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Why Church in India today needs a Rutilio Grande, martyred for stance on social justice

By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ* 

For the people of El Salvador, January 22, 2022 will be more than just a red-letter day. Three of their sons, Jesuit Fr Rutilio Grande and his two lay associates 72-year-old Manuel Solorzano and 15-year-old Nelson Rutilio Lemus (and Italian Franciscan missionary Fr Cosme Spessotto who was also martyred) will be beatified in San Salvador.
The first three were assassinated by the death squads of Salvador’s then ruling regime on March 12, 1977. On that fateful day, the three had been driving to the small town of El Paisnal to celebrate the novena for the town’s patronal feast of St Joseph when they were gunned down. Their brutal murders brought universal condemnation.
Among the first to openly condemn this heinous crime was Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was appointed the Archbishop of San Salvador just three weeks earlier. For years, Romero and Rutilio were good friends but poles apart in their thinking, very particularly in their responses to the terrible realities which gripped the poor Salvadoreans.
As a young priest and later as a Bishop, Romero was known for his conservative thinking. He never wanted to rock the boat by disturbing the ‘status quo’. He was afraid to be on the wrong side of the powerful and other vested interest groups of El Salvador. Inspite of a long-standing friendship with Rutilio he refused to be drawn into the latter’s line of thinking.
Rutilio, on the other hand, was steeped in the faith-justice mandate of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus and the vision of Vatican II. The poor and exploited of the country were his major concern. Rutilio wrote, preached and spoke with passion and clarity about the injustices suffered by the rural population and he stood with them as they organised to seek land reform and social development.
He left no stone unturned to highlight the sufferings of his people and to make their struggles his own. Unlike Romero, Grande did not hesitate to take up cudgels against the powerful. The landowners came to see Rutilio’s pastoral programmes as a great threat to their interests. In doing so he made several enemies from the most powerful of his country!
When he preached, Rutilio did not mince words. His most famous sermon was the one he gave on February 13, 1977 at Apopa; many people consider that sermon to have provoked his death. In the sermon, Rutilio proclaims the equality of the children of God and criticizes the Salvadoran government for deporting a priest, Mario Bernal.
Grande uses the metaphor of the communal table to declare the love of God’s kingdom and that God has created the material world for everyone to share. In addition, he reminds us that the Gospel message of truth and justice is often considered subversive, especially when surrounded by unjust and oppressive social structures.
He said:
“It is dangerous to be Christian in our midst! It is dangerous to be truly Catholic! It is practically illegal to be an authentic Christian here, in our country! Because out of necessity the world around us is rooted on an established disorder, in front of which the mere proclamation of the Gospel becomes subversive. That’s the way it must be, it cannot be otherwise! We are chained by disorder, not order! 
"What happens is that a priest or a simple Christian who practices his faith according to the basic and simple guidelines of Jesus’ message, must live faithfully between two demanding pillars: the revealed Word of God and the People. The same people, the great majority, the marginalized, the sick who cry out, those who are enslaved, those on the margins of culture – 60 percent illiterate- those who are alienated in a thousand ways, those who have been living in a feudal system for centuries.”
That sermon given more than forty years ago is still very valid today.
In his powerful biography, ‘The Life, Passion and Death of Jesuit Rutilio Grande’, Fr Rodolfo Cardenal SJ says:
“Rutilio Grande was arguably the first Jesuit to be martyred after the Society of Jesus had proclaimed its commitment to the service of faith and the promotion of justice as two inseparable elements of the Jesuit mission. He preached and embraced the struggle for faith and for justice not in an academic, theoretical context but among and alongside the poor parishioners of Aguilares, with all the difficult issues and contradictions that such a ministry involved. 
"Like Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917–1980), he did not quit; he accepted his probable fate knowingly, even though with fear and trepidation. His example provides for Christians today an extraordinary model of a parish priest who, without naivety and with Ignatian discernment, made an authentic option for the poor and oppressed."
Rutilio Grande was the first Jesuit to be martyred after the Society of Jesus proclaimed its commitment to service of faith and promotion of justice
Grande’s death was a terrible shock to Romero. In a powerful homily ‘the Motivation of Love’, at the funeral, Romero said:
“We speak of the motivation of love, sisters and brothers. There should be no feeling of vengeance among us. As the bishops stated yesterday, we do not raise our voice for revenge. We are concerned about the things of God who commands us to love him above all things and to love others as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). 
"Yes, it is true that we have asked the authorities to investigate this criminal act, for they have in their hands the instruments of this nation’s justice, and they must clarify this situation. We are not accusing anyone, nor are we making judgments beforehand. We hope to hear the voice of an impartial justice because, even with the motivation of love, justice cannot be absent. There can be no true peace and no true love that is based on injustice or violence or intrigue”.
For good measure Romero added:
“The government should not consider a priest who takes a stand for social justice as a politician or a subversive element when he is fulfilling his mission in the politics of the common good… Anyone who attacks one of my priests, attacks me. If they killed Rutilio for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”.
The death of his friend was a turning point in the life of Romero. From that day onwards, he wholeheartedly worked for the rights of the exploited and the excluded. He was assassinated three years later, on March 24, 1980. Today he rejoices with his dear friend in heaven!
In a letter (January 3, 2022) addressed to the whole Society of Jesus, on the occasion of the Beatification, Jesuit Superior General writes:
“The growing awareness of the need to promote a transformation of the inhuman circumstances of life of the peasant majority, a situation caused by the unjust structures of Salvadoran society, sparked the social and political struggles of this convulsive period in the history of this Central American country. 
"Many members of the ecclesial communities participated actively in the social and political struggle. For Father Rutilio, his team, and his close collaborators, who were committed because of their faith to the struggle for the justice of the Gospel, there was a clear distinction between pastoral work and partisan political militancy. 
"However, for the minorities who felt their power to be under threat, Rutilio was seen as an obstacle to be removed. The Church, in recognizing the martyrdom of Rutilio, Manuel, and Nelson, judges that their lives were taken because of the faith that gave their lives meaning, the faith to which they gave witness by shedding their blood.”
Rutilio is Salvadorean, a Catholic and a Jesuit! The likes of him, however, cannot be contained by history, time and space. His life and his message serve as an inspiration to all and transcend narrow confines. Given our grim realities, the context and the cries of the people, the Church in India and in fact the entire country desperately need a Rutilio Grande today! Will there be one?
---
*Human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer

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