The grounded Gospel of Rutilio Grande, ‘A priest with his people”
In May 2015, amid throngs of cheering Central American Catholics, Pope Francis beatified Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador 35 years after his assassination. It was a clear signal to all that the church of Francis was to be a church for the poor. It was also a clear sign that the theology centered on the liberation of the poor, which the archbishop espoused and for which he died, was not only to be respected but would be the cornerstone of this pope’s leadership. Before the incense had faded away after Archbishop Romero’s beatification Mass, Francis was heard to say, “Next comes Rutilio.” The story of Rutilio Grande, S.J., is unknown to many Catholics even today—but not to Jorge Bergoglio, who had met his fellow Jesuit when the future pope was a young priest.
“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. He might have said as well that it is impossible to understand Pope Francis without understanding Father Grande.
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. He was raised by his grandmother and older brother in a pre-Vatican II church that preached pious service as the path to redemption in the next life; both poverty and suffering in this world were ordained by God. 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.
Taking seriously the call of the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” to recognize the dignity of all human beings, especially the poor, Father Grande began to see that his role as a priest in the church was not to rule over people. Rather, he always looked for the greatest participation possible by the “base” or least empowered members of a community and never proceeded without their input. As a servant-leader, he brought out the gifts within a community by encouraging people to serve one another. This strategy of beginning with where the community was (not where it should be) would characterize his ministry and ultimately lead to his martyrdom.
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. As for the food, he liked whatever was given—and profoundly disliked the huge sacrifices rural farmers made to feed him anything special outside of their normal diet. He expressly said he did not want to be like the “fat priests who eat at the cost of the hunger of others. The little hen would be better for the malnourished children of the peasants than for him.”
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. He recognized a vast divide between the academic and spiritual formation of seminarians and their pastoral formation—how they related to the people they would serve. To heal that divide he created an immersion program for seminarians that challenged traditional models of formation by putting future priests in direct contact and service with their people. For Father Grande, the Gospel had to “grow feet” and not remain in the clouds.
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 explained it this way: “The first contact with the people was to be characterized by a human encounter; to try to enter into their reality in order to leave with a common reality.” The principal objective was to share the experience of the living God with the people where they lived.
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. In one homily, delivered before El Salvador’s president and military leaders, he courageously proclaimed:
Many baptized in this country have not accepted the postulates of the Gospel that demand a transfiguration, and therefore, those same people are not transfigured in their mind and in their heart and they put a dam of selfishness in front of the message of Jesus our Savior, and the demanding voice of the official witnesses of Christ through the church, the pope and his bishops!
Agents of Change
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.
Throughout Father Grande’s life, El Salvador had suffered from deep inequality, poverty and civil unrest. Most of the economy was governed by less than 1 percent of the population; half of the children in most rural communities were dying under the age of 5; and employment was scarce and usually only part-time. Workers on some plantations were often paid one tortilla per day—certainly not enough to feed their families. A kind of fatalism had settled in among poor communities; they had little hope their situation could ever change.
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….
Father Grande was an example of a servant-leader who embraced poverty and fulfilled his priesthood—not by bringing a wealthy church to the poor but by fully participating in the church already present among the poor. The beatification of Rutilio Grande, S.J., sends a clear message from Pope Francis to priests, to the marginalized and to all who hold positions of power that the church’s preferential option for the poor, and those who live it, will be glorified.
Thomas M. Kelly, a professor of systematic theology at Creighton University, Omaha, Neb., is the author of “When the Gospel Grows Feet: Rutilio Grande, S.J. and the Church of El Salvador” (Liturgical Press, 2013) and editor of “Rutilio Grande, S.J.: Homilies and Writings (Liturgical Press, 2015).