Jesuit Priest Murdered for Speaking Out Against the Status Quo in El Salvador
Nowadays it is dangerous, and practically illegal to be an authentic Christian in Latin America.
Tens of thousands of people died in the war in El Salvador in the late 1970s and 1980s. Many religious leaders also lost their lives, mostly to death squads affiliated with the Salvadoran military. In that carnage, two people stand out for the clarity of their witness for justice and peace and for the courage with which they faced their deaths: Rutilio Grande and Óscar Arnulfo Romero. They continue to inspire courage and commitment in peacemakers far from El Salvador.
Transformation and Focus on Social & Economic Justice
The Rev. Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest, was not particularly noteworthy early in his career, but following Vatican II, he experienced a transformation in his sense of ministry. He once viewed his vocation to the priesthood as a call to perfection—a goal he never could attain; he later came to see the priesthood as embodying loving service and self-sacrifice. This liberated him to minister with newfound joy and to help people apply the Christian gospel to the social disparities that plagued El Salvador. For nine years he taught in the seminary as director of social action projects, helping young priests refine their calling to join with the poor in a quest for dignity and justice. Grande’s teaching was viewed by political authorities and by some of the Salvadoran bishops as too radical, so he was forced out of the seminary. He became a parish priest in the small town of Aguilares. In his sermons there, Grande began addressing some of the specific conditions of economic oppression that plagued the local peasants. He became a popular preacher, but he also began to be watched by the town’s elite and the military.
In February 1977, following the expulsion of a Colombian-born priest from El Salvador, Grande preached that Jesus himself would have been denied entry into the country and would have been accused of being a rabble-rouser. Grande said that he had no doubts that the wealthy in El Salvador would crucify Jesus anew. A few weeks later on March 12, 1977, Father Grande’s vehicle was attacked by machine gun fire as he drove through the countryside. He was killed along with an old campesino and a teenage boy who were riding with him. Rutilio Grande was the first of a long line of priests, nuns and lay leaders who would perish as intentional targets in the war in El Salvador because they chose to speak out about issues of injustice and the suffering of the poor.
Grande’s murder also deeply affected his friend, and the newly chosen Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero. Due in part to Grande’s martyrdom, Romero changed his views on the role of the Catholic Church, shifting his focus from defending the status quo, to actively working against it. Romero’s stance against violence and poverty eventually let to his own martyrdom.