated people on Scripture and the basics of organizing and land reform. This marked a major shift in the Catholic Church’s social role in the country.

“The power relationships in El Salvador had operated on like a three-legged chair,” Ms. Markey said, consisting of “the oligarchy that controls the wealth, the military that imposes it and keeps it that way, and the church that operates to keep people satisfied. So the church serves that oligarchy and military by saying, ‘God will reward your sufferings when you die.’”

When sisters and priests like Rutilio Grande took the side of the poor, the backlash from the military and oligarchy was intense. Death squads commissioned by the military and wealthy Salvadorans tortured and executed campesinos who took an active role in organizing. Their bodies would be buried in shallow graves or dumped in public places in order to terrify others into silence.

Hundreds of campesinos were killed in this way in the years leading up to Father Grande’s assassination, but a taboo against killing priests in a majority-Catholic country kept Rutilio safe until March 12, 1977, when he and two parishioners were gunned down by a paramilitary death squad as they were driving from Aguilares to El Paisnal for a novena.

Mr. Rivas, Father Grande’s former parishioner, remembers what happened that day: “The village women heard the chaos and the gunshots, and they went to see what had happened, but they found nothing except the car. They came and told us that our pastor had died.”

The legacy of Father Grande

That day, Archbishop Óscar Romero, rushed to the countryside when he heard the news. Father Grande and Archbishop Romero were old friends: one a Jesuit involved in farmworker organizing, the other a fairly conservative man who tried to stay out of politics. But the day Rutilio Grande died, that began to shift. Archbishop Romero celebrated a Mass for Father Grande’s community that lasted until midnight, and then stayed listening to the stories of the campesinos until the early hours of the morning.

The next day, Archbishop Romero announced that he would boycott all government events, which he was often invited to and attended as a courtesy, until Father Grande’s death was investigated. It never was. Instead, he began offering sermons that were broadcast across the country, listing the names of disappeared campesinos and preaching against the injustices they faced.

Three years later, Archbishop Romero was shot while celebrating Mass.

[Read more: This is the homily Óscar Romero was delivering when he was killed.]

This weekend, Rutilio Grande will be beatified, along with his two companions and the Italian friar Father Cosma Spessotto, who was killed in El Salvador in 1980. Together, said Father Cardenal, Father Grande’s friend and biographer, they are a symbol of the Salvadoran people, who have never seen complete justice for the atrocities committed during the war.

Together, the men being beatified are a symbol of the Salvadoran people, who have never seen complete justice for the atrocities committed during the war.

“This is kind of a reparation of these people who were assassinated during those years,” he said.

For Antonio Rivas, the campesino who worked with Father Grande, his pastor is a saint because, like Christ, he laid down his life for others.

“That was his mission: his love for the suffering peasant nailed to the cross, who is nailed to the sugar cane, he told us, just as they crucified Christ to the cross,” Mr. Rivas remembers. “And that is not fair. It is unjust. It cannot be. So he would join in our pain.”

“He is totally a saint because he lived as a saint here on earth.”

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