By Fr. Hernán Paredes, SJ
These are some of my memories of my participation in the beatification ceremony of Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ, Nelson Rutilio Lemos, Manuel Solórzano and Fray Cosme Spessotto, OFM on January 22, 2022.
My earliest memory about Rutilio Grande turns me back to the city where I was born, Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Indeed, the newly blessed Jesuit went there to study at Loyola School where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Classical Humanities on March 25, 1950. One of his community companions and my great mentor, Fr. Carlos Flores Bodero, “Florito“, used to hold me by the arm while saying: “Mijo, let me tell you…” Fr. Florito told me with great joy about his years at Loyola School and about the young Salvadoran scholastic Rutilio Grande. He described him as “a simple and quiet person, one could even say was introverted.” Without a doubt, God’s ways are different from ours and He makes Himself known in the poor and despised of this world.
Rutilio was born into a peasant family in Paisnal, one of those small towns in his native El Salvador. He was the son of his time and of a country exploited by only 14 families who had everything, while the majority of his people were excluded and had nothing. In this context, the few Salvadoran Jesuits, along with the group of Spanish priests mostly from the Basque Country or Euskadi, were living in a changing world, a world in which the poverty of many cried out to heaven, as did the cries of the people of Israel which is described in the Book of Exodus. Thanks to an early encounter with the Society of Jesus, Rutilio was able to study first in the novitiate in Venezuela, then in Ecuador and later in Oña, Spain. Without a doubt, the Society of Jesus prior to the Second Vatican Council insisted a lot on discipline, on asceticism, on the observance of religious vows, but little on contact with the people of God. However, Rutilio identified from his early childhood with the poor campesinos and that, by chance of fate, Rutilio would become their priest. He ministered to them until he shed his blood for their sake.
The first priestly years of Rutilio were rather dedicated to the formation of the seminarians in the Seminary of San José de la Montaña. It is in that same seminary where he met the Saint of America, Oscar Arnulfo Romero. His desire to serve the faithful people made him request and obtain permission from his superiors to return to Ecuador and this time to the institute run by a great Ecuadorian bishop named Leónidas Proaño Villalba. This bishop, who was called by those opposed to his pastoral line of closeness to the poor “the red priest,” served as an instrument for Rutilio to know that another way was possible in working with the poor. It was with Proaño, an apostle of the Ecuadorian Indians, in his diocese of Riobamba, where Rutilio learned to interpret reality and also to challenge that same reality from the Bible’s point of view. This can easily be demonstrated in his many homilies and perhaps the most famous one delivered in Apopa: “I am very afraid, my dear brothers and sisters, that very soon the Bible and the Gospel will not be able to enter our borders. Only the covers will reach us, because all its pages are subversive…”
The commitment of Rutilio Grande and his two fellows in the apostolate, Fr. Marcelino Pérez, SJ and Fr. Salvador Carranza, SJ (who brought the candles in the beatification ceremony) grew more every day. Those who held power under the protection of the military, who actually ruled that poor country by blood and fire, did not like it. This is how Rutilio was vilely murdered nearby “El Mango” and very close to El Paisnal where he was going to have a Mass. The rest is history… it only remains to add the words of the Saint of America: “If they have assassinated him for what he did, I have to follow the same path. Rutilio has opened my eyes” (Monsignor Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador before the corpses of the three assassinated).
With the above preamble, I can only recount the day of the beatification in the Plaza del Divino Salvador. All the priests met in the same place that Rutilio taught; this is, in the Seminary of San José de la Montaña. Then the bishops and priests got dressed a little before the ceremony began at five in the afternoon. What an immense joy to see the faithful Salvadoran people awaiting the beatification of their new martyrs on a sunny afternoon full of warmth, not only material but also spiritual, where we were able to listen full of joy to that song that Rutilio liked so much “Let’s all go to the banquet, to the banquet of creation, each one with his stool, has a place and a mission.”
Cardinal Rosa Chávez, who by mandate of Pope Francis presided over the beatification ceremony, was excited to serve this magnificent act in which the people of God acclaimed their pastor’s commitment to their people. The beatification was at the beginning of the Eucharist and the Society of Jesus was represented by Father Pascual Cebollada, SJ by delegation of our Father General, Arturo Sosa Abascal, SJ. With simple words full of argumentative force, Father Pascual praised the life and martyrdom of Rutilio as a sign of Jesus’ commitment to the poor. In this sense, Rutilio joined the cause of Jesus, and that is why the evil powers killed him. The Company respectfully asked Pope Francis, also a Jesuit, to inscribe Rutilio and fellow martyrs in the Catholic Church’s book of Blesseds. The General Postulator appealed to the simplicity of the faithful people who hailed Rutilio from the very moment of his martyrdom, March 12, 1977, as someone who was ready to give his life for Christ. What a pleasure and what an honor to celebrate an inclusive church, since the church not only declared the martyrdom of Rutilio, the priest, but also of his two lay companions, the young Nelson Rutilio Lemos and the elderly Manuel Solórzano. The latter two offered themselves as victims voluntarily and as human shields wanted to protect the life of their pastor. In a single moment the three died and united their blood that they shed to bear witness to the Gospel. Tertullian said: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.” It gave me great consolation at the end of the petition for beatification to see the great majority of the priests and look at them with a young Salvadoran face and as a promise of an incarnated church that lives on her own. Rutilio was not wrong, and he still lives in the Salvadoran people.
When Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez accepted the request of both the postulator of the Society of Jesus, Pascual Cebollada, and the postulator of the Franciscan Fathers on behalf of Blessed Cosme Spessotto, joy was overflowing with the unveiling of the mural of the new martyrs. What joy and happiness to see three generations, the elder Manuel, the adults Rutilio and Cosme, and the young Nelson Rutilio. I particularly liked the smiling face of Nelson Rutilio that announces that a new horizon is always possible beyond the pain and death of our current time.
Pope Francis has described Romero and Rutilio as “a treasure and a well-founded hope for the Salvadoran Church and society.” I give thanks to the USA East Province for allowing me to share in the joy of the poor that is the joy of the Church.
Fr. Hernán Paredes, SJ, is pastor at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on Staten Island, NY.