El Salvador hopes for a miracle and another saint-in-waiting

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rhina Guidos

By Rhina Guidos

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CNS) — El Salvador’s Catholic Church
circles swirl these days with news about a possible miracle attributed to the
intercession of Blessed Oscar Romero, one that many hope will lead to his

But in the not-so-quiet whispers of hope, there’s also the
yearning that the momentum will help the beatification cause of his martyred Jesuit
friend, Father Rutilio Grande.

Father Grande was killed 40 years ago — March 12, 1977
— while on his way to a novena. More than a dozen bullets went through his body,
killing him and parishioners Manuel Solorzano, 70, and 16-year-old Nelson
Rutilio Lemus.

“We’re waiting” for word that will make Father Grande El
Salvador’s next saint-in-waiting, said Andrea Perla, of the Archdiocese of San
Salvador’s canonization department. 

Perla, a 20-something charged with using social
media to teach others about Father Grande, said there’s a lot to learn from the
priest’s exemplary life: humility, generosity, and caring for those who need
help the most. Like many young Catholic Salvadorans, she said she didn’t know a
lot about Father Grande, other than his association with Romero until she
started reading about his life.

“And I really fell in love,” she said.

Father Grande, a Salvadoran from the countryside, was
educated mostly in Spain and Belgium and other parts of Latin America, but
returned to work among his country’s poor and rural masses. The mission teams
he organized taught peasants to read using the Bible, but also helped the rural
masses organize as workers to speak against a rich and powerful minority that
paid them meager salaries and against the social maladies that befell them just
because they were poor.

Jesuit Father Salvador Carranza worked with the team of
missionaries Father Grande organized, which included Jesuit priests and lay
ministers. They evangelized a wide rural area in El Salvador from 1972 until Father Grande’s
assassination, forming small communities that would read and discuss the Bible and subsequently other goings-on in their lives.

“Gathering as a community helped them grow tremendously,”
Father Carranza said in an interview with Catholic News Service. It started
slowly. They began fixing a person’s home, a street, and then they organized a
food co-op that helped those who didn’t have enough to eat, Father Carranza

“He always told the community,” Perla said, that “he didn’t
want to bring the church to them, he wanted them to become the church.”

As the Jesuit publicly advocated for the poor and
disadvantaged, others quickly moved in to silence him.

“Rutilio was assassinated for believing that the poor are
worth a space at the table,” said Jose Artiga, executive director of the San
Francisco-based Salvadoran Human Aid, Research and Education Foundation, known

Artiga and his wife named one of their sons Rutilio to honor
the priest, who is “a symbol of struggle, a symbol of accompanying the
organized poor, a symbol of giving your life for the liberation” of others.

Today, the bullet-ridden shirt Father Grande wore when he
was killed is one of the first items to greet visitors in a permanent exhibit
at the Hall of Martyrs at San Salvador’s Romero Center, a space devoted to
telling the story of the country’s wartime atrocities. The exhibit, on the
campus of a Jesuit university, focuses
on El Salvador’s Catholic martyrs.

David Molina, a student at the university who gives tours at
the Romero Center, said Father Grande’s place at the start of the exhibit is
deliberate because his death marked the beginning of a terrible moment for
Catholics in the country. It set off a persecution of priests, religious women
and men and laity killed because they advocated for the poor in the period that
produced and included a 12-year civil war that claimed more than 70,000 lives,
including Archbishop Romero’s in 1980, and six of Father Grande’s Jesuit
colleagues in 1989.

“Walking with the poor, he suffered the same persecution
they were suffering, including death,” Artiga said.

For a time, little was said about Father Grande because of a
“strategy of fear” that those who killed him — and who were never identified or tried — used to try to silence his message,
said Salvadoran Father Luis Salazar. What Father Grande said wasn’t popular but
it was necessary, said Father Salazar, adding that “the Gospel challenges us” and is not meant just to hear nice things.

Salvadoran Bishop Jose Elias Rauda of San
Vicente, who attributes his vocation to the Jesuit, said aside from teaching
solidarity, sensibility and fraternity, Father Grande exemplified
straightforwardness, which later Archbishop Romero emulated.

“These were people who didn’t keep quiet” about what has
happening to the poor, Bishop Rauda said.

Forty years after his death, Father Grande has powerful
admirers in the church. Fellow Jesuit Pope Francis is said to have asked a
member of the commission pushing for the beatification of Father Grande whether
there was yet a documented miracle attributed to the Jesuit’s intercession. When
the answer was no, the pope said he knew of one: Archbishop Romero.

It is popularly believed
something inside the archbishop changed when he saw the brutal manner in
which Father Grande and his parishioners were killed. Before the killings, he
hadn’t publicly spoken about the deteriorating social situation in the country
or abuses against the poor.

Witnesses said that as Father Grande’s body was carried
toward his parish, it practically came apart because of the many wounds. The
incident, along with other cases Archbishop Romero knew about involving the killing of
unarmed civilians, led the archbishop to take up Father Grande’s voice in defending the

The Vatican beatified Archbishop Romero in 2015 after determining he was killed out
of hatred for his Catholic faith. Father Rutilio devotees are hoping that
the Romero beatification, along with the 2013 election of a Jesuit to the papacy,
can only help recognize a man they’ve long considered a saint.

Father Grande is buried in his home parish of St. Joseph in El
Paisnal, a town north of San Salvador, which is increasingly receiving visitors
from abroad wanting to know more about the life of the priest. They include the
Vatican’s Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, postulator of Archbishop Romero’s sainthood cause,
who in 2015 visited the spot where the priest and his parishioners were killed
and celebrated Mass at the parish where the three are buried. During the visit
he offered comments about Father Grande and Archbishop Romero.

“Father Rutilio and Archbishop Romero had one great piece of
wealth: the Word,” Archbishop Paglia said, according to a Diaro1.com article,
adding that while some sought to “truncate” their message, with “weapons,
power, fear,” they failed.

Instead of silencing it, those efforts strengthened their message of
solidarity, humility and caring for the poor, which still speaks to the
challenges of extreme violence, poverty and inequality that remain in El
Salvador, said Monica Fernandez, who is working to bring to fruition Rutilio
Grande National University, a project that would educate the country’s poor.

“They are models and examples that can guide the church and
society in the country,” Fernandez said. “Seeking that peace with justice,
seeking that brotherhood that they preached, lived and incarnated, and for
which they gave their lives as martyrs. They still have much to say in El
Salvador, in the universal church and in Latin America.”

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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